Confessions

“In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reason in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.
The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state’ in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and places, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the ‘object’ when it is taken all alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unshareable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up.
… I think, therefore, that however particular questions connected with our individual destinies may be answered, it is only by acknowledging them as genuine questions, and living in the sphere of thought which they open up, that we become profound. But to live thus is to be religious… It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.”
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Italics in original

 

Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.

Its symbolic currency includes Death, the Devil, and Hell. Get the meaning of these wrong, what these symbolic teachings are really about, and the mind can be lead to madness, the heart can have compassion torn from it, and the body can be lead to commit suicide or “sacred” murder.

I believe that Buddhism, particularly Vajra Buddhism with its understanding of magical ways, is going to play an ever increasing role in the West as its social, economic, and spiritual collapse proceeds. The Buddhism of Tibet only had a major impact on the culture after it had integrated itself with the people’s shamanistic Bon religion. I think we are involved in something similar now, that there is a task of integration with Christianity that is needed if Buddhism as it is practiced here is going to be anything more than skin deep. That entails a conscious reconciliation with Christianity. It is not unusual in the American Buddhist circles to hear of well known American Buddhist teachers suddenly becoming Christians. These are not necessarily mistakes on their individual journeys, just less wise than it might be. As we learn to become still, sitting quietly, the traumas of our lives surface. That is the universal formulae grounded in human biology. For people raised in the Christian West this often, though not always, will include a confrontation with the religion of one’s ancestors.

I am not interested in some abstract theological argument in which people are concerned which of these traditions, Christianity or Buddhism, is “right.” I am concerned with how healing trauma takes place. Creeds can soothe the mind of a convert for awhile but their possessive glow always wears off eventually. We are concerned with a change of heart that lasts a lifetime. We are looking for something that slams the door once and for all on the power of the suicidal impulses instilled within people wounded by abuse.

For many people engaged with issues of world religion and comparative mythology the Christianity of today is a tradition that seems to lack depth. People who study the philosophy of the East are left wondering why the sacred books of the West seem to speak on the level of nursery tales, lacking psychological sophistication. For many people in the West those who talk most about jesus are seen to be little more than smug and shallow people who are moved by any number of psychological needs to push their religion – except compassion. For every Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu we seem to get 10,000 bible thumping fundamentalists coming out of the Western traditions, obsessively elitist and emotionally cruel. Reason sticks with evidence and as it was once said, by their fruit you will know them. We as a society have seen a lot of bad fruit.

Christianity in the West has all but forgotten its own contemplative traditions. As it is often understood and taught, it lacks real respect for the mystical states of consciousness inherent in the religious search (which provide the bridge between psychological science and religious faith), it has a poor grasp of the role its tales of magic and miracles plays in our dreaming and waking minds, and, perhaps most alarming, has been transformed into a farce by TV preachers and those of the “jesus meek and mild” camp or, even worse, converted into farce by the Rambo-jesus of the Holy Warriors preparing Armageddon in his name. It’s hard to imagine that jesus ever saying “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

In these posts we have talked about Buddhist concepts more often than Christian. This is going to shift. I was born within a Christian culture, it is what I know biologically. It gave me my mind’s most basic terms for clothing the mystery of being. This was not only due to the Santa Clause and Easter Egg traditions we have already talked about as operative in many American families. I further attended a private Episcopal school and spent considerable time meditating in chapel by my own choice. The corpus on the Cross made a profound impression on me as my young life fell apart. A love-hate relationship with the religion of my society has accompanied me ever since. I want to talk about what I’ve learned over the years watching myself and others deal with religious issues, Christian and otherwise. For those like myself who took Christianity in with their mother’s milk, and took it seriously, it is my hope that something I say will resonate and maybe aid your own relationship with the mythological clothing over the mysteries with which you were born. I think it has a treasure trove of profundities most people have never been taught to see. For those from cultures that are not Christian, I hope that this exploration might provide pointers for what to look for in their own traditions. We share the same biology. We share the same task of needing to make peace with what we were given.

