The Church of Child Abuse, part one

“People don’t you understand
the child needs a helping hand
or he’ll grow to be an angry young man someday.
Take a look at you and me
are we to blind to see?
Or do we simply turn our heads
and look the other way?”
Mac Davis, In The Ghetto

“Psychological maltreatment, also known as emotional abuse and neglect, refers to ‘a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or extreme incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs.'”
A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice
quoting Hart & Brassard Psychosocial evaluation of suspected psychological
maltreatment in children and adolescents: APSAC practice guidelines

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Jesus

 

This essay deals with childhood spiritual abuse, it may not be appropriate for all readers.

First I would like to say a word about where I see this work around religious subjects fitting into the context of the concerns those mindful of ecology have. I see no way to gain religion’s support for healing the rupture between earth and humankind other than to call out its dark side for what it is. It could well be that as the collapse of Homo Colossus proceeds people will eventually turn on the institutions and traditions that failed to help the human race in its hour of need. The political, religious, and educational institutions have all, so far at least, utterly failed to take the seriousness of our overshoot predicament seriously. Of these institutions only religious traditions speak directly to the question of whether we find ourselves in a universe worth living in or not. Since we are collectively acting suicidally, it is an important question. If the die-off due to ecological collapse proceeds as expected between now and the year 2100, as the costs mount and the wars rage, the question of whether or not self-conscious awareness is worth the price will live in people’s hearts, not as an academic question but as one deciding between life and death. Mainstream society today is incapable of realistically imagining the next few decades as the ecologists have sketched out their most probable trajectories. Instead, the mainstream society swings from total denial (“Power Through Impossible” the oil industry teaches us) by the Wall Street crowd on the one hand, to denial that it matters (on “The Late Great Planet Earth”) by the Christian Rapture crowd on the other. I believe both positions are mistaken and that this will become obvious to everyone eventually. As one ugly year continues to follow another, and another, and another… eventually we can expect a type of psychological tipping point when denial and repression, fantasy and wishful thinking no longer work to paper over the very real disasters eating away at our stable climate and food supplies. I am interested in how mythology, and the religions of today that have institutionalized bits of it, will fare at that time. There is great strength to be found in faith for dealing well with difficult times. Faith believes this is a good life in a basically good universe. It is a message all but lost by those who “do the work of satan while they dress like saints” as Bowie had it. Perhaps religion can be purged from the lies and liars currently spreading little more than confusion in its name. That, anyway, is my hope. There is a role for contemplatives in Dark Ages, perhaps we should use this time to prepare what we can. We need to learn how to stand up and say NO to god as bully.

The title of this essay could be misunderstood. I do not think we can say this religion is right and this religion is wrong. I do believe we can say, if we are humble and careful, that this way of being religious is right and that this other way of being religious is wrong. This is an important step forward. We need to call a spade a spade to understand the dark side of religion.

This is not to say all religions are equal, far from it. I do think some religious ideas are inherently dangerous, meaning that believing in them will lead you astray, away from a meaningful human life. One such, with relevant dangers for a nuclear armed world under accelerating ecological collapse, is the ancient belief that humans can gain favor with god, immortality, and magical powers by shedding the blood of others, typically children – be it on altars or battlefields. I consider Frazer’s Golden Bough, particularly the newer abridgement, required reading for anyone interested in religion, as indispensable in its own way as William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.

Religious indoctrination that amounts to little more than sewing double binds to trap minds into fear-based loyalty to god’s self-proclaimed and self-selected salesmen is wrong. In fact, from the point of view of the precious uniqueness of each sentient being, that mysterious something we call a personality and recognize to likely be unique across all of deep time, it might be the most wrong of the wrongs human beings can commit. When this happens religion has then enslaved a human bodymind, through the creation of trauma, with the purpose of demanding their allegiance to institutionalized abstractions, in place of an allegiance to their actual life as it is given to them to experience it. Possessed, souls enchanted, they may come to the end of their days only to discover that who they personally were never really fully showed up in their own life, that the potentials of the little boy or little girl they once were had been buried alive under ceaseless role playing.

“Let the children to come unto me.”

