The Dark Child

This is what we need to address from the Dear God song mentioned last week. “Dear God, don’t know if you noticed but, your name in on a lot of quotes in this book. Us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look.” As mentioned last week, there is an error in the use of Holy Books we human beings are prone to due to the assumed authority of the authorial voice. When the Holy Book in question is filled with “God says” and “The Lord commands” and “Thus saith the Lord,” well, the temptation to speak for god comes with the territory. I think this is a major part of the real lesson Western religion is seeking to teach each generation that receives it, but for the most part we no longer hear it. We no longer understand that some of the examples being held up as what people did, while thinking they were righteous, have been passed down so that we will see that they were anything but. We are too easily satisfied with the surface meanings we find, which not surprisingly supports genocide, capitalism, democracy, the republican party, and wealth as the true sign of being loved by god. A preferential option for the poor, an ethic of non-violence, and finding the face of the Christ in a suffering human being instead of the Emperor does not sell as well.

American Christianity has often come across as puffed up triumphalism. Instead of seeing the face of Christ in the suffering poor, it rubs shoulders with wealth and power. It is always asking for money. The TV preachers with super-star sized egos are best known for dictating death and hell for gays, communists, democrats, Catholics, and the whole “secular” world. They have left a very bad taste in the mouth of most thinking people who value compassion. These preaching people seem to have a problem separating the tongue of the Lord from the tongue of their own desires. This is the old, very old, narcissistic magic that makes the mortal put on the airs of a god. There is always some human being in the loop on those “Thus saith the Lord” assertions. There is something about religion, the Western tradition in particular, that breeds the temptation to lord it over others in the name of god. “God must like me, I am rich and powerful,” runs the ancient ethic, one from at least the time of the Pharaohs which the Good Book was supposed to help us escape. We do not talk so blatantly but we act as if it were so when we give subservient deference to those who are destroying the earth for quarterly profits just as if they were divine beings.

He-whose-shit-does-not-stink sits on a golden toilet seat while the outcast and discarded die of malnutrition and cluster bombs. If we are in fact, as biology and ecology teach us, one interdependent family of humankind, then treating some of our brothers and sisters with such contempt, and others with such deference, is bound to not turn out well.

The modern world has been left with the husks of our mythologies and cannot seem to find their true nourishment. The problem of evil will not be lightly cast aside. As ecological collapse continues, particularly if it is made worse by nuclear war as seems to be likely now, we can expect this “theological” problem to become ever more acute. Will people be able to find the comfort of meaningful existence in their traditions? Or will the loss of soul be devastatingly alienating from what we have learned as a species over our hundreds of thousands of years?

Here is a quick thought experiment, one of thousands available. An amateur German study found there has been a decrease in winged insects over the last 30 years in Europe; they are down 75%. Since fossil fueled industrialized civilization is not changing its ways, in fact it is accelerating all the forces that likely caused this, we can rationally assume the next 30 years to be more of the same, or worse. Another 75% loss from the 25% left? And in another 30 years? Hello, is anyone awake? Some headlines are more important than others. This type of thing, for example. Though chosen as a small drop in the bucket of headlines about the ongoing ecological collapse it is, in my way of thinking, more important than the talk dominating our headlines around the tweeting of twinkle texts.

Theology is the talk of god(s). When it is not being used to justifying the status quo and hand out social status it is also the realm of philosophical and existential questions. As mentioned when we looked at Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the human being needs to know their own life is valuable and finds it is when it is devoted to a cause larger than itself alone. We are born to serve our communities and our land. It is our sacred stories which help us to place our lives in this larger context where our individual joys and sorrows can become profoundly meaningful. They even become, if we dare say it, cosmically meaningful – for us.

The first night, the first day: these are the foundations of mythic consciousness. A consciousness, we should remember, whose roots are found inside every one of us. They tell the tales inherent in our flesh and blood. The universe seems to have had an origin, as do we. We most certainly have an end, the universe might. The moment we were born was our creation into the light of consciousness as we became a unique way in which the universe would come to experience itself. The universe was created for us at that moment. The moment we die that universe will come crashing down. When we die we will return to that from which the spark of consciousness came. Death is not what it seems to be when seen in the light of deep time evolution and modern biological understanding of DNA’s deathlessness which is of necessity coupled to algorithmic cell death. That life only and everywhere manifests itself in individuals is a fact, the interdependent truth of what it actually is. We are all of one family, literally.

The Christian teaching myth drew the proper, rational implications from this long ago: we are to call god father and are called to serve the needs of the poor and suffering among our brothers and sisters. It holds out the hope of a kingdom where peace on earth reigns. Peace gains the upper hand in history when, to put it bluntly, men have worked out their father issues and have learned to walk with integrity and nobility. That kingdom comes when the cycle of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse of children which is handed down through the generations is cut. That happens, when it happens, one couple at a time. By this way of reading the human experience the most important aspects of history are taking place in our homes, not in the palaces of the Emperors. This is where the real levers of history reside, the ones that shape the psyches that shape events. The real lever of history, by this way of looking at things, is found in what our forefathers and foremothers called faith.