No location on the planet is going to be left unaffected by the changing climate, sixth extinction, and the rest of the baleful bag of bad heading our way. Everywhere this wrestling with who and what we are as a species is going to be taking place, and taking place under triage conditions. It may go better if people of goodwill, religious or otherwise, can find one voice. Earth needs each person of every faith in this, her hour of trial, teaching clearly that real spirituality starts by first showing respect for the reality of what we have been given. We are not going to skillfully address the ecological crisis without addressing the need to better understand the human psyche which created the crisis. That seems to be the task. From the cave paintings on to the Louvre, we have been inescapably involved in the evolution of that realm that is as real as rocks in its own way, yet populated with the angels and demons, the as-if beings who populate the metaphorical world where we find, or fail to find, meaningful human lives.

Dogmatically insisting our metaphors are something other than what they are displays a dangerous lack of faith in that which is real. It lead to the dangerous willingness to sacrifice the real for fictions which we see all around us today. What ails us is the accelerating collapse of stable ecological systems at our own hands. We are being told that the solution for what ails us is accelerated economic growth, isolationism, war, patriotic racism, and a return to “old fashion religion.” Those who have become mindful of ecology disagree. We see other factors at play and believe other solutions are needed.

I was taught to meditate in the Vedanta fashion when I was five or six years old; the interplay of Eastern and Western thought has always been a part of the world I have known. It was decades ago that I learned what the inner parts of the Christian Mysteries mean to me and made my peace with that. I would not want to mislead any of my readers on this point by not mentioning that I am also a card carrying Catholic. I am “legally” able to attend Mass, the West’s signature symbolic ritual. It has been in the interplay between mysticism and church, atheism and faith, religion and philosophy – both Eastern and Western – that most of what has helped me deal with my own abuse has taken place. There is an element of ambiguity in all this which I have been taught over the years to see as a source of creativity, not something that needs to be escaped. I keep my mandala open in the eastern direction. Life is large, I am large, the people I know and the people I love are large – too large to be put into neat little dogma boxes.

The complete mandala is three dimensional so can only be seen with stereoscopic vision. “A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs,” William James writes, catching the fullness of the whole. We need to learn to see all sentient beings this way. In that spark of destiny dynamically being made real, we see the sacred.

The determining feature for me is not an intellectual choice to uphold this or that creed so much as it is a surrender to biological facts within my experience of conscience. This is what leads me to say I am both a Buddhist and a Christian (and a religious psychologist of sorts). Actually, I don’t say that. These are only useful as labels to convey to my readers something important about my position. The labels are bridges fraught with misunderstanding between something I sense to be important within my way of thinking, and you who are graciously reading my words. When I think about myself I tend not to consider myself either, though each have earned my loyalty. I am just a human being who has been blessed with a chance to learn from some good people how to listen to my own broken heart. Here, in the coincidence of opposites, is where I found the truth, the way, and the life, and whatever healing I have known or been able to share, old fool that I am.

One of the things I have learned, sometimes the hard way, is not to be too carried away by enthusiasms. Young men and woman full of charisma can be found shouting assuredly of their various faiths left, right, and center in America. I have learned to be a bit more patient. I am interested in how these recommended “religious” tenants and practices bear fruit in the way people actually live their lives. The temporary fruits of the moment do not interest me much. After all, the first act of a tragedy is characterized by everything seemingly going well. Show me the men and women of your faith in their 70s or 80s and let me see if their hands touch me with the unmistakable warmth of compassion and their eyes glow with a delight for life and peaceful gratitude – or if they are just frightened, terrified to face the end and struggling to keep the ego-persona in place that denies how deeply the fear has effected them.

The point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. Just as life is. The religious mythologies, in particular, display all the necessary contours of that which is of the psyche, yet larger than the individual personality. Countless people before us found these stories important and saw to it that they were handed on. Long after we are gone the same stories will still be around, continuing to influence and form the human experience for better and for worse. That which is larger than ego does not conform itself to its beck and call. The strong streak of independence in the West have left Americans thinking they are free to choose any mythology that fits their fancy, or none at all. Some even dare to twist them into any shape that seems to serve their immediate needs. Let me repeat: the point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. This is the mistake fundamentalists of all stripes make: they put god in their pocket and become all together too chummy with the great emptiness from which the ground of being flows. It is not wise to make god your personal servant, mafia don, publicity hound, the core attraction of your business plan, or the personal guarantee of your government’s foreign policy.

Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.

We will begin talking about this next week.

Dead Poet Societies

“Deep is the well of the past, shall we not call it bottomless?
Indeed we should, if – in fact, perhaps only if – the past subjected to our remarks and inquires is solely that of humanity, of this enigmatic life-form that comprises our own naturally lusty and preternaturally wretched existence and whose mystery is quite understandably the alpha and omega of all our remarks and inquires, lending urgency and fire to all our speech, insistence to all our questions. And yet what happens is this: the deeper we delve and the farther we press and grope into the underworld of the past, the more totally unfathomable become those first foundations of humankind, of its history and civilization, for again and again they retreat farther into the bottomless depths, no matter to what extravagant lengths we may unreel our temporal plumb line…”
Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers

 

This post continues our discussion of religious child abuse. It also touches on the horrors of sexual abuse by priests as it is experienced by their victims. It may not be suitable for all readers.

There are two videos linked to this essay. The first shows the power of mytho-poetic imagery to serve life, the second shows how it can be used to destroy its joy. The second one contains explicit adult material and deals with what I consider the truly demonic, namely abuses around our sexual identity carried out in the name of god. It also hints at where healing might come from in these situations. Such material can trigger people who have spiritual abuse in their past but it can also aid their healing by giving voice to that which had been gagged. Please use wisdom in deciding if viewing this material is right for you. I do not share it lightly. We are discussing these things because, I believe, they are highly relevant to the social and spiritual aspects of our ecological crisis and the ongoing collapse of our integrity and infrastructure it entails.

Stories of hero quests are meant to inspire us. Tales of dragons slain and mountains climbed let us know that those who went before us were able to overcome the evils of their day and that they were able to obtain the vision of the mountaintop. Stories told to the young inspire them to find their own voice. The poets have cast a net of words around those elements of life that move us immediately and directly, bringing tears to our eyes, groans to our chests, and, at times, laughter midst amazement at it all. They act as guides for the in-between places where soul or psyche is found. It exists midway between the physicality of the body and its emotions, and the mercurial thoughts and intuitive insights our nervous systems host. Poetry uses words to evoke images and images to evoke words not of the mind but of the chest, words that echo as if resonating from the well of deep time.

The dreams of the heart, those that inspire us emotionally, are able to encompass their audacious desires only in tales of magic and miracles. Reason knows miracles are so highly improbable as to be, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Yet, when the heart talks it evidently needs these images drawn from the imagination since we find them in all times and in all places humans have been. This is how the heart guides reasoning, aiding it in where and how it should be applied. We have seen with the work of neuroscientist Damasio that emotion is necessary to reasoning well, providing the reason for reasoning. Or, as Pascal had it, “The heart has reasons reason does not know.” Faith is the idea that reason can justifiably trust in these things greater than itself.

Robin Williams’ masterpiece, The Fisher King, turns a compassionate artist’s eye to the issue of healing the mind traumatized by the violence of the modern world. Respecting the gravity of soul, it necessarily also respects the role of images in the mind of the victim, alienated from consensual reality, lost in their pain. The movie explores the dangers of mixing poetry and prose, that which is a metaphor and that which is literal and does so without losing sight of the ultimate healing such dangerous moves by the psyche are seeking by insisting on leading the personality towards wholeness. This earns Robin a special place in my book. I’d like to let him speak for the poets rightly understood. Here is a fine video that captures the work of the poets as a guide for the young, indeed, for all those who remain young at heart to the day they die. It is based on his work in Dead Poets Society.

“Carpe Diem, seize the day, gather your rose buds, while you may.”

