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.

Dead Things?

“My way has been to scour the whole world through.
Where was delight, I seized it by the hair;
If it fell short, I simply left it there,
If it escaped me, I just let it go.
I stormed through life, through joys in endless train,
Desire, fulfillment, then desire again;
Lordly at first I faired, in power and in speed,
But now I walk with wisdom’s deeper heed.
Full well I know the earthly round of men,
And what’s beyond is barred from human ken;
Fool, fool is he who blinks at clouds on high,
Inventing his own image in the sky.
Let him look round, feet planted firm on earth:
This world will not be mute to him of worth.”

Goethe, Faust. Part Two: Midnight

 

What is the role of consciousness in the universe? I think this is a very meaningful question in light of the failed relationship between consciousness and its container which the ecological crisis displays. It is worth spending some time mulling over, contemplating, even, as we will do today, speculating about.

First we should take a moment to appreciate how far our self understanding as a species has come. We understand the role of evolution through deep time so well, that today we read it at the molecular level like a vast clock. How much further might we grow into understanding what we are in another thousand years? Another ten-thousand?

How, we wonder, can the nervous system and hormone systems of the body work with the massive neural networks in the brain (and gut) to produce what we subjectively experience as awareness? As Francis Crick rightly pointed out in a book capturing the essence of our position, to believe mind arises from matter, given the Cartesian split between them modern science assumes, is an Astonishing Hypothesis. For all the world, it does in fact seem to be case that properly structured matter produces mind. But what is the cosmos herself but structured matter through and through? And is it not shot through with information in the patterns it displays? And, finally, is not information the currency of intelligence? Intelligence is the central feature of evolutionary adaptation, the means by which living things participate intimately with their environments. Notice how this requires that we grant awareness of that environment to that which evolves – we are back to the question of subjectivity.

We have become comfortable with the idea that dead things exist. Not the trivial difference we recognize between here is a live cow, there is a dead cow. We have become comfortable with a conception of death that is absolute. This allows us to see things, such as oil and the other minerals used to build Homo Colossus, as mindless items we are free to do with as we please. This attitude towards the geological strata extends then to molecules in general. These too can have no purpose or meaning since they have been placed into this strange category of wholly dead things. Then we learned about molecular pathways in biochemistry. Watching the molecular exchanges within living tissue we gaze at life’s metabolism, the magic by which it’s homeostasis is sustained. Life arising from absolutely dead molecules. The philosophical blowback has been extreme: the logic of the Cartesian premise condemned our own self-consciousness to be classified as evidently dead as well, resulting as it does purely from molecular interactions.

Which leaves us a choice. We can either admit we were in error about this whole ‘we are the only fully aware living being on this dead earth’ thing. We can either admit we were in error, which will entail a new relationship between humanity and the living earth, one characterized by much more concern and care. Or we can carry on the war of all against all. In this view only the small spark of human self-consciousness is really real and, we fear, even that is likely nothing more than a delusion from start to finish; a curse from a meaningless, mindless universe. This small spark of awareness, alone in a dead universe full of rocks and fury but no mind, suffers, knowing what the rocks do not. In this view there is only one way to end suffering: to become unaware like the dead rocks (which we assume is absolute).

Opposed to this is the ecological view. It is supported by the evidence of our sciences and the great spiritual traditions of our ancestors. This view sees that which we walk upon is not a dead rock but a living earth. It is a place in which every fully interdependent thread is inseparable from a feeling and a thought somewhere, somehow. This view comes to those willing to grant subjectivity to all living things and information, if not intelligent mind, to the very rocks themselves. This view is true, you know, within the great all-inclusiveness of interdependence. The view of absolutely dead things actually existing, as they say in Tibetan debate, is not the case.

Let the soil and the compost heap be our guides to understanding our earthly sojourn. In the soil we learn how even the rocks serve the needs of life, lending it support and critical functional elemental capabilities at the molecular level. From the compost heap we learn that even death is turned to the service of life. We learn that life and death are actually two sides of the same coin, complementary like a wave and a particle.

We have prided ourselves on our heroic stance. We human animals, alone of all the species, were made aware of what we are, our position in the great scheme of things. It was a lousy position, meaningless. But we put on our stiff upper lip and got on with the business at hand, namely making a lot of money. We compliment each other on the unique courage by which we can finally face who and what we really are: evolved apes that are little more than robots sent out to battle against the stars.

Oswald Spengler was sure the Faustian myth captured the essence of our western civilization. Faust, you will recall, was a great scholar but all his learning and studies left him unsatisfied. He longed for absolute knowledge, unlimited knowledge, with a healthy dose of worldly pleasures tossed in for good measure. The myth has captured our scientific devotion in its sketch. Science has given us unprecedented understanding of the molecular world, but has not satisfied the cravings for meaning lodged in the human heart.

