Nailing Miracles, part one

My pain is legitimate, as legitimate as yours or any other sentient being who has ever lived. This is the message of the crucifixion. It is the message bullies do not want to hear, yet victims need to say and in saying, be heard. This, our existential equality, is what the fear of our own vulnerability drives us to deny. Our vulnerability terrifies us and we lash out against it when we see it in the eyes of the suffering poor, the abused child, the victims of war brutalities, and the homeless refugees and migrants wandering the earth without a protector. In the eyes of sentient beings there is a judgment as well as a reflection of the events they witness. Our profoundly complex biochemistry kindles this dual light in our eyes as the light of self awareness. The inescapable teaching about human authenticity and integrity is wrapped up in this mystery related to pain and suffering and reflected in the eyes, the windows of the soul. In the dead eyes of the severely traumatized we, and the universe reflecting on itself through those eyes, stand condemned. It needs to be torn down in fire and made anew as a new heaven and a new earth.

That which we call ‘god’ is the ‘eye’ at the center of it all – an awareness that sees and records everything that really happens. Call it the morphic field of physical memory, if you will. Reality is the true molecular configurations of elements and biochemistries shaped by the accumulation of all past events. The fantasies, the rationalizations, the spin, the deceptions, and the lies we tell, they alter the balance of these scales not one whit. It is not fooled; it records only what reality has hosted. There is another way to put this: no one gets away with anything.

The cross is the conscience of the one body catholic. There hangs the human being betrayed by human machinations, suffering the results of human evil, not of god. As creatures our love will die; we will watch it die when loved ones pass away and one day we will die ourselves. This is the suffering inherent in our nature, suffering we could say is directly from the hand of our creator. Death is not evil in itself anymore than reproduction is. That inherent suffering comes from the same hand that created the clouds, the mountains, the bubbling mountain stream, and the lamb. . . Seen aright we understand a precious goodness has come to us from that hand. It has given us our very existence and the beauty and truth that surrounds it. This hand we can trust, and learn to trust all the more as our faith in the goodness of creation increases. However, human evil adds another level of suffering that reaches above and beyond that which nature has created for us.

Our form of consciousness can be turned away from its natural propensity for thanks and praise when it is spiritually injured. The more serious the injury, the more serious this reorientation of the understanding can become. When this happens human consciousness turns all its skills against itself, hating its mortal vulnerability. If we do not voluntarily take up our limitations, we will be haunted by reminders of them everywhere. Then the eyes of the poor in spirit, all those who are victimized, show reminders of the vulnerability inherent in the flesh. Such people have come to hate reminders of that vulnerability. That hatred drives them to target the least among us; they want to destroy the innocent and the vulnerable. This is what the old way of talking about the human condition called the demonic. It is a hate that can posses people, pushing out the personality that was once there. That is, it can replace who they were as children and the normal path of character development they would have followed which could hold a basic trust in the goodness of the world and the people in it, with a secondary personality centered around hatred and revenge. Here is the tricky part: more often than not this secondary personality will claim it is on a mission to save others, crushing the light in the eyes of their victims “for their own good.”

The symbol of the Church Catholic is of one body. All the members of the human race share in this body, this mystical body, for it is a reflection in symbol of the flesh and blood (DNA and biochemical makeup) we all share – regardless of race, politics, socioeconomic class, religion, or gender. For this Church we pray. Only those who have committed crimes against the Holy Spirit, the mortal sins, the vicious violent cruelty of the 10% of evil done for evil’s sake to slake this hatred of our creature-hood, remain outside the communion as long as they remain unrepentant. This is the definition of the communion. If the abuses we have been discussing are in fact attacks on the Holy Temple among us, the body of flesh and blood by which we bare the image of god aka human consciousness, then as long as they remain unrepentant those who have committed such atrocities are, by definition, at war with the body. These are, as we say today, crimes against humanity.

Such people are in a sorry state. They are a house divided against itself.

What is real and true about being a creature is rooted in the evolutionary development (evo-devo) of the embryo as it is manifest through the child and on throughout the life stages. There is a continuity of identity gifted from the mystery from which all things are brought forth. Identity, and its map of the world by which it navigates, both arise from the biochemical matrix of our awareness interacting with our experiences, each experience etching themselves on our skin (the emotional body of our musculature and nervous systems) and the brain’s memory processing capacity. In this way the moment by moment miracle of human experience forms our characters as we are shaped and molded by the incarnation of our stories.

This is THE miracle. There is no other. This is THE magic. There is no other.

Humans can fool themselves into believing otherwise, tripping up their own minds. They risk coming to the end of their lives only to find out that they have been living out caricatures of the life they could have potentially had. It is a high price to pay for the self-deception that you have somehow magically escaped death and the attendant vulnerability of the shared human condition. Tragedy is the fate of those who insist the world must conform to their fantasy and proceed to act on such delusions. Such folly does not change the reality of the situations their incantations are addressing. On those shores, the stubborn firm foundations of what is and what is not in our molecular world, many a shipwreck of strange religious, political, and economic cults have crashed.

Why then, in the written material the Western cultural tradition insists is a valid guide through wisdom and folly, namely the Gospels, are we confronted with a miracle worker? If these materials are to be our gateway into the truth, why set up these guardians at the threshold? If a person came up to you today and claimed that their guru walks on water, was born of a virgin, multiplies loaves of bread, and raises the dead to life, well that person would be a liar. That is the way the world is right now, today. We have every reason to believe that is how the world was 2,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago, or as long back as we might care to speculate. What is this all about? Why include the lies and liars?

The Gospel stories did not introduce miracle stories to the world, the world was already full of them. What the Gospels did was link those types of stories with Jesus as a teacher of compassion. This is new. Most miracle stories are power stories, magicians battling it out as we discussed when we looked at Moses in Pharaoh’s court. The question was not about whether or not to include miracles alongside the teachings, the question was whether or not miracle tales would have teachings attached to them!