This balance between the head and the heart, which poetry accentuates, is the essential challenge of a human life. In that balance we find our middle way, a way that gives the proper due to both our thoughts and our feelings. The head or the reasoning ability provides us with powerful truth seeking tools. We have the ability to recognize what data is relevant, how a theory can explain what we find, and how to clearly communicate those findings with others. Mathematics serves that clarity and allows us to make bridges and skyscrapers that do not fall down and all the other boons engineering provides. It also allows us to communicate the degree of our unknowing and confidence. This proves to be critical in both sciences and engineering as well as in decision making and the rational creation of public policy. The heart, on the other hand, gives us our arts. The theater, and today movies, can share stories with us that speak so intimately to our own unique needs and dreams that they become touchstones for the rest of our lives. This is what happens to people of faith with their core religious story. This is one of the powers of stories and has been understood in the West since at least the ancient Greeks. With the help of math we are able to build a bridge that will not fall down under the weight of cars and trucks. With the help of stories we build an inner bridge between the person we are today and the person we want to become tomorrow, one that will not fall down under the weight of daily disappointments and setbacks.

For many people in the past, and many alive today, the most important story of all in their lives are the ones that tell of their religious faith. Faith, broadly understood, is what the poets are concerned with. Poetry involves intellectual elements placed in service of a soul-task. Words are used to point beyond words to the actual experience of living unmediated by cognitive filters. Training in faith we slowly learn to become comfortable in the unknown and unknowable. We learn we need not fear that which will forever exceed the intellect alone. It is assuredly true that the unexamined life is not worth living, the philosophers correctly  insist that their love of wisdom is an essential ingredient of a life lived well. The poets, however, remind the philosophers that a life not lived fully has little material worth examining!

Here is the point. Carl Jung insisted that he found religious imagery in the dreams of his patients. He found that imagery was indispensible to the healing of the psyche. This means minds subjected to spiritual abuse suffer a confusion at a very profound level. Images of god, Self, light, angels, beauty and truth are normally bringers of peace, strengthening the mind of the dreamer for the tasks of maturity and responsibility the day brings. Kids with a healthy faith find that the religious imagery bubbling up in their dreams is supporting their efforts at learning and growing into their own unique selves. Kids who have suffered under the wickedness of spiritual abuse do not have this foundation on which to build a life. Nightmares dominate such kids night lives and the repression of them steals the energy they could of used to deal more skillfully with their day lives. For them all the imagery associated with religious thought has been marred, perverted from its life serving causes and turned into a death dealing one. The ideas of god, devil, heaven, hell, love, compassion, and on and on – all are no longer sources of strength but triggers for re-traumatizing. Spiritual abuse is a uniquely twisted form of abuse in the sense that to heal from trauma typically requires the strength found in a new, adult chosen faith. This is very hard for those who have been cut to the quick by the churches.

REASON – emotion
reason – EMOTION

In the Calculus and other such endeavors we shift our attention towards the reasoning end of the reason-emotion spectrum. Big reason, little emotion is as far into objectivity as we embodied beings reach. In myth and poetry our attention shifts towards the emotional end of the reason-emotion spectrum. Big emotion, little reason is as far into subjectivity as we embodied beings reach. Beauty and harmony lead the mathematician towards truth, these are the emotional elements playing their role. A logical consistency within the altered physics of a mythology remains as the rational element, giving coherence to the overall picture images.

The real environment in which a human being will live out every day of their lives consists of the rather mundane. Graveyards and gardens, toilets and supper, dirty dishes and mended fences are everywhere. There are moments, however, when it is all transformed and we are struck by awe unutterable. Tales of magic and miracles exist side by side with this human experience, capturing something of the wholeness evolved from this mix of the mundane and the numinous. The tales help us by clothing what it is like at times to experience our experiences, to be authentically human. Myth and poetry agree it feels like magic when we fall in love, that it feels like god heals us when we are comforted in the midst of our afflictions, it feels like we could fly over mountains, feed the hungry, and comfort all the afflicted when we are filled with the flowing powers of life. Myth and poetry are not interested in expressing absolutes, they point beyond themselves for their referents. We in the modern world have been taught to dismiss these referents because we are taught that how a person might feel about things is basically worthless. We are smart in so many ways, and yet we are astonishingly symbolically illiterate. There is something very, very real being expressed in these stories, something we could grasp no other way.