Life is hard. Religious stories are meant to aid us, strengthening us to meet the inevitable tragedies of our lives and carry on with a modicum of peace and joy in-spite of them. They embody the wisdom of how self-consciously mortal creatures can walk with dignity through well lived lives. Many of the lessons in our religious stories deal with very adult issues related to suffering, death, evil, and loss. Here is the rub. The stories are necessarily first introduced into the minds of children who are incapable of fully and properly understanding them. Knowing this causes us to seek means of correcting this error without compounding it (Eggs and Santa). We say the faith of childhood must be replaced with that of adulthood. There is a lot of psychology packed into that phrase. It involves enthroning reason above imagination and the day consciousness of the ego and its survival goals above the night consciousness and its labrythian meanderings. It is as if we were born upside down. With great care biology and society prepares the bodymind of the child as if it were an egg shell that will break to allow the adult to emerge. Religious symbolism plays a part in that preparation because it is intimately linked to our physiology.

The bodymind of the child, and of the older people around them, know that soon the all the powerful force of evolutionary deep time’s engine is going to awaken in their crotch. When that happens it will turn their upside down world right side up, and do so by turning their childhood ego upside down, humbling it in the process. It involves the ego learning what it must serve, which is so much more than only reproduction as evolutionary theory would have it, but never is it separate from the obligations of reproduction either. Ego is confronted with its unexpected responsibility: that it has a soul to care for as it works its way along its path to a grave, that it is involved in a mind and body that is one in thought and feeling.

It is a real struggle to set aside the magical thinking of our childhood and accept the evidence of our senses that those we love, and we ourselves, must die. Though our stories are filled with tales of immortality and spirits soaring among the stars sustained by magical powers, our lives are inevitably lived, in fact, with our feet on the ground. An adult fundamentalist simply cannot believe with the same naivety that a child can. This I think is what many well meaning adults do not understand and it causes considerable unnecessary tragedy. We should also understand this as a society better than we do. It could be put this way: when it comes to “faith” the child will walk off a metaphorical cliff, whereas a non-psychotic adult will suddenly find the power of rationalization and be overcome with a sudden bout of common sense under the same circumstances. The adult’s reaction may not be a stellar example of making sense, but it will make sense in a way the mind of the child simply cannot before it has been restructured into the adult brain. We see there is a spectrum of the literalism error, with children who are taught deceptively occupying the farthest outpost.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to sin, it would be better for him if a great milestone were put around his neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

Children of the human race are voracious story sponges. Brains building life long scaffoldings are calling the shots from deep time in all the little people around us. This process is vulnerable to traumatic events that can thwart the intended outcomes. It is obvious that children are vulnerable physically. What we have learned by studying the psyche is that they are emotionally and cognitively vulnerable as well. Children who have had their vulnerability exploited, far beyond the necessary lessons around our innate gullibility, have brains altered by the trauma they have known. Life long brain changes become linked to their destiny, their fate. Instead of the egg of adult personality being broken by the emerging psyche from the inside in its own good time, some clumsy oaf has broken into it with all the gracefulness of a jackhammer.

Deep time has hosted traumatized human brains since the beginning and has ways of dealing with the disproportionate fear and terror their unhinged imaginations can cause. Those shamanistic ways are symbol rich because they must deal with the underlying physiological “tensions” traumatic events have anchored in the body. Symbols, as we have discussed, turn one side towards conscious understanding but the other side remains oriented towards the dark depths of biological intelligence. Ego can communicate with what is beyond ego in this way and, in that sense, religious symbols play an indispensable role in the formation of the human psyche.

What, then, is religious child abuse? How do we talk about crossing the line between the religious education of children and religious child maltreatment? Does religious child abuse always involve sexual or physical abuse as well? No. Does it always involve strange satanic rituals? No. Does religious child abuse always involve emotional abuse? Yes. An internet search on the term ‘spiritual abuse’ will turn up numerous definitions, many quite good, others just fodder in the atheism wars. Here are a few of my thoughts to add to the mix.

Religious Abuse is creating serious mental health issues in the name of God. Or, to state the same thing in the language we used before psychology: creating serious wounds in the soul, damning it on earth to a life of confusion, self-destructive behaviors, and inescapable terror filled nightmares, all of which steal any chance at unscarred happiness that person may have had in the one and only life that personality will ever know.