Miracle stories are only lies if read literally. That is the epistemological truth, I believe, these tales are meant to teach. They are a lure, or a trap, for those with mistaken ideas of god. The great fisherman uses them to bring us to healing. He is the “truth, the light, and the way” for the wounded who are willing to endure their own death of god on their own cross. We need to be willing to give up our mistaken ideas. We need to courageously and honestly face the meaninglessness of the universe for a mind dominated by human cruelty. Nothing less recognizes humankind’s true freedom of will and the power it manifests. In the dark night, the desert, the abyss – here one finds He who is greater than human weaknesses within the human experience. The Lord of the Dance prevails just when things seem darkest. Miracle stories are only lies if read literally. The emotional truth they convey is on the order of metaphor, poetry. They serve the real miracle of the Christ, the recreation of the universe in a new heaven and a new earth by which we are healed. Nothing less dramatic than the miraculous can capture the awe and power involved in our most defining subjective experiences as embodied rational souls.

In the hunt for a meaningful life we are bound to come across people and institutions making claims to supernatural power and wisdom. Human beings are born gullible and it is no small feat to properly enthrone rationality. What to do? It is interesting that the Church Fathers who put together this material insisted that there were multiple ways of reading scripture. The idea that the Gospels are providing documentary evidence of modern historical fact is foreign to the spirit of what was very clearly being explained by those who were initially involved in the formation of the written materials and the accompanying traditions.

What miracles do convey is a picture of a universe ruled by personalized forces. In such a universe our own subjectivity is at home. It paints a picture of a world that responds to the needs of humans and animals, that cares about each individual alive within it, and that watches over them to protect and guide them. This is a world in which angelic messengers can accomplish missions unaware, perhaps as strangers visiting for an evening meal or asking for a handout by the side of the road. It is a world where certain images, and certain places and times, can be made sacred and special by their dedication to the intellectual and emotional, yet invisible, “powers” we encounter in our psyches. It is to convey some sense of the most powerful of these “inner powers” that the Gospels were written.

Written materials without the traditions in which they were designed to be used can be very dangerous. The tradition involved with the Gospels taught then, and continues to teach, a very mystical Christianity centered on Eucharistic devotion. This is quite different than Bible thumping in any number of ways. Catholic sensibilities elevate the sacraments and the sacramental in a calendar punctuated by sacred memorial. Worship is an act of the body as well as the mind, with smells and bells and ritual movements. Religion is presented as a celebration of sacred creation and the possibility of redemption in its midst. Religion is not an intellectual battle ground, it is a place of peace. The light of the candle of faith is easily blown out by the cold winds of the evil that men do, but this is why there is a Church where the light of faith can be passed from one candle to another, rekindled when needed by another person’s strength when we are weak. The altar, the heart of religion, is a place where those moved by the needs of the heart seek the heart of god, the Christ light. It is a light characterized by the soft warm glow of the tabernacle candle, a warm light the body is comfortable with.

The alternative altar is that of magic and miracles where ultimately there will be a sacrifice not of the divine lamb, but of the poor and vulnerable among us human beings.

Street Theology

Spectrum of Possibility for the nature of existence:
evil creation by an evil god — neutral creation — good creation by a good god

We have seen how the traumatized have a brainbody that has been taught to believe in a universe ruled by monsters. Reasoning is evidence-based and the evidence for those who have been abused has been clear as hell, literally. A move towards atheism, for these haunted people, is actually a move towards healing. It can provide a light-heartedness to their days, a space for some breath and freedom in which they can try to make their own lives into something they can enjoy despite the terrors of the past. This is denied them while they live condemned to carry the burden their torturers injected in them. As long as this destructive burden remains they sense, quite physically, that who they are as individual personalities are flawed mistakes, unworthy of existence, the universe’s trash properly punished by a cruel and vicious god. Atheism is a serious improvement to such a point of view. They are better off writing a Dear God letter. The godless meaninglessness is more acceptable to the human heart than the trauma god of spite and cruelty.

Perhaps the rise of science over the last half millennium is a collective compensation of sorts. It is through the scientific lens that we are able to comprehend the molecular nature of our earth and our own biology. It is through this lens that we encounter deep time and deep space. It is through this lens that all people of goodwill are being asked if their “spirituality” extends far enough to disrupt the road to ecological collapse and nuclear war we are currently on. All this high talk of god and gods, virtues and faith, churches and mosques, temples and relics, is not going to matter one bit to our progeny if it proves itself incapable of protecting our children from the greedy and short sighted among us. Is there a future for the human species far beyond 2100? I am afraid that if you are able to answer that too easily, if you are sure things are going to work out ok, you are either ignorant of the science or caught up in magical thinking.

To shift in the direction of a neutral creation it helps if the intellect can begin to imagine a good creation by a good god. This takes training in faith. The evidence of the earth’s splendors and wonders is the teasing thread by which such hopes are kept alive. The way they are most intimately manifest to our consciousness is through the chemistry of our bodies. If a person is struggling under the evil god view, their body might very well seek out chemical enhancements so that they too might have a few moments of feeling good, feeling like most people who were not tortured as children feel much of the time. For example, the use of psychedelics, as dangerous as they are for the personality and potentially for a person’s sanity, do show the bodymind undeniable evidence that there is more going on in this life than initially meets the eye. The unabused typically understand this immediately in their bodyminds due to the love they have known. Love for them has provided nutritious meaning to their human experience, but this avenue was cut off for the tortured. Opioid drugs are offering hurting people a more direct escape from pain; instead of visions it offers luminous sleep free of nightmares. These few moments of escape from the gnawing guilt that is destroying their lives is purchased at a high price, the price of slavery to a desire for the drug. It takes the place of the desire for a sleep free of nightmares we call the paradise waiting us on the other side of death.

