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’s 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 has additional religious meaning, but what I want to point out is much more pedestrian than those. It says: this is real, this torture of other human beings, this action is really happening. 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 aka universal; a message for the species is in the icon of the cross. 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 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. The teaching is we are not orphans in an uncaring universe: the very, very human love we share witnesses otherwise. That is the teaching of the God-man.

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 cognition bear witness to our evolved inheritance as mammals of the social primate variety. The devil among us is not a magical bogey man used to scare children but of no concern for adults. It is the power behind the very real cruelty by which we humans can be lead astray, by which we lose our way.


And how does that make you feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Destroyer

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

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

A destroyer hides in our subjectivity.

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

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

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

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

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

The tools of the wrathful angels such as St. Michael are surgical, they destroy destroyers. They also accomplish the dismemberment of the shaman. Why else would we have a Holy Guardian Angel and how could it be otherwise in a universe that is wholly interdependent? Those who would venture in the lands of the inner worlds should know not all is sweetness and light there. Our evolutionary roots, while graced with wisdom, are also home to many relatives of the alligator variety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing the Loss of Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cruelty and Compassion

Ego rightly fears the highs and lows of emotions by which the psyche can be carried away. Crimes of hot passion and cold revenge haunt our history books. Overwhelmed by grief the ego has been dragged to hell, overwhelmed by bliss it has been transported to heaven. Until it has plumbed the heights and depths itself and extended its compassion to all the parts found within, that fear of being overwhelmed by what has been repressed remains. The Self seems to guide the ego along the lines of overcoming these fears, given the chance. Along the way our conception of who and what we are remains, of necessity, mundane and restricted. Our conception of the universe we find ourselves in also remains similarly mundane and restricted. When we look into our minds and allow only a small glimpse of their potential to effect us, we intentionally narrow our view. A larger glimpse of their potential can lead to a larger view.

Most often we narrow our view by turning our attention to ourselves. We ruminate about our life stories; replaying past events and imagining future ones. This is how we learn and set the goals by which we energize the present moment. There is nothing inherently wrong about these types of cognitive activities; they are what the mind naturally does when placed more or less in neutral, unless the mind is unaffected by fear. Without fear the mind more naturally turns its attention out away from one’s own life story. In neutral it then unleashes its inborn curiosity and ponders this existence we find ourselves a part of. Contemplation along these lines can lead to gratitude and awe born from a profound respect for the intelligent pattern everywhere displayed.

The logical third possibility is that the contents of narrow attention will consist of some combination of ego considerations and an awareness of the vast environment it finds itself a part of. Here, at the interface, is where so many of our deepest dissatisfactions with our existence arise. It seems as though we rarely can get what we most deeply long for from the universe. Peace and contentment escape us for we cannot long rest content with our achievements, nor can we avoid the heart rending suffering of love lost for long. Many of our most basic needs and desires are related to our relationships with other people, but other people do not appreciate us enough and the world certainly is not giving us our proper due. . . All these kinds of thoughts come naturally to the ego and provide it with the fuel it uses to get up off the couch and work hard to make things a bit better.

This, however, is not optimal. To be inspired by the energy of what is basically a childish temper tantrum is to be enslaved by one’s own existence. Gratitude and awe before the vast reaches of inner and outer space is a much more liberating psychology from which the ego can live. Moving the ego’s center of gravity from the tantrum to the gratitude requires that it comes to know it is valued, just as it is. It needs to come to know it is loved by God as a child of God, as it is said in western religious terms. It needs to come to know it is valued as a Bodhisattva in training, as it is said in eastern terms. It needs to fight off the inner bullies that would wound its very being with shame and deny it has any right to exist, as it is said in psychological terms.

The modern view of that which is real is so vast in time and in space that it intimidates us. It threatens us with such minuteness that we fear our lives to be little more than meaningless grains of sand, specs of dust in the wind. It is worth noting that this cosmic vastness has been part of the view of the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism since their inception. Both of these eastern traditions are rich in teachings that point to the inner world of the psyche as being equally vast and finding thereby some measure of belonging within the infinities which surround us on all sides. This is in no small part where the differences between the psychology of the east and the psychology of the west have their roots. Modern cosmology has brought the eastern view to the west. It can shake the girders of our souls, waken us from our narcotic slumbers, if we let it.