The Trauma God:
Let me introduce you to the god of the evil cosmos we touched on last week. It appears when we worship god as trauma: life twisting, joy destroying trauma. This is not a god of Love but a god of Hate, forever angry at you every minute of your life and “justly” looking forward to watching you suffer in hell for all eternity. He (and it is a ‘He’ and only a ‘He’)  hosts an eye in the sky watching your every move, recording and never forgetting or forgiving your every slipup of an obscure rule set, one less clear than the accusations against Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial. Oh, and he knew you were predestined to your fate of eternal torture before he created you, which he did because he loves you. . . What a crock of shit. This is nothing more than a thin veneer on the ultimate “I am doing this for your own good” abuser fantasy.

A meaningless universe created purely by chance is preferable to this malignant nightmare. At least in a meaningless universe even though love might be delusional it is not sickly twisted and, importantly, I get to roll my own dice. A meaningless universe created purely by chance is just the universe science posits, as it turns out, perhaps in no small part as a reaction to this Gnostic heresy gaining such ground among the fundamentalist fringes both within and without the mainstream monotheisms. Faith in the non-trauma god is, of course, a belief in a good universe where what love teaches us about its innermost workings is seen as worthy of our trust. Those who have suffered religious abuse biologically believe in this trauma god and its universe, their bodymind learned from the evidence of the abusive experiences that their life in the world will only lead to days of more suffering and pain without hope of healing or redemption. Such hurt people are, in my experience, best off spending some years away from all religions. They need to learn to go play as if god had said only one commandment: “go, and be happy.” The scientific point of view of a neutral universe can bring considerable healing and freedom from the superstitious fears that have been planted in the unconscious mind of those who were enslaved to the trauma god’s evil universe like this. The jump from evil universe to good universe is too much to take in one leap if you bring your integrity with you. Where was this so-called good god when your soul was crushed and skewered? Only time has the real balm for those hurts because in time you will be able to trace how the wound becomes a gift of character (assuming it does not destroy you during the transformation process).

Religious Abuse is using religious imagery to unhinge the reasoning mind, remove emotional balance, and create physiological anchors that trigger panic anytime the victim begins to question the truth of the cultic dogma, the authenticity of the cultic authority, or in any other way attempts to leave the cult. The core of spiritual child abuse is seeding the child’s mind with fear of their own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations. Ultimately, the evil in this abuse aims to interfere with an individual’s unique sense of conscience about what is right and wrong, “the still small voice.” The natural understanding our mammalian bodies are born with, knowing how to feed the personality on the nourishment of love and compassion, is changed into a fear of the same. Hate is offered as love. To believe what you are told as a victim of such confusion, that what you are experiencing is love, is to create a civil war between what your mind thinks and what your body knows.

Religious Abuse is using religion as a scapegoat mechanism. Dysfunctional families tend to choose one member to be the scapegoat, the black sheep. This dynamic already is a difficult one to deal with. Add the self righteousness of a fundamentalist family and the shadow projection onto the one chosen as scapegoat becomes extreme, an extremity poets might capture by calling it a demonic injection. Adults with real problems can displace their unhealed burdens into their children culminating in the creation of the black sheep. The black sheep has been chosen to not succeed in life, to fail spectacularly. That will confirm the white sheep in their faith. The family role of the scapegoat is to display what the rest of the family fears, namely, that a life lived outside the cult is one ruled by demons.

Respecting Minds

It is so easy to overlook the astonishing capabilities of the human mind. Like fish who do not notice the water they swim in, our immediate experience of mind is so familiar we simply take it for granted. To successfully navigate the practical concerns of day to day life is a major accomplishment, one for which we as a species have yet to learn to give ourselves enough credit for. What the mind is able to accomplish is downright humbling when examined fully and should lead us to respect its abilities and, perhaps even more importantly, its vulnerabilities.

Consciousness seems to consist of a collection of factors which must be kept in dynamic balance. Mind seems to do this by a series of cybernetic-like adjustments which allows it to stay on track. Psychological development is never a straight line from point A to point B but more like the way a sailboat proceeds, tacking first to the right and then to the left. A moment of excess marks the trespass into extremes and the need to change course if sanity is to maintain its even keel.