The bliss these chemical means offers might be the lesser light but it is bliss. It can keep the bodymind alive because it provides alternative evidence to that of the abusive events. They show undeniably, and at the level of physiology at which the abusive scars exist, that some aspects of the universe can also bring delight and pleasure. The lesser pleasures non-abused are able to find in eating, conversation, and sex are not capable of penetrating the inner defenses they had to erect to protect the preciousness inside. They can pierce the character armor temporarily by using these chemical props. “And the shame was on the other side, Oh we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we can be heroes, just for one day” David Bowie sang in Heroes. Those involved with hard drugs are contemplating suicide. Death, after all, is where the use of hard drugs are leading a person. “We could be lying, so you better not stay” Bowie went on to observe in the same song. This applies to the world too. Here we all are, at the peak of our fossil fueled industrialized heroics as we roar through our landscapes sitting in our magic chairs (thanks Kunstler for the image) and fly through the air in our steel birds. As life devoted to GDP grows ever more thin and meaningless we too are toying with suicide collectively. Our drugs of choice are no longer keeping the shame away.

What is it that religion might offer such broken people that can stand equally real in this fight for their souls? The chemistry reveals wonders but not happiness. The “I told you so” will not help the broken and the Pollyanna approach will not impress. A cheap “all things work out for the best,” offered by someone never tortured in their childhood, is just heaping more coals on the heads of the abused. That evil can be turned to good is another thing entirely. The abused want to know, if there is a god like you say their is, where was my Holy Guardian Angel when the torturers had their way with me? The fundamentalist has disguised the god of love and vulnerability as an all powerful wizard. Such a god can give no answer to the abused child’s question.

Let me illustrate exactly what I mean. There is a teaching among some of the fundamentalists about chastity that I recently heard. Women teach girls that their virginity is like a stick of gum. Once it has been chewed, well, who else would want to eat it? If we look at this type of teaching from the innocent point of view it seems to just be making a dramatic point about how important chastity can be to maintain one’s self respect (setting aside for now the overtones of patriarchy owning women and selling their virginity for social status). How do you think the girl in that Sunday school class whose father has already taken her sexual innocence through incest hears such a teaching? This is what the Lord God, creator of all things and all powerful wizard, thinks of her inner worth?

I think this all too typical goody-goody preaching is little more than Gnosticism. It is another sex-is-evil message that seems to permeate all the Christian influenced traditions in our time. We really do not seem to think that the marriage bed is holy, that the deep time engine of evolution we experience in our crotch is god’s doing. We think it is the devil. We are now experiencing the biosphere, ruled as it is by the ways of sexual and natural selection, as a place unworthy of us. We seem to no longer sense our place in the real world, out beyond our man-made artifacts, as beautiful and worth protecting at all costs. In a nutshell: the ecological crisis is a manifestation of a bad theology. Though science taught natural selection as a neutral universe view, our anti-sex baggage did not let us hear it that way. We have come to believe the devil rules the world, that the devil was the creator of our bodies, our flesh and blood. The unashamed display of flowers and farm animals is banished from our minds in our false sense of human virtue and nobility. It returns from its repression in our culture’s pervasive gonzo pornography. It is not wrong to appreciate the sexual beauty all around us, it is in fact honoring how we are made. Whatever happened to “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed I lie upon” ?

Faith, in my view, is not a cognitive trick. It is not a unnatural belief in something that contradicts reason and emotion and needs to be upheld by a blind act of will (more accurately fear) or obedience (allowing ourselves the luxury of the excuse ‘just following orders’). Faith, as we are going to use the term, is the whole orientation of the bodymind to the universe as it is actually experienced. Ego cannot fool the dreaming mind for what we do we carry in our bones. What makes the faith journey such a challenge is that the intellect needs to accompany the heart every step of the way. This is not to say that we can think our way out of our ordeals but that we cannot get out of them without thinking. This is where the modern world’s lack of faith is most evident, right here in the war between our hearts and our heads. Our emotions as compassionate mammals are at war with our thoughts as ruthless capitalists because we have allowed “its just business” to rule all of our practical affairs.

So how might we use intellect to image our way towards faith in a good god? In Dr. Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections he writes that when his father, a Lutheran preacher, tried to explain the meaning of the Christian conception of god as a trinity of persons, that he gave up and said he could not make heads or tales of it. That is sad really. I do not see the trinity teaching as gobbledygook. Out on the street where the lost are in need of healing and the nuclear bombs are being built, it is symbolic dynamite. Nor do I think what it has to teach is exclusively “Christian.” I think it is “Catholic” in the sense of the non-exclusive, universal catholicism each of us participates in through our shared experience of human flesh and blood.

“God” is the word we use to indicate the ground of being, what some Buddhists call emptiness. It is the source from which all that is real flows forth and is sustained. Each of us has immediate communion with this ground of being, it is the source of what we are as well. Human beings approach the ground of being as persons. It becomes very important to us, as individuals, whether or not this ground of being is personal or impersonal. Let’s put this another way. When we are really still and open to the rest of existence outside our own skins, we cannot help but notice that much of it is impersonal. Most of what exists consists of so-called inanimate matter. The vast emptiness of space and the massive stars and galaxies showing up here and there within it is something every mind will need to struggle with, if only in our dreams. What can it all mean? Here on earth we see rivers, clouds, and mountains, all inanimate and larger than the bodies living on and among them. They all outlast the little creatures. Is it, as science suggests, a purely random accident that life arose? Is the personal point of view, by which life always and everywhere and only manifests itself, an epiphenomenon? Is my existence no more than a happy accident occurring as a side effect of self-reproducing molecules full of sound and fury yet indicating nothing? More to the point, we want to know ‘does my life matter?’ Or really most to the point, ‘do the lives of those I love matter?’ Is love real? When we are in times of psycho-spiritual crisis we are watching love die within and around us. Ego is unable to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. It’s own self-deception and the deceptions of others does not fool it anymore. In crisis, the lie and liars stand exposed.

A life lived constantly haunted by a bodily fear of death and spiritual fear of damnation is not a well lived life. Such a bodymind has been poisoned in what we today generally refer to as PTSD. Healing comes, if it comes, by a shift in something deeper than the ego can reach. No such suffering human can simply will themselves to health. Ego has been given evidence that it should not trust – not life, not other human beings, not god. It must be given evidence to the contrary, what we call an encounter with the divine.