The abused are moving through this mundane world with a burden. They carry the effects of trauma in their bodies, an anchor of the truth about their own life stories and yet, before it is healed through compassionate acceptance, it also acts as the milestone by which they can drown. In sorrow. In confusion. In fear. Hurting people seek relief. There are not many life enhancing reliefs to be found in a culture dominated by the idea of keeping people in need of endless purchasing for acquiring status and self worth. The hurt who survive are able to find some immediate relief, be it in drugs, sex or strange religion, that at least lets them get through the long night. In these ways “they too can be ‘Heroes’, if just for one day.” That the immediate reliefs bring their own problems is just more of the complicated nature of abuse psychology. Without the immediate relief most of these victims would be worse off, they would be dead.

Healing involves addressing the burden. This involves facing terror, the Guardian on the Threshold that holds the “thought that dare not be thought, the feeling that dare not be felt.” Because the victim has been taught by their abuse some form of the “it’s for your own good” lie, they also believe, at some level, that they deserved whatever abuse they suffered. To face the terror involves seeing clearly they did not. One gives up fantasies of pure evil spawned by the supernaturally powerful devil of our stories, for the tragic truth that there are only people – and the things they do to one another. It is terrifying to look on the face of evil. But it is something the human being can survive.

Abuse is basically one single lesson, though it is taught in the different forms we see abuse taking: sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual. That one lesson is that “I, great being that I am, is why the universe exists. You, little being that you are, exist only to serve my whims. Fail to please me and I will wipe you out.” Playing ventriloquist with jesus as your meat puppet doesn’t change things one bit.

What kind of home do you live in? The Logical Spectrum of Existence
evil creation by an evil god — neutral creation — good creation by a good god
H.P. Lovecraft’s Gnostic “piping idiot god” – ? – Bible’s “and god saw that it was good”

The abused need to learn that the universe that sick human beings taught them they live in is not the universe as it actually is. They have come to believe that existence is at its root one of unpredictable violence, where good and innocence is always victimized, man’s reasoning is powerless to make any real sense of an existence defined by paradox, and human emotions can only confuse the mind further by blinding it to the double binds it is forced to believe. They live in a world of madness, one created by an evil god: the view of the unhinged psyche. Healing cuts through this image of existence, delivers the victim from the hypnotic prison in which the abusers had placed their soul.

Most all forms of abuse are carried on by people who twist their own hearts and minds into convoluted rationalizations for their pain causing behavior. It is a rare human being that wants to be evil for its own sake, a very small percentage of the race is so fully psychopathic. Most evil is committed by people who are quite convinced that what they are doing is, in some perverted way, serving the greater good. Something gets twisted along the way, turned upside down, turned the wrong way around. Now I happen to think that as part of the healing process the wounds from these very acts of evil are turned into strengths of character, though never fully losing their poisonous sting. When healing happens, IF healing happens, this transformation is something the divine, the Self, god or one’s angel brings about. This is what Carl Jung was at pains to point out, that something greater than ego is involved, that there is a reality to the psychological realm where demons and angels dwell. Healing is not something human beings have any right to count on. It does not give the abusive room to dismiss the full cruelty of their actions. Such healing, this placing of crowns where there had been scars, is not something that always happens. Many lives just stay messed up, viciously hurting themselves and others until the day some tragic death, at their own hand or another’s, finally brings them peace.

How did all this come about? How is it that the human mind can be so deformed that existence itself becomes too painful to bear? What is the root of this sickness of the soul? I think the root cause is reading myth and poetry literally. Those who do so betray the love and concern of our ancestors. We are not powerless in the face of this confusion, not by a long shot. A single rational thought can dynamite a whole edifice of confusion and lies. It doe not matter how colorful its facade might be painted or how tempting the seducers of false certainties might be. Once you know you know, you know. And there is no turning back.