To obtain these desires Faust makes a deal with the devil. Have our cultures not been willing to sacrifice moral integrity for the success we have achieved? Ah, but the devil was a liar from the beginning. The Cartesian split is a lie. It said we needed to make a choice between our hearts and heads.

We understood that knowledge was power and if there was anything this poor pathetic orphan of a species, all alone on this isolated dead rock circling a non-descript star needed, it was power. Due to the Cartesian error we expected we would have to pay the price of sacrificing our emotions to gain that knowledge. It was not so much that there would be no emotions along our way. Though we prided ourselves on our objectivity, in fact, as the Faust myth illustrates so poignantly, what we did was allow the search for knowledge to blind us to the truth of our emotional nature. In our hunt for achievement we bound ourselves to competition, blinding ourselves to the value of simplicity and contentment. Ethics and compassion took a back seat in our dealings with “the real world,” the one only we moderns ever had the courage to perceive truly.

These seem to be some of the unspoken assumptions of the world we live in. I don’t think they stand up to conscious, rational examination. The heroic stance we have taken in the west was for the sake of learning to think rationally about what is real. We made heroic sacrifices in our pursuit of that knowledge, for which we should be rightly proud. We should not let our disillusionment in its dark side delude us the way it is doing now.

What our Faustian program uncovered was exactly what it set out to find, a universe of dead rocks ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, thoroughly meaningless and without emotion. Just as a patient with a neurological disorder that prevents emotion from participating properly in their reasoning soon finds that their reasoning is ultimately meaningless, so to culturally; our search for knowledge at the price of emotion found the universe to be meaningless as well. Today, of course, we have learned that it is in the nature of things to find what we are looking for. Build an apparatus to find a wave and you will not capture data about particles, though that does not necessarily mean there is no particle data to be had if other tools were applied to the observations.

We moderns wonder, how could there be a feeling in the attraction of the electron to the proton? To entertain such thoughts, we are quite sure, is to indulge in the crudest anthropomorphism. Yet, we fear, if it is not there among the particles, how could it really be in any of the myriad things they produce, including ourselves? Are we no more than chemical robots, meat puppets fooling ourselves that our awareness of our awareness means something more, something else?

We trip up on the role of awareness. To admit the electron is ‘attracted’ to its mate with an element of love involved, seems to ascribe to elementary particles the same conscious awareness we are familiar with, which is patently absurd. Is it only metaphorical to say the electron is attracted to the proton like lovers? It must be. Yet… We are left wondering just what the role of metaphor actually is in the embodied minds we think with. In a world of will and representation, many of the modern conceptions of consciousness are just too small to carry the full burden of the evidence.

And because consciousness is directly accessible to everyone, we all know a lot more about all this than we tend to give ourselves credit for. It would be good if we could befriend this western wound. Compassion is called for. Goethe’s treatment of Faust is in two parts, the first of which ends in tragedy. Parallels with our own circumstances are obvious. Part two of Goethe’s Faust, written years after part one when Goethe was an older man, begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust, and mankind. How this, too, has parallels with our own circumstances is less obvious. It is the work of mindful ecology to encourage them. The final scene of Goethe’s masterpiece has Faust’s soul carried to heaven by the intercession of “Virgin, Queen of Motherhood… Eternal Womanhood.” The artful clue turns our attention to Gaia, Mother Earth, the living earth. Mephistopheles had fearfully threatened Faust that when he died he would encounter the absolute death spoken of earlier in this essay, the “Eternal Empty,” making his life meaningless. No, Goethe insists, the goddess beats the devil every time. There is only the compost heap, and the ongoing saga of our kind.

Cruelty on the Cross

As social primates how others react to us is extremely important. Our expressions of ourselves through word and deed are self revealing, leaving us vulnerable to a cruel word or act from others. Since trust cannot be naively extended to strangers, we rely on the defense mechanism of the persona, the mask we wear when we are just going through the motions, as we say. Each of us is able to cover our uniqueness in a cloak of collectively defined characteristics; the jock, the nerd, the rebel, the flirt, the hard hearted businessman, and the cold calculating player of real politic, to name a few. Whatever our chosen mask, for most of us the primary personas are molded into our nervous systems by the time we leave high school. As adults we become adapt at shifting masks as needed.

When the environment is safe and secure, when we can trust the ones around us not to hurt us cruelly, we are able to relax and, as we say, be ourselves. We are fed and nourished in these times as the reflection of ourselves in another’s eyes makes us real; they confirm our own perceptions and expressions. The ear and the tongue evolved together: we are story tellers at heart and love to share with one another. The smile is the ticket to the heartstrings and it plays a fine song, given the chance. We humans laugh, and when the laughter is free of malice, its sound is pure praise celebrating this moment, just as it is. Joyful moments shared with others are memories every human being holds dear.