The Christian trinity is the teaching that the ground of being has a personal realm within it. It is saying that the universe of the inside that we experience as consciousness is just as real and inherent in existence as the particles and waves we experience on the outside. It is not saying god is a person but that the mystery of being includes personality and personhood in some fashion. The ground of being chooses to perceive itself through the medium of individuals, be they dust mites or kings. This is observable evidence. The question remains whether or not the whole thing is just an illusion. Is there any element of something really real in the manifestation of the uniqueness that is at the heart of each animate arrangement of molecules? Christian Trinitarian teaching says yes. It asserts that the ground is real, or at the least that that which makes the real seem real to us comes from the very ground of being itself. It teaches the emptiness is truth eternal, far beyond words and the grasp of thought. The ground of being includes in its “nature” the will to love, that is, to know not just one’s own being but the being of another as well. For there to be real love the other “person” cannot be just a puppet, they cannot be just an emanation or reflection, they cannot be simply a molecular machine with unusual quirks pretending to individuality. They need to be a real other person, hence the second person of the trinity. This too is what we find in the evidence of life as it is lived. We, as a person, confront everywhere other living things acting all the world as persons themselves. Though the bully’s blind eye cannot see that others are as real as they themselves are, that is the case none-the-less. The Holy Spirit, third person of the trinity, is this love. It is the assertion that the relationship between the unique mystery of personhood and the mystery at the ground of being is a real relationship. It is not a trick with mirrors at the level of the quantum or galaxies. Nor is it a trick of solipsism consciousness condemned to eternal isolation and only pretending others exist through the illusion of the created universe. (This is a complex thought in eastern teachings. My take is that each individual recapitulates the Atman, the full human experience of being alive, in their own way. The Atman is not simply the sum of all individuals dissolved by death into a mass. This undifferentiated mass is the Atman the Buddha denied with the teachings of no-self.) Belief in the Trinitarian “god” is a recognition that in all the known universe there is nothing as special to us as the people we encounter. It draws a proper inference from the fact that the human brain is the most complex structure of matter that exists. It has been crafted and shaped with quite some care however such crafting and shaping came to pass. It is the recognition that in the spark of light in the eyes of the living, there is a bit of divinity. “Spiritual” people are taught by life itself to always respect that light, that it contains real magic. It is the same recognition beautifully expressed when we greet one another with Anjali.

Explained in this way the Christian trinity is inseparable from the idea of god’s incarnation in human flesh and blood and the “sending of the spirit” among humankind. It affirms that the vastness of interstellar space is there as a necessary ingredient of our being here. It affirms the vastness of deep time as being necessary for there to be now and our ability to experience anything. Interdependence insists on it. It affirms that not just the cosmos but also that the vast multiplicity of creatures on earth are interdependently required if we are to be who and what we are. It does not affirm a cheap and easy creation for those populating the biosphere but one that requires real work, effort, and struggle. This deep time creation we are a part of cannot happen without pain; the pain of childbirth, the pain of mind birth, the pain of individuality given mortal birth. It affirms that the creation of that which is most special among all the mysteries of being, is the creation of the living individuals within it. Humanity is not special because there are 7+ billion of us, we are special because each and every one of us is fascinatingly unique. When a person’s heart really understands this, they are personally at home in the cosmos. The ground of being is addressed intimately, lovingly, as father. Respect is shown to ourselves and our family, both human and animal, when we recognize the whole of existence that proceeds from emptiness as our mother. This is the womb like container in which our lives are manifest. One we worship, the other we honor. This was never meant to be a one-upmanship for men over woman but a basic metaphor of our sexual nature where one bears the seed and the other the egg. We begin to see why Trinitarian teaching without a role for Mary, and the feminine generally with its associations with the earth, flesh and blood, is as lopsided as Carl Jung warned us about.

Death and hell are said to have lost their sting in Christianity. The faithful have trained in trusting that which created persons as persons and mountains as mountains. When such a person returns to the ground of being in death they are reassured that, even though they are saying goodbye to all they have loved on earth, the process that brought them forth still has their best interests at heart. Now, when the ‘father’ reveals his impersonal side, as it were, in the grave dirt that welcomes our bodies back to their elemental home, there is nothing to ultimately fear. There awaits us the eternity of the beatific vision, not an eternity of torture in hell. Nor are emptiness and nothingness the same thing. We faithful contemplatives have already trained in the stillness – the peace that surpasses understanding – and found it was not an interstellar abyss teeming with monsters foreign to the human heart. We found, instead, our nobility as children of god, children of universe. We find, eventually, our equivalence with any and all other created things.

Christianity teaches that god is love, a love overflowing as a free gift for all. Gnosticism, its rival heresy, in one form teaches that the god we deal with is a fool and that his creation of the universe was a mistake. The creator is an ignorant demiurge by this way of thinking and suicide is our best response to his traps of fleshy torture. In its more popular form Gnosticism teaches that the true creator can be a loving god, but that this love must be earned or forced, otherwise we are back to dealing with a hateful god out to trip us up, kill us, and then damn us for all time. This Gnosticism holds out the deceptive hope of the child hurt by parents incapable of unconditional love. They believe that this conditional love can be earned if they can blackmail god with their virtue, good works, fasting, magical incantations, evangelism, holy wars, child sacrifices, and the whole religious bag o’ tricks. The Gnostic of either form stumbles on one simple truth. God does not love the priest and preacher one wit more than the prostitute. God does not love the abused child one wit less than the unabused child. The Gnostic wants to be able to use religion for some earthly end: to use god as a beat-stick or a checkbook, a Pez Dispenser full of blessings, or a guarantee that all will turn out right in the end, like a sic-com. (I think it is this last one that is most at fault for keeping us from responding rationally to the ecological facts.) The most dangerous thing these Gnostics disguising themselves as Christians do is turn the god image upside down, justifying their inhumanity to man by either killing for Christ or insisting “the devil made me do it.”