In the older view, as we reconstruct it, the whole world could be seen as in the hands of caring providence. The good people would be rewarded and the bad people would be punished. In this way the moral order we find in our conscience would have some applicability in the larger universe. We love to watch the bad guy get their comeuppance, that way we feel there is justice and fairness in the end. As the darkness of the death camps and nuclear bombs made clear, this is not the way good and evil play out in the real world. Whatever “providence” might be involved in the human journey through history it is not, evidently, of this magical type. It does not seem to have the power to stop evil, at least not as we would will it. I wish more people were willing to set aside that magical thinking. What is the global ecological crisis and the accompanying saber rattling among the various true believers but this, our latest manifestation of the institutional dark heart? Does it not seem that we are powerless to stop our descent into the darkening future most every thinking person has been warning us about for decades now?

Traumatizing the earth, traumatizing ourselves, the dark child has become our teacher.

That which we recognize as alive is aware of the environment – living things form an inseparable unit of contained and container. For the traumatized the container is threatening, even when the cause of their trauma, the very real threat that once was experienced, is now long gone. The body remembers. The depth of our fight, flight and freeze responses are such that experiences in this area carve our characters for life, for better and for worse.

It is not the abused person’s fault human evil was turned on them. But it was. It does no good to pretend they were not sent to hell. They were. It is that simple. They are right to ask, ‘if this is a good universe where was my Holy Guardian Angel when the torture occurred?’ The universe that is ruled by the terror-bringers is a lie but it can so easily befuddle the human mind. To deal with it first we call a spade a spade, nothing less is going to do. We need to have some ammunition for casting out the demons. Alien components have been introduced into the human psyche of the traumatized. Call them dark archetypes if you will but whatever label we use, we need to recognize that they are death bringers for the ego, for the personality and person trying to make it through their days. In the works of the shadow the personality is trying to cast the foreigners out but the shadow is only able to do so much. It cannot take the final step, for the final step is to lay itself and the ego down. This only happens in an untwisted way when something greater than the person sweeps them up into the arms of divine unconditional love.

It is the universal testimony of the wise ones that this can happen. It is not an exclusively “Christian” event, though often clothed in Christian symbolism for those raised in the West. This experience of being caught up “in the hands of the living god,” if it indeed can happen, would move the person from the evil universe or atheist position towards faith. The ultimate move in this direction is the attainment which all true initiations are trying to bring about. To place it in Christian terms we could say that the hatchet is buried at the foot of the cross – and left there. Why? Because Jesus on the cross is representing fallen human flesh. We cannot love the one who was abused without also hating the one that did the abuse. It is one thing. Pure evil, however, cannot be located in persons. Our hate must mature and face the tragic truth. The tragic truth is that those abusing others were once abused themselves. There is no legitimate target for this righteous anger among mortals. Deny the divine one on the cross and you are left with an emotional need to project pure evil onto people. The result is inevitably torn and bleeding mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters – and the cycles of violence proceed unhindered.

We are going to take this one step at a time over the next few essays. Theology on the street level is one that talks to the prostitutes, junkies, runaways, and all the rest of the refuse we create in our dark ways of projecting evil into one another. If it doesn’t speak to them it fails the sniff test: “I came to find the lost.” If our theology can help them to sing, in whatever lives they are capable of having, then it is real. If it is just going to make them feel worse, just darken the universe made by monsters they are already living in, we would be better off teaching nothing at all. I am not at all kidding about this. We are hazing demons here, there is no room for pulling punches. There is more sanity in a refreshingly thorough atheistic view of the universe than there is in the monster haunted one the traumatized mind has been taught is real.

We cannot go back in time and undo the crimes against souls that occur. This might be the most bitter truth of all. There is a special love among the dark and broken children when they find each other. They were cast out of houses that were never homes and hunger for love. Those who fall in love with people who were abused have dragons in their imaginations, dragons they feed as their love-inspired empathy tries to understand just how their beloved was hurt. Those who suffered the abuse have the dragons in their bodies; they are the dark side of the Tibetan Wind Horses that ride our nervous systems. What then, is love powerless? Yes, as a matter of fact it is. This is related to the impotency of “I’m sorry” (even when sorry is the hardest word). It cannot undo what has been done. It is the same lesson we as a species are learning about carbon emissions. Lovers can offer each other companionship and compassion but that is not enough. Traumatized people are drinking themselves to death, and worse, every day in-spite of love being in their lives. These dragons are not trifles. That crucifixion thing, what is the lesson? Love dies. It is not the final word, it is not all there is to say, but that is a real part of life. There has never been a human alive who did not have to say goodbye to those they love. The dark child just had to say it earlier than most and while the shells of who they once loved were still walking around threateningly. For everyone else the day of doubt comes with funerals and graveyards. The human heart cries out, ‘does the universe care at all about me and the ones I love?’ It does no good to pretend cartoons greet us on the other side of the grave ala Egyptian mummies and pyramids. Your own body is not so easily fooled.