Take a moment to consider the contents of your mind. We balance an awareness of our mundane and earthly position with a simultaneous awareness of our cosmic position in our galactic neighborhood and the unspeakable immensities of space. Alongside a thought about the ancient vastness of the night’s starry sky and pondering the meaning of human existence in the grand scheme of things, will come another thought trying to decide if the sandwich you are currently making would benefit more from Djon or yellow mustard. We maintain an awareness of grand themes playing themselves out in the theaters of international relations and the history of ideas spanning centuries and millennia, side by side with an intimate knowledge that our own allotted span on the stage of human affairs will run but a small handful of decades, if we are fortunate. Whatever might be the purpose of the stars and the grand scheme of things, each morning when we awake we are able to dedicate our energies (some people and some days with more enthusiasm than others) towards the indispensable needs of the individual life we are living – consuming our sandwich we are off to work or school or to find a mate, change a diaper, hoe a garden, pay our taxes or blow our noses.

There are also the balancing acts of the heart no less necessary if conscious awareness, just good old everyday conscious awareness, is going to function properly. Heart’s emotions intermingle with rational cognitions just exactly as language based thinking intermingles with images born from memory or imagination. We recognize our own bodies have needs of nourishment which must be balanced each day with the equally legitimate claims of others. We are aware of the suffering and needs of those sentient beings all around us and our hearts go out to them in their distress. One part of us remains aware, always, that right now an innocent is suffering reprehensible cruelties, be it from war, miscarriages of justice, or abuse. One part of us remains aware, always, that at this time there are lover’s vows being exchanged, babies being born and made, artists completing great works of beauty, and moments of sacred grace descending into the mystic’s breast. In the heart we balance our fierce love for our mates, if we are coupled, with a determined hatred to oppose anyone or anything that refuses to grant them the respect they deserve. This is another difficult balancing act our minds are accomplishing ceaselessly on behalf of maintaining our sense and sanity. These opposites are representative. The tension they create constitute the basis by which consciousness is conscious.

This stressful weight of knowledge is ever present to our minds, pressuring them in every moment to avoid what we fear and obtain what we desire. And what opposes all that? We find ways to balance this survival imperative with a more carefree attitude. If our lives are not to be wall to wall nightmares, we need to have times and places in which we allow ourselves to bask in the warm, peace-filled glow of contentment. The emotions and intuitions around gratitude, safety and well-being cannot be strangers to our everyday awareness as well. Yet the will ever beckons, there is the next valley to be crossed and the next mountain to climb on our endless hunt for our rainbows by which we might reconcile our individual existence with the whole of existence. In the interplay of opposites, which is the play of consciousness, even the proper gratitude can be taken too far and leave us kneeling and groveling (or simply drunk) when we should remain standing upright, shoulders back, capable and self-reliant.

Moment by moment our mind must balance the energetic alertness our nervous systems maintain as they are primed to be on the lookout for unexpected dangers, at all times ready to zero in on threats, with the relaxed, kaleidoscopic perception of the general reality of our environment which we understand does not contain these active threats most of the time. Every moment we combine a dismal fear of the future, quite rational for mortals subject to pain, with hope that this same future will bring us satisfaction. We all know some dreams come true and some tragedies strike wholly unexpectedly. We balance knowing these things are simultaneously true as we carry on performing the tasks of the present moment.

In what is perhaps the most profound balance of all, consciousness arises ceaselessly from the exact point at which the past disappears into emptiness and the future springs forth from the same. We balance the fact that the past is gone – that it was once real and now can be found nowhere while implied everywhere – with the fact that the future, as such, does not exist. There is a continuity in this kiss between the contained and the container that forms the essence of our time-riding consciousness. It is so mundane and yet so profound. One way we experience this psychologically is as our hope and fears for the future balanced against our pride and regrets from the past. It is from this crucible that wisdom is said to be born.

We altogether too easily take for granted this complex balancing of mind that allows us to navigate consciously in the cosmos. Taking all this and more for granted, we are often discontent, searching for more; we need a fix, an answer, a final understanding. I think we would be better served if we understood consciousness to be a very hard thing to create well in this universe as it really is, and that the mind as we experience it and the universe as we experience it participate equally in an ongoing act of creation’s manifestation in each unique, fleeting moment. We needn’t fear that each moment includes an irreducible element of novelty and the unknowable; it is ok that every detail doesn’t exist pre-planned in some cosmic mind. It seems instead that mind works in time, hard, calling on all the powers and forces of animate and inanimate existence to aid in its ongoing emergence. It seems that the uncertainty principal we find down among the sub-atomic particles extends right through the exercise of the free will we experience most intimately. Free or determined, particle or wave, mass or momentum, timelessness or time: these are the grand opposites mind plays with as if the paradox of their extremes were of no concern.