“They know god exists for the devil told them so…” Bowie, The Next Day [after Heroes]

What religious myth can offer is the path of healing found through stillness and contemplation. In the process of the bodymind learning to be still we encounter the scars and character amour of our own personal wounds. When the bodymind does grow still the fears of death are brought to consciousness. On this path intelligence and reason can comfort the heart, for we have not been left orphans in a universe of nonsense. Such a person can celebrate the mystic wedding of their personality, their spirit, and their flesh. They can honestly say “yes” and “thank you” for the life they have actually known. They no longer look to dreams of inhuman exaltation. With a heart broken and humble, yet lifted up, our eyes gaze on the eternity unfolding in time and find we are living, right here and right now, in a sacred, or as it is most often said in the West, a sacramental world.

Safe Containers

While we are watching the acceleration of the great clash of monotheisms in the Middle East it is a good time to be strengthening our triage skills. These can be worked with during times of lesser crisis to prepare us for what’s ahead. This is similar to the mind training that the eastern traditions teach. It is a way of practicing with our minds today so that when the day comes that things get difficult (classically in the east this is the day of one’s death) we do not find ourselves without any reserves to call on. Mindful Ecology involves mind trainings that are designed to strengthen a person when lesser deaths occur. These might involve the collapse of the economy, an ecological system, good will among citizens, integrity in government, authenticity among religious leaders, or any number of endings that cause an increase in suffering, anomie, confusion and loss.

No one’s life is spared the rough spots. It is not the case that the wealthy and powerful, or the poor and simple, live a life without serious challenges to keeping sane let alone keeping an open heart. It is not just because of our ecological knowledge that the skills we are talking about have relevance. These are skills that can aid us in any number of life’s arenas. The thoughts in the mind are the earliest seeds of what will become emotions and eventually actions. The actions we perform or refuse to perform are where we find our character reflected back to us from the world soul. Countless decisions over years are expressing something that can be expressed no other way, something about how we are in our innermost.

Along the path of expression from thought to action there is an element of choice. The will uses this element of freedom to express itself. Though circumstances typically constrain our ability to make this expression one that is fully in accord with our desire, there is never so little choice left to a human being that some sense of character cannot be made to dwell within the manner by which their actions are undertaken. I believe the prisoner on their way to their execution still retains some degree of freedom in how they will meet the event. How much more so than do each of us, who are not under such immediate threats, have an opportunity to make real in the world that which is part of our innermost. This expression of true will is always a question of degrees and that is where our training comes in. It is inescapable that each person actually will express their uniqueness, there is no way not to. It is, to put on the science hat, an expression of your parental DNA inheritance and as such a unique biological event. Add the uniqueness of each environment you have inhabited from childhood on and the one of a kind nature of your personality becomes even more obvious. It is important we learn to thoroughly grasp this, see the truth of it, and really hear what is being said. To the best of our human understanding it is a fact that throughout all of deep time and across all of deep space it is astronomically unlikely that the many contingent relationships between your DNA expression and the environment by which it was shaped will ever happen in just the way you have it happening right here and right now. This is it. You have a part to play in dreaming the dream forward, as Carl Jung used to say.

In our time of mass man, mass media, mass armies, and mass movements it has never been more important to understand the role of the other social polarity, namely that of the individual. It is not true for my heart that you could just replace my most beloved friends and family with anyone else. Though another person could play the role of my mother or father, son, daughter, or spouse, there is not the slightest chance I would find my body and mind responding to the newcomer in the same way that it has learned to understand the people that are in my life today. This is true for all of us. Keeping this truth in mind paves the way towards an ability to see the uniqueness of the world around us; to see a tree in the forest and not just so many board feet of lumber.

This is the skill that is lacking in our societies, this ability to appreciate the miracle of the life forms in front of us. We have been trained to fawn before the rich and powerful, presenting them with praises and constant reassurances about how great and awesome they are. Fearing social ostracism otherwise, often with real financial repercussions, it is certainly an understandable habit given the reality of our corporate dominated societies. Still, those are rather false expressions of an appreciation for another person because they are motivated by fear of what they can do to you if you earn their disfavor and the hope that by your flattery and attention they will come to gift you with some of their money and influence. This is very different than looking deeply into another sentient being just for the sake of witnessing their unique expression of the mystery of will. Too often, it seems to me, we cannot even do this among human beings. The way we treat those in our ghettos speaks volumes. It should come as no surprise that we are blind to the faces of the eagles, octopus, wolves, whales, and blue footed boobies. We have an interest in the ocean because it can provide us with food and those who fish it with money and power. If tomorrow a chemist invented fish in a factory, do you think we would do much to save the oceans for their own sake? What real value do we place on the lives of those who dwell in the depths? Just how much lower do we rank them then those many tortured lives in the world’s ghettos?

These are statements in the realm of values, not of facts. The facts are that the uniqueness of DNA expression is undeniable. Facts pass over into values when we recognize that the human mind is born with the potential to know compassion as the highest value but it takes education, real training, to realize that potential. This is another fact we have learned over long millennia in the school of hard knocks. Through our mythology and traditions we do our best to teach the value of compassion to each new generation as it comes along. Though the value of compassion runs counter to the hubris of our egos, it is the sweetest liberty the heart can know: to love others as one loves one’s self, and to love one’s self as one loves others. It makes life meaningful.

Pounding the living daylights out of someone does not make life meaningful; not in an alley and not on a battlefield. Stealing every last dime from the sick and the old does not make life meaningful; not in a hospital and not from a TV preacher’s stage. Deceiving the innocent and gullible does not make life meaningful; not in the most surreal CGI enhanced advertisement and not in the slickest air-brushed glossy publication. Do you know that most confidence men commit suicide or end up paranoid? Do unto others…

What intelligent, caring human being are confronted with in the neo-liberal value system is nothing less than a legitimacy of greed promoted through self-inflicted blindness to the needs of any and every living thing that might get in the way of profits. It stands to reason then that intelligent and caring human beings should work hard to find the types of things that will work effectively against this tendency to dehumanization inherent in a mass society ruled by neo-liberal values. This is what the mind training in ecological triage skills is all about.