In our time of ecological collapse and threatened nuclear war, on the other hand, it might do some good if we can come to understand that grave dirt is not evil in itself. Christianity, when not corrupted from within, is the teaching that natural life is good. Sex is not evil. Sex is part divine. This whole universe is a manifestation of a loving god which humans experience through their personalities. As if the whole universe were made just for us and those we love, which, in a very quantum mechanical way, perhaps it was. The Christian teaching around death is that there is a beatific vision waiting the ego of each of us when we die, that death is a rest in peace untouched by the sorrows and torments living entails. Our awareness remains in eternity, how could it not since it has participated in time? It is our spark in timelessness, like a star that never goes out. Death crowns a life well lived with the attainment of our heart’s innermost dream. The ground of being, emptiness, the impersonal, first greets us with a personalized face. Our homecoming in the bosom of the impersonal, we experience as the human child held in the protective arms of a human father. We return to the source the way we came forth from the source. This is why the child plays such an important role in these things, it is not the foo-foo inner-child of New Age thought being talked about here. It is the core of that which became the personality, the raw biological jelly as it were, created pure, unblemished by any foreign thing.

The problem is that our hyper-violent, hyper-industrialized societies have, shall we say, father issues. Our homes are fatherless or filled with monsters masquerading as men. Our societies have no place for protectors, kind loving and compassionate fathers of courage, to actually protect what they care most deeply about. They cannot keep their sons from the war machines nor their daughters from the sexual exploitations the internet teaches and celebrates. They cannot keep their schools from being cut for funds or attacked by shooters. They cannot remove the guns or drugs from the capitalist on the street corner. They cannot keep the predatory priest away from them at church. Fathers, in short, have been emasculated. To try and be providers and fail in the ways that matter most is a hard road to walk. Because they fail, the disappointed wife and children spew meanness on the male who was unable to deliver the protective home he promised in the midst of his courting and romance. There are just not that many happy marriages in America. These dynamics are, best I can make out, a large part of why.

As mentioned before the mother archetype says yes and the father says no. The father’s “no” was not supposed to remain the private, thundering law giver of patriarchy written into the stars: no speaking back or speaking out, no questioning my authority! It was meant to be turned on other men, not the women and children. Men were supposed to have the courage to tell other men, when what they are doing is evil, to stop it. That is the power of “No.” Our cultural fall has been so far from the vision of the Good Book that we can only imagine such power in its most crude form; out of the barrel of a gun or its equivalent. That is not where this power of “No” really lives. Violence only sews more violence. The power of kindness backed by rational persuasion – that is the power that stands against the waves of centuries throwing pharaohs, kings, and emperors against it. There have been some seriously dark hours but they haven’t killed hope yet.

The No we have need to somehow find the right way to say to the existing powers that be is not a mystery. It is as clear as the dawn for every human heart. It is wrong to bomb the poorest people on earth with ordinance that cost more than the food they needed. It is wrong to rate the wants of a few hundred hyper-wealthy families above the needs of the majority of humankind alive today and those yet to come. Somehow we need to say NO to this. How, then, might we bind the strong man?

Parental Unkindness (2)

If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. This is what every parent wants their child to comprehend. This is what every fast and loose salesman does not want their customers to understand.

We have trusted our parents or primary care givers to teach us the truth, to guide us on this path evolutionary development assigns us of discovering what is real and what is not. Part of that teaching task includes a whole host of painful but necessary lessons about the limitations inherent in being a human being. One of these lessons includes teaching the youth of our species not to be too gullible. To do so the parents are willing to be the bad guys, to fool us badly. They become willing liars, easily fooling their young charges by assuring them that a dream they really want to believe in is really real. And then, as if this was not enough, they actually go out of their way to provide what looks like evidence that this impossible dream is real by using every deceptive form of misdirection they can muster. I am of course describing the most universally honored rituals that remain in our culture, those that compliment the birth of Christ – the rituals around Santa Clause.

This is one of those things that displays the wisdom of our experience being handed down the generations. (One of the many continuities between the generations taken for granted  today that could be cut as the ecological blowback continues to tear at the very fabric of our societies). Right here where the story of the culture’s religion is born, the birth of the Christ, there is also placed the story of the culture’s secular god: the jolly fat man of consumerism’s material abundance. This elaborate setup is our cultural wisdom basically saying to the child, ‘only one of these is ultimately real, choose wisely.’ The Easter Bunny plays a similar role for the other major event in the Christian calendar which celebrates the resurrection. A wisdom not too hard to pierce is obvious when we consider the rabbit to be the symbol par-excellence of reproduction. Again, only one of these is ultimately real, choose wisely. You see there are relative truths and ultimate truths…

Here is where it really gets interesting. We moderns are used to thinking of our religious myths as stupid, naive and superstitious; all of which is a fairly sophisticated way of protecting their psychological usefulness. I worry a bit about shining too bright a light on that which functions best while left in partial shadow but have decided to trust the intuition that tells me now is the time to talk turkey. It is rather later than it might seem on the curve of Western civilization’s descent and for that reason I think it is a good time to take a look at what it was that had held things together and kept things working.