Something like this one-way event happened when the sexual abuse scandal hit the Catholic church. It is not just that these things happened but it is in how they were covered up and allowed while the princes of the church were busy hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. It seems to me that history is leading the West in the direction of St. Francis’ vision of a poor church mixed in with liberation theology’s witness to the truth that Amnesty International knows about empire and torture, all spiced with a repentant attitude of sackcloth and ashes. The Abomination of Desolation has been placed in the Holy of Holies. The central symbolic institution of the West for the last 2,000 years has been corrupted, or at least attacked, at its core. It is now The Next Day. If church spokesman in the future put up justifications for holy nuclear war, it will only be more fuel for the fire that has already been kindled.

We are left wondering what might be happening to the reality of these psychological symbols within all of us who inherited this mytho-poetic tradition. The reality of the psyche and the symbolism by which it feeds is involved in an earthquake within Christianity. That reality is not separate from the ecclesiastical institutions but not wholly subsumed in them either. They leak, as it were, into the public square. The United States is not alone in suffering strange politics due, at least in part, to reversals in religious symbolism. The scandals in Catholicism and the hardening of fundamentalism among the Evangelicals seen in the United States correspond to the earthquakes we see in the other monotheisms: the rigid political Zionization of Judaism and the appeal to violent Jihad among Muslims. Nor does the East escape the quake. We all live in societies inspired by dead poets.

The Imaginal

“So it is best to think of moral progress as a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things.”
Philosophy and Social Hope, Richard Rorty, italics in original

 

The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, and the thought is not the thing it refers to. Yet these representational images are not nothing; they have power.

MagrittePipeIt is true what it says; it cannot be filled, it cannot be lit, it is not a pipe.

The modern human environment is one saturated with images, representations created by, for the most part, advertising agencies and their clients. They serve a single purpose, pursue a single goal: to convince people who already own a lot that they need to have more. In the world they craft it is sensible that those well off should occupy themselves with increasing their store of goods and services the planet has to offer as opposed to doing something else with their current abundance.

It is a bit astonishing. Studies show how short-lived the buyer’s high actually is and supporting the consumerism habit is an all encompassing endeavor requiring full time jobs and all the rest. You would think numerous dissenting populations would be found scattered throughout our society but we do not see that. This mono-myth has captured the social imagination. Even while running faster and faster just to stay in place and seeing our very earth-home being poisoned and mangled species after species, mountain after mountain, and sea after sea it is impossible for us as a society to imagine any viable alternative to business as usual. The economic growth paradigm by which we have organized our fossil-fueled industrial civilization no longer serves the interests of our species but we are unable to voluntarily replace it.

It is not replaced because by and large the great majority of the members of these societies do not really object to the agenda being promoted by the advertisers of business as usual. The economic growth paradigm allowed increasing numbers of families to find relatively secure circumstances. Among our deepest human needs are those that seek to provide for and support those we love, our family and friends. Humans have always sought these things. So the advertising art did not need to invent its seductions out of whole cloth, the ingredients were handed to them ready made, as it were. Their art consists of hijacking our empathy that leads us to provide for one another.

The mono-myth works through an obfuscation. As our societies grew ever more secular they became prey to various attempts to move heaven to earth, to re-clothe the old religious imagery in more mundane garb. We see this in the gladiator games, sex gods and goddesses, heroic quests and always, always either explicitly or in the background, the implied belief that somewhere there is a charmed circle of “beautiful people” for whom life on earth is perfectly satisfying. They own all the right things, look the right way, know all the right people, and do whatever is exciting, dangerous, sexy, cool or otherwise awesome about being alive. This is our consumer paradise. It is what we see when we pull back the veil on our worlds of television, movies and internet.

This is the power of images.