Last week introduced one classification scheme for statements of fact. The categories lend flexibility to the mind by teaching it to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. These uncomfortable cognitive states are more easily allowed a place within our characters when their scope is properly restricted to those categories of thought in which they are inherent. Knowing certain types of statements can never obtain to 100% certainty is a good way to check our own thinking and to protect our sanity from those who use underhanded techniques to try and persuade us that this is not the case.

What this means in practice is captured pointedly in the schools of cognitive therapy. This is not the therapy of the unconscious mind that is explored by the depth psychologists. Pursuing meaning among the symbols of myth and dream is life-long task for students of the deep psyche. These cognitive therapies, in contrast, are designed to help people as quickly as possible. They seek a rapid recovery from depression, lack of self confidence, pain management, or whatever their client’s debilitating emotional issues involve. In my experience these cognitive mental health techniques have a complimentary role to play alongside personal researches into the deep. These cognitive insights are rooted in the philosophy of the stoics who stressed that while we are not free to control the world, we are free to some degree in choosing how we will meet that world. These ancient insights have been refined through therapeutic need into practical advice. These insights can act as a key that unlocks many of the mental manacles we are shackled with as good little consumers.

There are a number of names these types of therapies are known by but all share the same fundamental insight about the way our thoughts lead to our emotional experiences and how together they lead to the actions we take. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), invented by Dr. Albert Ellis, is the particular one I will use as I like his rather rascally guru approach. Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s material might be more appealing to others. Mr. Ellis is not for the faint of heart, quick to use the F word and call bullshit bullshit; he is a New Yorker through and through. For me that personality was a perfect delivery mechanism for the message, one that could be summed up as ‘get a spine!’ and ‘stop stinking thinking in its tracks.’ Interested readers should take a look at his over the top How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything. It delivers the goods.

What these cognitive therapists have found is that when we suffer emotional problems they have a corresponding mental vehicle. The emotions are considered problems because they are proving too extreme for the client to continue living a productive life. Without life events expressing one’s will a person rightly becomes depressed since depression is a signal that what you are doing is not working. You can throw a pity party and bemoan fate till the cows come home but happiness is never found that way, however far down that path you might want to travel. Happiness comes from our sense of competency. We do not need to be genius but we do need to be able to accomplish whatever it is that we consider necessary for our own self respect. What that is remains an on going journey of discovery. It is a lifelong journey of discovery that should, for the most part, keep us enthused to be alive and grateful for each day we get. All too often that enthusiasm is lost in the worries and cares which are rightly born from the tragedies in our lives. What cognitive health entails, then, is not a disregard for bouts of depression when those are needed but a leaning into the wind, setting our rudder by the joy of being alive that is our birthright. We need to learn how to discern between a true need for tears and an unhealthy indulgence in sadness. Cognitive therapy skills can teach us to be childlike, not childish.

What these cognitive sciences have discovered is that we have a set of irrational beliefs as the source of our emotional disturbances. It is not at all hard for those of us who have studied ecology to recognize our societies are currently chock full of irrational beliefs and that they cause us to make decisions as a society that are just down right crazy. Well, that same mechanism plays out in our individual lives as well. When we are disturbed there is some internal dialog that reflects or sustains the extremes under which we are suffering. We gain power over these things to the degree that we recognize how the issues unduly disturbing us are accompanied by thoughts characterized by exaggerations, statements couched in absolutes, or other cognitive errors. We learn to take our skepticism inside and ask our own thoughts, ‘oh really?’

Things are bad. They really are. Things are going to get worse. They really are. It is not the end of the world. It really is not. Our descendants will live in that world. They really will. What we do today matters. It really does.

We will talk about these cognitive skills in coming posts. In this introduction I want to stress how important this particular set of skills can be for those who are willing to contemplate ecological reality. I sit and consider the end of our existing harvesting of ocean stocks in the next few decades, a simple extrapolation from today’s trends in global overfishing. I allow myself to feel the implications and feel that it is a bad thing we are currently engaged in making come to pass. It is critical that I do not exaggerate if I am to remain bound to the truth of what I am contemplating. It is not likely to be the end of the future stocks centuries hence, or the end of all the different species, nor even the first and worst die off earth’s precious ocean has ever experienced or will yet again. Now I have provided a safe container for my contemplations. Now I have a good chance of grounding myself in my own knowledge, refusing to pretend I do not understand what I do about the world and our activities in it, yet at the same time refusing to give in to unmitigated despair.

Respecting Stories

Last week we looked at a dense information source, the book What’s Really Happening to Our Planet? by Tony Juniper. This week I want to dive into some very controversial territory by examining another dense information source and the phenomenon it represents; Christian fundamentalism American style.

Torchbearer is the latest film directed, produced and written by White House strategist Steve Bannon featuring Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. It is another type of information source claiming to share a number of facts. It is presenting a picture of the world in which the only thing a person really needs to know is the Bible. In the film aspersions on man without god multiply until the message is basically to be human is to be a hell creature – fallen, fallen, fallen! This narrow interpretation of Christianity embraced by fundamentalism is, in my mind, a perversion of Christianity through and through. Man does not come off looking like something so loveable god would give his only son to reveal to them his unending love for that which he had created. Man comes off looking like the devil, no, better, comes off looking like nothing so much as an unruly adolescent in need of a good beating by those in authority.

The problem with this Bible-only approach to truth is that it dismisses many of the most important insights other compassionate human beings have discovered outside the confines of religious thought over the last two thousand years. Misunderstanding the ecological crisis is the most obvious problem with this type of intellectual mono-vision from my point of view but the psychological understanding of trauma and the effects of abuse run a close second. People who wish to nourish a love of their fellow man cannot, in good conscience, ignore these modern insights. To do so is to dismiss the very spirit of revelation as it is talking to our age, to use the mythic terms from our monotheistic background. The person in front of you is alive and real, to kill them because a book tells you to is to make that book an idol. Instead of worshipping the living god, one has been seduced into necrotic worship of the dead. God is not found among the dead.

This is what I fear: the patriarchs of the bomb are invoking the patriarch in the sky, cloaking their oil procuring war plans in the most giant beat stick of them all. They are calling on a wrathful god to bring his holy beating to earth “for our own good,” as Alice Miller explained.