So do we choose to follow Jesus, or Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny? We will come back to that question.

The comfort a child draws from images is the same comfort an adult draws from reason. It is small comfort. The associational thinking that flows as one image leads to another does not include the stability we take for granted within our adult minds. There is no final ground yet in the child’s mind to which all flights of fancy will return. The task of waking up from those dreaming states of childhood is experienced as one of developing one’s own reasoning capacity. It involves the growth of enough self confidence to dare to trust one’s own thoughts and perceptions. It involves taking the first tentative steps towards trusting what you think, in spite of what others tell you, and trusting your own perceptions, in spite of whatever abstractions the mind might be hosting.

These are the first steps towards individuation. Using the conscious understanding to teach other parts of the mind the truth of things is arguably the most fundamental cognitive skill. We face our childhood fears by telling our minds that things in reality are not as bad as what our feverish imaginations are conjuring up. This is also how we will eventually learn to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to one another, even though we know how much it hurts to learn we have been fooled and used instead of respected.

By their holiday actions with presents and eggs each parent teaches orthodoxy: that I am not Jesus.

They are not following the way that leads to a bloody crucifixion at the hands of the empire but actually the way of the bunny and the gift giver; reproducing and trying to bring warmth, songs, generosity and good-will to the home and hearth. No, they lack the certainty of a Christ, a faith that could literally move mountains (which would be of questionable sanity). They have the faith of uncertainty and have learned how to survive in the face of the unknown and unknowable. By their lives the adults around the child are illustrating the role of myth as myth.

In the great opposition of the psyche, ironically, this is the real faith; this willingness to accept things as they are for mortal social primates. This faith trusts, that in spite of all the suffering and sorrow, life is worth it. Our religious and sociological rituals are designed to hand on a basic faith in the reality of the cosmos as being a reality we can trust. Through our stories we reconcile ourselves to our human nature; that in the end we are but a wonderful fruit of the loins watched over, as it has been throughout deep time, by the dark god and goddess of the wild places. Whatever the intelligence is that animates the cosmos, it has chosen evolution through deep time as the means by which our persons manifest their true nature. Feet firmly on the ground it is precious to be a human being with heart and mind lifted towards the sky…

So do we choose to follow Jesus, or Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny?

This is the basic Christian story: Jesus was unique in showing the violence behind the scapegoat tendency of every community. He was son of god and son of man. Our role within this mythology is to accept we are sons and daughters of men by learning the difficult truth that this is how we are children of god. We try to become jolly, generous fathers and mothers, holding the faith through the solstice’s darkest night. We try to make peace with god by finding our immortality in the way of rabbits, aka trusting our love-lead reproductive “instincts.” In these the intelligence of the cosmos is most intimately revealed to each of us.

A child looks up to his or her mother and father as superheroes. Dad is the magician whose intelligent use of his body, speech and mind allows him to walk the earth with head held high as he pursues his work and will. The child does not yet comprehend the struggles and difficulties involved because it is so taken with the basics of effective functionality. Dad shows an integration of emotion and thought working together in a practical mastery of earthly things the child can only dream about one day doing themselves. Mother is the priestess who skillfully and eerily knows all about the mysteries of food and bowel movements, flesh and its affection and afflictions in tears and laughter, fears and comforts. She shows an integration of self-nurturing skills so accomplished she doesn’t need her own mother to take care of her. Surely she is in touch with the gods. This self contained individuality the parents display, each in their own way, is something the young child can only dream about one day becoming.

This perception of adult competency is not mistaken. The adults do manage to obtain their daily needs and deal with the larger world outside the home. For the child these seem to be miraculous powers.

Children are fools. Parents, by setting up their disillusionment, are trying to act with kindness to soften the blow. The child’s mind first absorbs language and images and in its evolutionary purposes works furiously to build an understanding of itself and its place in the world that will allow it to survive. Its primary care givers are a model that this seemingly impossible quest can in fact be accomplished, but how? It has been said the brain of a two year old might work harder absorbing information and laying down patterns than at any other time in the life of a human being. That is how.

The funny thing about the mind’s development in childhood is that while it has acquired language and it is exposed to the cultural environment of its adult society, it lacks the core function those adults are using. As post-Freudians we tend to think what is lacking in the child is a sexual integration of the emotions but equally vital is the cognitive integration which reasoning brings. The child’s mind is filled with images and stories which it thinks it is reading correctly but, in fact, they are not interpreting them as the adults around them do. It is obvious how this can become a real problem, particularly when the stories involved deal with what is or is not real, true and beautiful as our religiously mythological stories do. With puberty’s changes comes the complete reorganization of the body, emotions and mind. In the body there is a new center of sensation, in the emotions a new depth of both orgasmic pleasure and sexual-jealousy pain (the highs and lows of the adult psyche) and in the mind there is a new integrity of reason that shows up as a pre-verbal grasp of what is real and what is not.

Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth is a good meditation on this fundamental human reality between the magical world of the child and that of the adult. In it we are confronted with a child that is not destined to live long enough to enter adulthood. This young girl is living in a world of fairy tales while all about her the evils of adult war and torture are unfolding. For me the film asks what value would be the disillusionment of this child who is not destined to live as an adult?  More profoundly the film also asks what disillusionment is lacking in the adults around her that allows them to carry on as they do? These adults are chasing mind abstractions not that different than the child’s. In a world of accelerating ecological disasters where most of our children’s children will most likely die (that is the truth you know), what should be the role of the stories we tell ourselves and most poignantly, the ones we tell them? Hiding from the monsters is not an option, so what are we to do?

The difficulty of psychological maturity is accepting the disillusionment that comes when we realize a dream we really wanted to believe in is not really real. The harsh truth that love dies breaks the hearts of everyone sooner or later. Sooner or later we all confront some event that teaches us very clearly that we are no more special in the eyes of nature than any of her other children; that we too will have our cup full of suffering, doubt and pain. The wise say life begins to make more sense as we get older and reflect on all that we have seen and heard, felt and feared, hoped for and achieved and hoped for and failed to achieve. They say it is only by allowing the ego dream to die that a glimpse of a deeper, truer dream comes about. The dogma dreams of the conceptual mind need to give way to the love dreams of the heart, dreams traced in your body with its unique patterns of nervous system structure: the many joys and pains that have left their tracks. This deeper dream is the one that just might be spoken between our heart and our “creator” at the one special moment set aside for us when we too return to the earth to rest in peace.

The harsh truth about a universe seemingly unconcerned with our dreams turns many adults into cynics. Many with a cheery surface persona are hiding a depth of doubt truly abysmal in its darkness. They see that birth and death are all around and recognize they too are but fruits of the same processes but they cannot bring themselves to trust in the intelligence that is on display everywhere. That intelligence seems to take no notice of oneself as an individual, yet manifests itself only through individuals; no two blades of grass are the same, no two leafs on a tree, no two trees… no two people. Ego cannot fix this. We are not, ultimately, in control. If the heart harbors doubt about trusting reality, no conscious program of over-work, over-belief, over-study or any other fanaticism will effect the depths. Something bigger than yourself must get involved. While this war is going on within there is very little real gentleness in one’s life.

Wisdom is said to come with age if a life is lived well. Our culture has no place for the wisdom of the elderly but this  matters not one whit to the truth of things. The need to allow life to unfold in its own time and in its own fashion teaches us that all the quick fix approaches so popular in our consumer culture are not going to help address this abyss in the heart. There is no special scripture to read, no pill to pop, no superhero to elect. There might need to be times we just live through, not having all the answers and not knowing if what we are doing is the “right” thing. In those times it pays to cultivate patience. In those times it pays to rest in a basic trust of that which is bigger than us all. Mindful of ecology we recognize we are living in one of those times.

The Holy Child

The thing that is all too easily forgotten about our Christian heritage is what a new ethic it introduced into the ancient world. Nietzsche grasped this better than most and although he turned against the Christian ethic of compassion for the poor as a weakening of what he considered the heroic ideals of the ancient world, he was spot on in identifying Christianity’s signature contribution to Western culture. The Christ teaches that all people are to feed the poor and comfort the needy:

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

This has been the inspiration for those involved in the production of the orphanages, hospitals and poor houses that have played such a vital role in the historical development of our society.

It was as if with the Christ story we as a society agreed about what was good. In the pagan pantheon while there was room for compassion, the society held no particular obligation of conscience to the poor, sick and old. The Christ story turned the hero worship of the great and powerful warriors and emperors on its head by holding up an outcast, itinerant teacher as one truly blessed by the gods.

Virtue has always been praised but what is considered virtuous changes with time. Virtue has not always included the aspect of innocence or childhood virginity we see in the Christian ethos. A society in which groups are worshiping say, Mars the god of war or Aphrodite the goddess of temple prostitutes or the dangerous drunken revelries of Dionysus, is a society fundamentally different than our own. It is hard for us to truly appreciate just how thoroughly the leaven of Christianity has remade the modern world. It is not that we no longer have violence, prostitution, and drunken brawls; it is just that no one is really holding them up as paragons of virtue.

The archetypal nature of our minds is well reflected in the pantheons of polytheism but the summum bonum has changed. The wisdom and folly of the world was shuffled a bit, spawning numerous stories where the outcasts are kings, underdogs win, and the weak bring down the strong. In our stories and folk wisdom we believe the best of human lives are often lived among the common people, those without fame or fortune.

All this is of a type with the story of the outcast who hung on a cross and overthrew the most powerful empire in history by the power of virtue. This new Moses rejects the temple religion of his day and the philosophies and cults of the pagans of his society. In his elevation of the child and the poor and the sick to states of beatitude, his teaching disrupts the common understanding that the rich and the powerful must be God’s favorites.