The whole world has become bewitched by this tantalizing chimera. The vision of the consumer paradise convinces its acolytes that pursuing it will provide them with a meaningful life. Our communication devices have indeed brought us closer together than ever, sewing opportunities for compassionate understanding everywhere but they are also a Pandora’s Box. The unleashing of the consumer paradise meme from within the nexus of our societal self-reflections as found on all our screens, which Michael Greer aptly dubbed our prosthetic imagination, diverted the care and concern once expressed towards family, neighbors and neighborhoods into alienating narcissism. Shorn of the intimate ties to people and place that once provided meaning and security the naked consumer is born. Stripped of the compassionate tenor of interpersonal interactions in a society that places competition above all other values, getting ahead becomes the one sanctioned activity.

Looking at how many billions of dollars are spent annually on the advertising that props up this world view I cannot help but entertain some deliciously subversive thoughts. It looks to need a serious effort to co-opt these altruistic tendencies we find among friends and family. Helping others, being of benefit to others is obviously a viable alternative world view. Many people over the centuries have formed meaningful lives in the service of others instead of shopping. Those billions of ad dollars providing content for our prosthetic imaginations basically drown that signal in their barrage of hymns to the consumer paradise.

I have had moments where the whole PR-drawn cognitive environment in which we live suddenly looks both starkly manipulative and tawdry. At those times it seems obvious to me that we have a freedom to choose to extend the same efforts towards teaching and promoting empathy and compassion that we currently invest in teaching and promoting violence, competition and narcissism. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – what the human mind creates the human mind can undo.

There are two points I’d like to make and then will wrap up on a practical note. The first point is that as our growth paradigm continues to stumble and fall on its way towards tomorrows defined by limits to growth, the societies that have taken the vision of the consumer paradise to their bosoms will be facing more than just a crisis of infrastructure and energy delivery. A loss of faith is an equally devastating feature. There is a real danger that the cognitive dissonance that propped up this vision in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary will collapse, leaving people feeling like they wasted their lives pursuing the wrong goals. They will also react with a disproportionate anger to the loss since it involves religion as much as Wall Street.

The second point is more personal. We live in an age of decadence where everything goes. It takes but a few clicks to access any perversion, absorb images of any conceivable violence and generally saturate oneself in the hyper-real. Parents have been warning their beloved children about ‘those parts of town’ forever. Today the parents – inner and outer – are stunned and mute as that part of town became town. Cutting at the fiber of the intimate relations of conscience and concern has poisoned the strength of human dignity. Dignity comes from respect; respecting what it is to be a human being, respecting the earth by whose bounty such being is possible and respecting one another as equal in this being. With dignity we are able to face into the winds of change from the storms of the age and not flinch. No shallow, manipulative self-esteem program is going to deliver the goods if this fundamental respect is lacking. We cannot stop the billions of dollars being poured into catering to our basest desires and spreading traps for the unwary who are ignorant of just what is at stake here. We can however choose not to participate in the worst of it.

Which leads to a practical point: Learn to fear becoming desensitized! Only partly tongue in cheek: save the splattering of brain pans and the chopping up of bodies to the shamanic visualizations and save the sexually charged images for making love or other moments of non-dualism. Then they remain effective tools of the psyche’s transformation. If the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted?

The contemplative is learning to tame the mind. Time spent with the mind brings profound respect for the power of its various states. Most of those states are mediated to consciousness through images of one sort or another. Images can drive a jealous person into a murderous rage or trap a fearful person in their paranoia. They can drive people crazy and, it is taught, they can lead to the very edge of enlightenment. Taming the mind begins by recognizing its power and evolves to involve working with its images to ultimately transcend them. Last week we looked at a mandala and I offered a few suggestions about how it might be seen to be expressing something meaningful. Here is another one. Those gates on the square have guardians in them. These guardians of the thresholds protect the treasures that lie within. The gates are our senses. Remain watchful over what images you allow to penetrate your inner sanctum.

Like all things, even the actions of these protectors is best in moderation. There is no wisdom in going overboard and cutting off all contact with the imaginal discourse of our societies. Nor am I suggesting you expose yourself only to what the ego finds most comfortable. Our social nature is nurtured through our socio-linguistic and imaginal games. We reach others’ hearts using them. What I suggest is we train in picking and choosing them skillfully.