I appreciate the sincerity with which a fundamentalist approaches the problems of the world. Much of what seems to inspire the fundamentalist is a virtuous desire to protect their children from the fallout of a consumer culture gone over the edge, refusing to recognize any limitations on its hunger and greed. I feel in many ways more akin to them then to the shallow people of the endless party our mass media teaches us to be. I applaud their willingness to look the darkness of history in the eye and not flinch. Torchbearer includes a number of gut wrenching film clips of our historic atrocities and unspeakable cruelties. More people should remember these things more often. Still, it is traumatizing to gaze into the abyss and fundamentalists, I believe, are traumatized. These people’s sincere soul-needs are being shepherded through the topsy-turvy world of symbolisms of the highest order, those which directly concern the archetype of the Self. There is a healing potentially working its way through their love of the Christ as portrayed in the Gospels which these true believers try to nurture and discover. It is like they are so close, and yet…. Instead of that which liberates, they are under the pall of that which enslaves.

The Self archetype is not to be toyed with. Miss your shot at god and you arrive at the anti-god of the feared meaninglessness and nihilism which has inspired the misbegotten faith of the mind parasites we looked at last week. As James Hillman pointed out, if we are off just a few degrees when the projection of our path between where we really are and the foot of the cross takes place, we end up kneeling before a thief. Now there are good thieves and their are bad thieves, but they remain thieves. What they steal is life itself; these parasites are Vampires feeding on days spent serving false gods and nights spent dreaming in theologies fantastic, instead of theophanies properly imaginal. So many hours sitting in meetings, fearfully praying to invisible powers, listening to preachers, doing what you are “supposed” to do and following orders, writing checks, judging everyone not in your cult damned, talking always about your religion and little else – in so many ways the days of a life of a fundamentalist are stolen by the false infinities haunting their minds, born of the traumatic wound.

There is another way to say we should have respect for facts as facts. We say the same thing when we say we should have respect for stories as stories. That stories move us so deeply is one of the greater parts of the mystery of our being. That they do play such a central role in our ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’ is simply a fact, a feature of our humanity. We have had to live with this mind a long time and have learned a thing or two about it. Replace facts with stories and the result is tragedy. Enliven facts with stories and the result is a living grace.

Fundamentalism denies the reality of the psyche. It denies the realm of symbol, insisting on literal interpretations driven by a fear that if it something was not historically real, it has no reality at all. In this they are mistaken. Carl Jung once commented that all of his work was to try and convince modern man of the reality of the psyche. There is very much a reality involved in these mythologies that guide civilizations but it is not the reality of the Calculus and molecules. It involves the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of how we derive meaning from perception and love from flesh. The problem the fundamentalist has is that they cannot trust the symbol to point beyond itself. For them everything is literal; wheat cannot be transmuted into flesh, the grape and the wine it gives us to make our hearts glad cannot be transmuted into the emotions of our fiery blood, they do not hear the Word in our words of kindness and comfort we give freely to one another. Yet this is just what happens on the earth. The fundamentalist has a problem of faith, they lack its “fundamentals” and so are unable to see the sacramental nature of our sacred world. They cannot bring themselves to believe in the miracle, existence as it is, nor that at its fundamental root this creation is good. They are instead driven to seek magic and miracles, not as symbols but as real events, to prove existence is not as it is. They are the great doubters among us, making themselves over as true believers in reaction formations. Their wounds keep them away from the healthy faith in an intelligent creator and good creation that enlivens compassionate and wise actions undertaken with a cheerful heart out in the real world just as it is. They cannot forgive god for including death in the way of life.

The symbol of the crucifixion captures the sorrows of the world like no other. Here goodness is tortured by Empire: that which is compassion is scorned as weak by those blind to the fact that this is god among us. As they kill they triumph for a day, but in doing their deed of devilry they have also released the spirit of the Christ. There is nothing they can do about that. Everywhere eyes are opened and the poor are given the good news as the dark deeds of devilry expose the emperor’s nakedness. The alpha males are brought to answer to the voice of thunder, their ego fortress shattered in a confrontation with the real power that runs the cosmos. On that same cross the poor and suffering are comforted by the voice of god who they find not in the thunder but in the still small voice, the voice of conscience. At that moment of Christ’s death the veils of the temples were torn and the mysteries openly proclaimed to all the world. This is just what Clement of Alexandria proclaimed so long ago in his Exhortation to the Greeks, that Christianity was the public revelation (exposure?) of the heart of the pagan mystery religions. Fundamentalists are a return to the pre-Christian mystagogue and a Gnostic reading of creation as the work of a demented god. Christian fundamentalism is a misunderstanding and misuse of our own Western tradition, pagan and Orthodox.

The truly faithful are to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”, as Joseph Campbell once put it. This is what the grace in our myth is there to assist us with, for this is hard. It is truly an ongoing challenge to lean towards the good in a world where life feeds on life and Empires so often seem to crush all that is good in the world. (Ring any bells?) This learning to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world” is a challenge worthy of human beings with our many skills and abilities. When the symbolism of the human imagination is working properly so that facts are facts and stories are stories, this is the result. A deep joy wells up from the depths of our consciousness, unassailable by the tides of time. The Vajra diamond, or Kant’s transcendental, or the image of god in man, whatever the metaphor – that which they point to cannot be stained by human folly for we do not create ourselves and this bliss pours forth pure out of that mysterious emptiness from which the next moment comes. This deep joy is a reflection of that which we are building up in our characters over a whole life time of choices and there is no short cut to getting there, no magic words that suddenly make everything over into what it is not. This is the great insight seen in the moment of repentance; that what you do matters, what you say less so. This Self is the over arching archetypal reality of who and what we are as unique individuals, which is created and expressed through what we do with ourselves and with others during that whole lifetime. We never see this Self in its totality, yet we are never separated from it either as long as we live. This Self will weave its thread into the interdependent fabric of earth life whether the ego cooperates with the process or not, learns to embrace its mortality and human limitations, or not. Though rooted in ignorance vs. wisdom instead of good vs. evil, the end result is no different in the East or the West: be careful of those crying Lord, Lord.