When Scrooge says, “let them die and decrease the surplus population” he is expressing a common wisdom of an age unleavened by Christian charity. That it sounds monstrous to our ears is an indication of just how thoroughly we have assimilated the Christian ethos into the modern world view. Though we tend to consider our religious heritage a stodgy killjoy full of archaic superstitions, I wonder how willing we would really be to trade it for something else. As a western culture we have toyed with blood and soil as a possible replacement during World War II, toyed with unbridled greed during the gilded age of robber barons and our own generation of criminal banking, and even toyed with the neoliberal, Ayn Rand like justifications of selfishness as the proper basis and ideal for human societies instead of altruism and mutual cooperation.

Nietzsche, again, was more perceptive than most. He saw how the Christian ethos no longer provided Western cultures enamored with science and the new humanism with a living tradition. He famously declared to the West the death of our God – and that we had killed him. Fools felt giddy with hubris but Nietzsche himself was more circumspect. What, he wondered, would replace Christianity?

A bit more than a century hence and we have our answer. Unbridled greed has locked the human race into a lifestyle dedicated to consumerism. Choking the air, poisoning the water, despoiling the land – we are paving over paradise, and we cannot stop. We built the infrastructure of the modern world using oil and the oil is running out, still we cannot stop. Unfair inequalities within countries and throughout the world are breeding ever more violent extremists, and still there is no stopping our manic production of goods. Politics has become another corporate policy; bought and sold while manipulating the public with sound bites and polls, the danger inherent in the right to vote all but emasculated. And still the happy box continues to spew its advertising allures incessantly insisting contentment is just around the corner once you own MORE. Cable may have replaced antenna and wi-fi replaced cable but that’s just froth. The largest psychological experiment in the manipulation of individuals and societies continues apace. (Ask yourself; if a major war broke out right now, something along the lines of World War II, would you feel the weight of its reality? Would our leaders? Or would the TV-Land permeated psyche be caught up in movie or cartoon like apprehensions?)

Christianity has a way of forcing us to confront our consumerism. During our holiday shopping we cannot help but notice that the local store has a hundred of this doo-dad and a thousand of this plastic whatever. In my mind I know this inventory needs to be multiplied by every store in my city and every city in my land and every land on my planet. Look at all this with the critical eye of a poor carpenter: of all this stuff, what do humans really need? The astonishing gulf between our need and our greed has become our fate. We are unable to stop.

We could choose to return to pride in workmanship. The goods purchased could be a craftsman’s delight, easily able to serve multiple generations. This is especially true if people return to that other pre-consumerism tradition of running productive households. A dwelling able to produce some of life’s necessities, well stocked with quality tools, was the type of capital that made the middle class. Consumerism plays the population for fools, having each generation start out from nothing since their parental generation’s purchases were all defined as consumer goods which go in and out of style and are not made to last decades anyway. Those benefiting from consumerism play by a totally different set of rules. Their children inherit estates, companies, portfolios and all the other accruements of the upper class. The third generation butter churn might look humble in comparison, but of such were the traditions of America once made.

If as a society we are unable to stop our headlong plunge then perhaps we need to acknowledge a higher power like any addict, but where do we turn if God is dead? The saint of ecology, Saint Francis of Assisi, perhaps left us a clue. He initiated the Christmas manger because he wanted to see for himself the sacred human child – that which is born of a woman and surrounded by animals.

Consumerism and the neoliberal economics that justify its exaltation of “free markets” is the resurrection of Moloch. We are feeding our children’s lives into the hellish maw of consumerism’s apocalyptic fires. All that plastic crap at Wallmart is not being purchased with more plastic from Chase bank as it might seem. It is being bought with blood, the blood of our children’s future.

st-francis-nativityJesus taught that all human beings are members of one family. Long before the discovery of DNA and genetics taught us there are no strangers among us hiding off in some foreign land of devils, Jesus constellated “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. In the consumer society the one avenue left to express the sacredness of our precious human life is to approach the purchase of goods for the express purpose of giving them away. The light of the holiday is that all the shoppers were participating in our society’s one big empathy practice / ritual / rite as we hunted for gifts to give to friends and loved ones. It has not been easy to turn a naturally caring and generous people into the caricature of our former American values we see around us today. The good news is our bonds of solidarity run deeper than the mind shackles of the selfishness and greed preachers.

In one way of looking at it, nothing could be easier than what we need to do to shut down the fires of Moloch.

Come out of Egypt, come out of the city, out of the desert, come to the country and look in the manger. There is dung and soil and hay under the simple roof. Respected, the animals are at peace, their hot breath warming the child. Above, a vast and cold night sky gently holds an illumination, like a reflection of the living earth as a jewel in the lotus of deep space. That which is holy is there on the hay – a human child.

Tree of Life

A student of mysticism soon discovers there is a plethora of esoteric traditions accompanying the more mainstream worship practices of any given culture. Though we might speak, for example, of Kabalism as the mystical tradition of the Jewish people or Sufism as the mystical tradition of the Muslim people, these are generalizations. In practice these things change with the times and adapt to the needs of those embracing their practices. Surveying centuries will uncover a kind of trekking through the wilderness of a culture’s meaning factory; its collective assumptions about what is real and not real and the experiences such assessments make possible.