Ego works hard to find love and food, shelter and some sense of meaningful participation with the rest of the world. Where it fits in the vast cosmic panorama is harder to say, whereas what it needs to do today is usually rather clear. It is not easy to be self-conscious. Touched by sorrow the ego has tasted hell, touched by love it has tasted heaven. As mentioned, overwhelmed by grief it has been dragged to hell, overwhelmed by bliss it has been transported to heaven. All this has taken place without ever once setting foot anywhere but on the solid ground of this very earth on which we live. Where the human being fits in this vast cosmic panorama is hard to say, but it is the nature of our minds that each of us must take these journeys of the soul into the outer reaches. No one wholly escapes the responsibilities of the shaman.

Lovecraft, reflecting a modern sensibility, warned that mankind was not meant to venture far into the reality of our vast cosmos. In what is probably his most well known quote he predicts that if we were to awake to our true position in the vast scheme of things we would run quickly back into the comforts of a new dark age. For Lovecraft that would be a return to barbarism and religious superstition in which we try once again to appease primitive gods, granting at least some small degree of control over what happens to us in our own deluded minds. It is not a pretty picture of our psychological potential. For Lovecraft, the modern western author of cosmic horror par excellence, madness threatens those who seek too deeply into the nature of nature.

Against this view what defense does modern man have? I will argue interdependence, the view embraced by ecology and systems science. Size alone, in space or in time, should not intimidate us. The human brain is the most complex organization of connections in all the known universe. The evolutionary role of emergent consciousness, which is what mankind is involved in, is closer to quantum weirdness than it is to the now discredited mechanical universe Lovecraft was reacting to.

When another person dismisses your existence as meaningless and worthless, as elitists of every stripe do with such ease, it is as if they are embodying this view of a vast heartless universe, our modern horror. In what psychology knows as a reaction formation people who have become assholes have reacted to this repressed threat to their ego by overcompensating for the impotency it makes them feel. This is much like the closely related phenomenon in which the bully uses cruelty and violence to maintain a repression over their inner insecurities. ‘If the universe is just going to use and abuse us, well I’m nobody’s fool, I’ll use and abuse people even more,’ the twisted thinking of the asshole-elitist runs. Next thing you know we are dealing with the unique cruelty only human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another: we will never see rabbits crucifying one another or wolves hooking pain inflicting electrodes to each other, or even, Orwell’s prescient Animal Farm not withstanding, will we see pigs creating totalitarian governance systems.

Compassion is anti-assholism, anti-elitism. For some reason there are other people that react to this same environment differently. This view of vast time and space opens these people to extend loving kindness to others as much as they can. They do not perceive the universe, just as it is, as a threat to their ego stability, but as the supporting context from which it arises and draws its being. At some deep level, beyond what ego can directly control, they have become convinced that whatever is most precious to them cannot be destroyed however outrageous one’s folly might be.

We do not know the determining factors that decide which way an ego will come to view its place in the grand scheme of things. Something beyond what ego can control is guiding this process as far as we can tell. This is why depth psychology needed the concept of the Self as a larger whole within the psyche of an individual than the ego alone. What we do know is that these things seem to be related to how a person has been handling the highs and lows they experience in their innermost heart, their center of emotional life. Here is where the mystery of consciousness is most acute, here in the inner sanctum of the real temple.

The compassionate protectors will discipline themselves and others as a tree is pruned, to facilitate future growth. The will never harm the health of the seed and sap, bruise the reed or snuff out the wick, as it were. The destroyers, on the other hand, use discipline as a means of dispensing with existence, denying that life has any right to exist just as it is. It is as if the destroyers miss the seed and the sap, the state of grace, that everywhere is manifest in sacred world.

We find both protectors and destroyers within and without. It is good to know how to identify who is who. Those who would treat you cruelly, and exalt in that cruelty for cruelty’s sake, do not confuse the minds of their victims. They are easy to identify. The torturer and the bully in their pure form are self defeating. It is when the torturer claims to be working for the Holy Inquisition, and the bully claims to be working for the patriotic military (aka Holy Hosts) that the confusions abound.

Those who would treat you cruelly and claim it is compassion, that it is For Your Own Good, are liars. They are claiming, thereby, to have found themselves heartless in a heartless universe. They are claiming the earth is dead, a place where feeling and consciousness are epiphenomenon, where all that is really going on is a meaningless clash of robots. They have made all things over into the image of the machine. Or, if they are of a religious instead of secular bent, they claim to have found the only heart in a heartless universe. If we need to kill the village to save it, this thinking runs, so be it.

This is a simple truth: there is a universe of difference between treating oneself and others with cruelty and treating oneself and others with compassion.