In the abusive home this environment of safety is missing, so those within its walls are unable to receive the nurturance required by mammals of the social primate flavor. In an overly competitive society, such as ours, there is no external security to be found either. Arguably, everyone in such a society suffers some degree of self alienation, everyone is abused by the worship of cruelty as the final arbiter of power. In our fear, surrounded as we are by so many threats and dangers, we find it hard to take off our masks; to relax, safe and content. The danger is that then our lives can become little more than circus shows, staged for one another but not lived with one another.

The point, of course, is to live an authentic life. To use the masks, understand them and their role, but never to confuse the mask with the living flesh of the face it covers.

This, I think, is what the Jesus story and the crucifixion is teaching. That is a human face on that cross. It asks us to have compassion on the suffering being displayed. Which is stronger for you, on which will you ultimately place your faith: the cruelty of empire or the compassion of flesh? The Gospels provide just enough detail that we recognize an individual within their pages. On the cross this individual suffers the cruelty of torture, exposing the vulnerability of the flesh, but even more so that of the heart. On the cross Jesus wears no mask. Reality – this cosmic, mysterious thing made by an unknown – is its own balm, a harsh taskmaster at times, but not nearly as cruel as mankind can be to itself when we choose cruelty instead of love. This icon of Christianity teaches us torture hurts, it is wrong. It is a stake in the emotional ground. It may have additional religious meaning also but what I want to point out is it is much more pedestrian than that. It says: this is real, this torture of other human beings, this action is real. And this action is wrong.

Emotion and values are inseparably linked. In our pursuit of value-free greed, we as a people have not had much respect for the inner, subjective life of the emotions. Animals, women and children were all thought to be ruled by their feelings, and hence lesser beings. To accept that what other people feel matters, that how I make them feel matters, is to invite a whole host of values captured in the universal Golden Rule. These threaten the values being used to prop up this consumer society in which status, as conferred by wealth and fame, is held up as the alternative ideal. When the powerful use this view to argue that the values of war are as serviceable for a society as those of compassion, they commit, in my mind, a crime against the truth. We cannot remake ourselves over into the image of our machines; cold, calculating robots capable of pushing the nuclear button without flinching. We are not our own creators.

To be human is to be, first, a mammal. The line of mammals is characterized by a unique trait: they show extended care for their young. From this quite real biological, emotional, and cognitive experience attachment bonds are formed. Mammals come to express care and compassion among themselves their whole life long. Second, we humans are primate mammals, and social primates at that. This means we have evolved around the need to need each other. The individual’s biological, emotional, and cognitive structures are attuned to reading and responding to social signals from others in our tribe.

Christianity is catholic; a message for the species is in the icon of the cross, just as it is in the icon of the meditating Buddha. The cross asks what do you, personally, choose to do about the fact human beings are capable of inflicting torture upon one another? That is the psychological maypole around which we are built. In the icon of the corpus on the cross the mystery is openly displayed. The psyche aligns itself either towards the pole of ‘I will not torture another sentient being whatever the cost,’ or not.

It is important to be clear we are talking about torture: the deliberate desire to inflict maximum pain through cruelty. Arguably all killing is suspect from compassion’s point of view, as the Jains have it, but how can there be an absolute rule when protectors need to execute evil when necessary? Regardless, what soldiers typically do on the battlefield is not the same violation of the integrity of another being’s subjectivity torture entails. Only acts of sexual and sever psychological abuse begin to position themselves on the spectrum of ‘soul violation’ that ends in torture.

The Gospel is about a man who learns to call this creator-mystery, this cosmic force of deep time planted on earth from out of deep space, by the most intimate form of address possible. Though Christianity typically speaks about god the father, Jesus addressed god as daddy, the child’s loving address, as if to teach that this cosmic force by which we were created is to become personalized by our fully becoming human. A task, I might add, no one who has ever lived has ultimately failed at. The teaching is we are not orphans in an uncaring universe, for the very human love we share witnesses otherwise.

Torture rightly frightens the human animal. And so, in the Christian mythology, we are taught by ‘god’ to watch how people use this ability to be so cruel to one another. It is ‘his’ revelation. That cruelty, the teaching goes, kills the god among men.

These evolved traits around compassion are as real in the realm of human experience as gravity is. Our biology, emotions, and cognitions bear witness to our evolved inheritance as mammals of the social primate variety. The devil among us is not a supernatural, magical bogey man. It is the cruelty by which we humans can be lead astray, by which we lose our way.