The mystical heart of religion, while surrounded on all sides by mumbo-jumbo, is where individuals encounter the numinous, the sacred. A part of religion is social, another part is concerned with the preservation of stories and words and yet another part with cognitive maps; views, philosophies and theologies. Religion is multifaceted. By tracing the esoteric the existential aspect is placed front and center. William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is perhaps the first of the type of psychological approach that is willing to take numinous encounters at face value, as experiences that do happen to people and often have profound, lasting effects. This psychology is interested in just what it might be possible for the human psyche to experience in its extremes.

James’s work is very much a product of his Christian culture though we should be careful not to dismiss his research into the conversion experience as irrelevant outside the Protestant traditions. The role of conscience before the fear of death is an ancient doorway into altered states of mind. The ancient Egyptian having his heart weighed in the land of the dead is not wholly unrelated to the person today unexpectedly struck by their conscience and turning their thoughts to “religious matters” to desperately “work out their salvation in fear and trembling.”

Though stating it this way is using terms used by the monotheisms, the actual human life event being referred to is universal. Everywhere and every when we find clues to indicated shocked encounters with the spirit world, or to put it less poetically: with the reality of one’s own death and how the actions of one’s life, good or otherwise, compare or ‘weigh’ against the stream of humanity of which you are a part. This shakedown of the ego blinded by ignorance, greed, and lust from valuing non-selfish behaviors and altruistic motivations seems to be an inescapable step on the path towards human maturity. The nexus of death symbolism that are always found in esoteric traditions is the psychological vehicle by which one generation communicates what it has learned about this encounter with the next. Skulls and skeletons, cremation grounds, coffins and all the rest show up in religious art and esoteric practices of both the east and the west whether the message is being delivered by an aboriginal shaman, city priest or a guru.

As important as this encounter with one’s personal mortality is on the path, it is not the only ordeal that is charted in esoteric traditions. Beyond the socially derived sense of self and obligation is the most fundamental encounter of all – the mystery of consciousness itself. The question of subjectivity and objectivity is translated into personal terms when we ask what is really real. Asking this question inevitably entangles us in issues of epistemology, how do we know what we know? Here the grand philosophical conundrums of realism and idealism push cognitive comprehension to its limits. Kant, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein come to mind as modern representatives mining all the rich inheritance of previous centuries careful thought that provide us an outline of what can be said and where silence must reign. This seems to be a second inevitable encounter a human being will experience on the path towards maturation. Here the nexus of symbolism deals with illusions, emptiness, interdependence and all the other symbols of union that speaks to us of non-dual awareness. These symbols include the union of heaven and earth in ‘as above, so below,’ the union of man and woman in Tantric embrace, the union of gods and goddesses with men and women, the union of organic and inorganic as when Dogen recognized his mind was no other than the mountains and rivers and finally the union of the personal and the impersonal somewhat like the center point of the ubiquitous mandala symbol.

The shaman or mystic comes with the message that things are not at all what they seem. Allow their medicines to work on you and they will turn your world upside down like a tree whose roots are in the sky and branches reach down into the earth. Down may be the way up and in may be the way out. The enlightenment insight shares these characteristics with jokes where the punch line turns everything around.

Speaking of a tree rooted in the stars prepares the way for this week’s discussion of one of the esoteric traditions born from the Jewish symbolism, namely the Kabala. It is particularly good at illustrating these two major events on the mystic path. Here is an image of the Kabala’s Tree of Life which consists of spheres and the paths between them.

Treeoflife0The Jewish and Christian holy book starts with the story of the Garden of Eden which features a tree of good and evil and a tree of life. It should come as no surprise then to see a tree of life at the heart of an esoteric tradition related to it.

One of the ways this sigil is used in meditation and study is as an organizing framework for associations. Systems of associations are a common feature of a number of esoteric teachings. The idea is that everything we deal with in our physical and mental lives can be assigned a place somewhere on this organizing framework. The five Buddha families have played this role in Tibetan Buddhism which includes charts of what is associated with each one. These associations typically include a color, a compass direction, characteristic animals and other adornments of their ‘realms’ and an accompanying characteristic insight and ignorance, virtue and vice. Druids used types of trees as their framework for making associations, some Native Americans used the medicine wheel mandala, Sufis used the hundred names of Allah and Christians the four evangelists. In all cases the teaching tool is related to seeing the world as sacred. By associating everything to some aspect of the sacred glyph everything thereby takes on a touch of the sacred. This is the universal insight of the mystic; that even the most mundane is precious and holy, that chopping wood and carrying water are sacred acts.

We spoke in an earlier post about using the symbolism of the family to guide us to the heart of teachings. The main associations dealing with the family message of the tree of life are as follows. The second sphere is related to the father, the zodiac of stars and leads to wisdom; the third sphere is related to the mother, sea, night, tears and leads to understanding; the sixth sphere in the middle of the tree is related to the son, a king’s crown, the heart and the sun and leads to compassion and love; and finally the tenth sphere is associated with the daughter, the earth, and fertility and leads to being grounded in physical reality.