“Go ahead and cheat your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,
do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day
and on the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.”
One Tin Soldier, The Original Caste

 

The Eyes Have It

How does one honor someone? Not place them on a pedestal, nor cow-tow to an image on which we are projecting our own needs, but finding the actual individual person amidst the incidents of their lives? We honor them when we find something we want to affirm about who they are. What does this mean? What is this something over and above the events that shape our day to day lives?

Some have called it style, the way in which you approach doing whatever it is you are doing. There is a rich tradition of developing this sort of sensitivity to one’s actions. The delicacy by which a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony brings this day’s drinking into the history of all the teas ever drank from the particular tea pot being used is a good example of an attention to individual style being expressed within an inherited, traditional form. The whole reason it is considered a Zen practice is in how drinking mindfully concentrates the mind on the moment by moment unfolding. There is a type of infinite play of containers and contained; these particular people sharing this particular good tea, while the seasons are in just such a point on their circular journey, and humanity writes its history in just this exact point on its meandering way. And we pour the tea, and share it, and it is good.

What makes the moments titillate with awareness in such practices? A deep sensitivity to the interplay of personal and impersonal. And what nourishes this? Respecting the other being with which you are sharing this exquisite moment. A moment never to be repeated. Aware of their awareness, aware of their Self; that something that shines over a whole lifetime but cannot be found in any particular event within it. This Self shows most clearly in the personality or individuality of a sentient being. When we see it rightly, what we see is beauty. It is a breath of the sacred world.

Consider, among all the sentient beings, our favorite, other humans. How someone moves their body, how they hold their head and shoulders tells us of a person’s story. The sound of a person’s voice in the chest, head and in the air all carve a portrait of a being’s unique profile into the atmosphere. In the eyes of each of us their dwells the magic spark of the watcher who has watched the unfolding of this DNA package in all its continuity from infancy and childhood to this year, whatever it may be; 10, 23, 78. In fact what you are apprehending is a never-to-be-repeated in all the history of the universe uniqueness born of fate and circumstance being confronted continually by this mysterious choice maker.

In those choices a Self if expressed. It is not the work of the ego, the choice making is much more all encompassing than that. Schopenhauer’s Will is closer to what actually seems to be the case. The choices that have carved the character being expressed in each moment are a cumulative history of interaction between the needs of the container and the needs of the contained. There are scars all around, this is a world of sorrow, but there are never more scars than skin, so to speak. The gnarled oak is beautiful too, in its own way.

We want to hold the contained responsible. When violence mars our world it is right to hold those responsible responsible. Still, we recognize that the person who committed the reprehensible action is as much a product of this Will as anyone. Particularly now with our insights into neuroscience and the biology of violence it is becoming much more difficult to maintain clear cut distinctions when attempting to assign ultimate guilt. We are beginning to recognize that in addition to the free choice of the individual there are constraints and restrictions placed on the ability of a person to exercise it. People can be made to play out other people’s needs, seek other people’s goals, and eventually carry out other people’s dirty work. Then we could say the individual has been manipulated into serving the needs of the container instead of the contained. They have been enslaved by constraints placed on the expression of their individuality.

These constraints can come from external or internal sources. Externally violence coupled with emotional cruelty breaks the will, as when a prisoner breaks under the administrations of their torturer. Internally the psyche can have the same jailer injected into itself through the use of fear and terror. Psychology in its therapeutic mode tries to make sense of these internal torturers in order to help those whose lives have become dominated by them. For such individuals it is as if an archetypal numinosity holds the ego under its spell. They are enchanted and entranced by gazing at the shiny thing that has captured their allegiance.

These shiny things are fundamentalisms, often religious though not always, which exploit the vulnerability of our wounds. They can be recognized by a type of false infinity that mesmerizes the brain like Mowgli in the coils of Kaa in Kiping’s The Jungle Book. The true believer is possessed by a set of self-referential ideas that never lead beyond themselves. While the ego is captured in the spell of its righteousness, all around the person’s life events become more and more disharmonious. The result is less like breaking a person’s will than obscuring it beyond their ability to recover it. The freedom of the choice maker has been swallowed up by the needs of the holy book and the holy institution it speaks for. Such people robotically carry out the needs of their institutions even when they trespass on the dignity of others and deny them any respect. “I was just following orders.” Religious, political, and economic fundamentalisms all work the same way.

It is our inability to even begin to question if an alternative to consumerism can be seriously considered, when ecologists tell us it is imperative for our survival, that strongly suggests our society is in the grip of a fundamentalism. The giantism of Homo Colossus is our shiny thing. We are worshiping an idol, to use the old fashion way of saying things, and in doing so have lost the liberty of our spirits. Under the harsh administrations of the idol god – over work, constant fear – it is hard for the individual to be heard or seen. It is hard for the individual to be heard or seen by others or by themselves. It is hard to express our style if we do not know who we are. The mass market floods the individual mind with the mass mind, sweeping up all in its path. My dance needs to imitate whatever is hottest this year, my hairdo, my car, my my my…

We have lost the knack of seeing the beauty of the individual. No, you say? Look at all the movie stars and music stars, never have we celebrated the individual more! But these are all actors. Though the magic of their individuality is there, it is the role they play we encounter when we encounter those that are, as we say, bigger than life. In their archetypal roles they too become shiny things. The knack of seeing the beauty of the individual we are losing as a culture is the one that recognizes it in the real flesh and blood individuals we encounter along our way everyday. We no longer expect to be fascinated by these everyday encounters. We reserve our perceptions of beauty for the fake personas designed for our  screens and headphones who have taken residence in our pornified or Disneyfied imaginations. The real people around us suffer from our lack of kindness and attention as we respond to them as if they too were just playing roles or acting as stage props. We do this so easily with people these days, with all sentient beings really. Each and every one are carving their beautiful story into the interdependent moment. What will it take for us to once again have eyes that respect what they see when they see another’s eyes?

Living beings are not simple creatures.