The two initiatory events are included on the tree of life glyph by the horizontal paths. They are referred to as places where the aspirant needs to cross an abyss or pierce a veil. The ego death involved in learning the value of love and compassion and the encounter with the existential roots of awareness empty of dualism are each characterized as journeys across dangerous waters or leaps off cliffs into space. The first event related to ego death is a leap into the space of the heart and is mapped on the tree by the horizontal path between the spheres seven and eight (feeling and thought). The second related to naked awareness is a leap into the space of space and is associated with the two horizontal paths connecting spheres four and five and two and three respectively. This gap between the two sets of spheres is the Great Abyss said to separate the all of the divine and eternal from the temporal and secular.

The focus of this cycle of posts is around waking up our capacity for compassion and so we will focus on the so called lesser abyss but it is worth mentioning a detail students of Buddhism will appreciate. The triangle made up of spheres one, two, and three is said to come forth from emptiness in its three forms. This is what the “Ain” above the tree indicates. Kabbalistic mysticism is fundamentally apophatic, that is, like many of the esoteric traditions it seeks its god in its absence. The not-this and not-that of Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, though not given the central place it is in eastern teachings, is not unknown to the west.

One way to understand the life challenges the tree of life is designed to teach about is to recognize the perennial generational challenge in its layout of family roles and where the abyss crossings occur. The great abyss simply separates one generation, the mothers and fathers, from the next which is made up of the sons and daughters. Like many of the great stories it presents a challenge about how the young will grow wisely enough to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The Kabbalistic teaching is that through the correct act of the son (sphere six) the daughter (sphere ten) can be raised to the throne of the mother (sphere three). Obviously on one level the correct act of the son is the act of sex; pregnancy lifts those in the role of daughter to the role of motherhood. Indeed the ninth sphere between the son and daughter is associated with the sex organs.

However the richness of associations pushes the Kabbalistic lesson considerably further than just the act of procreation. We have looked at the abuses children suffer at the hands of those not capable of healthy embodiments of fatherhood and motherhood. One does not need to be Freudian to recognize much pathology includes a sexual element. The path through sex on the tree is associated with shooting an arrow. Our word for sin means to miss the mark like an arrow missing its target. The other symbolism associated with this path is the rainbow, Biblically the symbol of peace between man and God. We say crazy people are over the rainbow and that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All this is related to the lesson this part of the tree is trying to educate us in; how to successfully navigate across this abyss.

One of the main associations not yet mentioned is how the holy name of God, Yahweh, is assigned the family spheres. One Hebrew rendering of Yahweh is IHVH. The initial I is assigned to the father in sphere two, the first H to the mother in sphere three, V the son in sphere six and the final H is associated with the daughter in sphere ten. The special act in this context is the redemption of the world. By this reading all sentient beings are female, members of the earth or samsara if you will. All sentient beings consist of a spark of awareness embodied in circumstances not of our choosing and beyond our control; life lives us. Part of the knack of wisdom is learning to embrace our restrictions and limitations, to accept with grace the causes and conditions of which we are a part yet which extend much, much farther than ourselves.

The person drawn to the esoteric path is willing to work hard to tame the mind but this is easily first understood as a willingness to storm the gates of heaven, to force the gods to do one’s bidding (echoes of Faust). This arises from our intuitions informed about the two truths that reflect our familial and existential situations. Nothing seems more important than achieving one’s spiritual goal. The whole study of associations is an example of actively using our intellect to try and construct a bridge between our ego and a perception of the world as sacred in non-dual states of consciousness. Meditation techniques, drugs, dancing and the whole host of esoteric technologies are more of the same; ways to try and force ourselves into blessedness. All these have their place but the masters both east and west are in one accord in teaching that ultimately all such forms must be set aside.

In the west it is said that ultimately one learns to wait on the Lord, to be the bride anxious for a visit from the bridegroom. The feminine, earthly soul awaits the quickening kiss of the sun / son spirit.

In the east it is said that ultimately one learns mediation without fixed forms. The aggregates rest in stillness, patiently expectant of Buddha’s dawning omniscience.

The love poetry we find in so many esoteric traditions is often a reflection of these psychological features whereby we are all the bride. The Bible’s Song of Songs, so long a puzzle to those not mystically inclined, finds its explanation here. So does some of what Carl Jung had to say about what he had discovered about the anima and animus. An important aspect of the feminine as symbol of the aspirant here is that it is a waiting in full awareness of the feelings and sensations that accompany human consciousness when it has the courage to face the cosmic without the ego hardened character armor. This waiting includes a rawness of perception and emotion we find it very difficult to maintain, requiring as it does extraordinary courage to accept just how deeply we feel what we feel.

It is not the act of sex as such that brings about the transcendence of the ego but the sharing it embodies which softens, if not dissolves, the barriers between inside and outside, self and world, you and me. This brings us to the final way in which we as Buddhists might learn from and learn to appreciate this esotericism of our western past. The colors on the tree and its overall structure have similarities to the chakra systems of the east. The middle pillar of the tree is associated with the spinal column and the right and left pillars are similar to the right and left channels found in chakra yogas. In this context it is easy to see how both traditions concern themselves with what my first teacher put this way:

“First we must get you right in your heart.”