Our minds are born curious. To guide them through the difficult process of learning they have developed the ability to contrast that which is experienced as real with that which is experienced as a dream. From this most basic contrast among phenomenon the ego is able to establish what psychology has termed the reality principal. Hemmingway colorfully referred to this as the mind’s “bull shit detector.” It is a direct manifestation of the archetypal Self in so far as incorporates not just the ego but the personal and collective unconscious aspects of consciousness as well. The ego alone is not allowed to decide what is real and what is not, though it often wishes it could. The ego must learn to bow before that which makes the real seem real to it. It must embrace the Kantian categories of time, space and causality trustingly. Which leads us back to the subject of magic and miracles we looked at in last week’s post.

Is there evidence for a miracle-causing supernatural realm wholly outside the perception of humanity, as the priests claim? Is there evidence that magic works and that holy men have powers far beyond that of us normal mortals? Can the ego find in these tales of magic and miracles some real foundation for its hope to become immortal and forever blessed? This is how the BS detector takes on the subject of religion. Eastern or Western makes no difference since both abound in tales of magic and miracles.

I am going to suggest that this search for evidence for magical power has two results. In the realm of physical manifestations the evidence supports the null hypothesis. No miracles in the walking-on-water and severed-heads-being-restored variety are ever found to exist. It is always trickery, altered states of consciousness, or hearsay one is left with at the end of careful investigations of claims that these types of magical things have come to pass. On the other hand, there are the types of magical power involved with human psychology. There are love potions and death spells, holy incantations and powerful rites and ceremonies galore. The evidence for this kind of magic having a real world affect is rather abundant. Psychology is just beginning to grapple with some of what is involved when one human mind exerts “undue influence” over another. The proliferation of destructive cults in our midst has made this subject of “brainwashing” a very practical one for psychologists to deal with. Though today we call the visible, physical results of curses psychosomatic illnesses, that new label doesn’t cure people suffering from them nor is it able to keep people from occasionally being terrified to death by these same means. The evil eye and pointy sticks of the black magicians of today present themselves in more modern garb but they play on the same mind-body linkages around fear and panic, desire and pain, that they always have.

The arts of persuading the human mind have become common place in the emotional manipulations we see displayed in advertising. Ads are messages designed to change the behavior of those watching, namely to get them to purchase the product being hawked. To do this effectively across a wide percentage of the population the advertisers found that using emotional appeals instead of intellectual arguments delivered the goods. The familiar voiceover extolling the facts about some car, drug or whatnot is often included as no more than a veneer atop the visual short story the ad conveys. Not everyone will respond to these efforts on the part of advertisers to directly influence behavior. The cheerful mind, confident in its position, is less susceptible to the allure of their appeals. This is because those appeals almost always begin from an injection of a negative self-image into the mind of the viewer who is then given relief through the purchase of the product. The target of these mini soap operas are unhappy, lonely, confused, stressed, unpopular, stinky, failures but luckily for them, the old snake-oil pitch runs, we have just the thing to turn your life around!

We say that the successful tunes and jingles the mass media saturates our minds with are “catchy.” Our minds catch them, like a cold or a virus. For example, in 1982 the song Jack & Diane by John Mellencamp was receiving repeated radio play. I still, 35 years later, occasionally get the catchy chorus popping up in my head, “Oh ya, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Those of my readers close to my age may have just heard the same notes accompanying the jingle I do when this virus takes hold. There is big money to be made in programming the human mind with pessimistic mantras like this.

I think we need to discuss this like a viral epidemic. These act as mind parasites as they so easily loop endlessly in our minds in some vague, semi-conscious fashion. These internal tunes provide a bounce to our step throughout the day but they also are programming the mind with a point of view. The music, the Dionysian element Nietzsche recovered for European philosophy in The Birth of Tragedy, helps us move our bodies with more rhythm, more like dancers. This is why devices allowing us to have earphones on throughout the day have become so popular; they answered a deeply felt need in this time of ours which has so consistently insisted our bodies are little more than DNA built machines. Machines don’t dance. It is the music of these jingles that gets to the heart. The words on the other hand, the words are carrying what are more or less intelligible messages from the daylight realm of Apollo. The mind feeds on thought, finding some nourish and some do not. Those which do not nourish are like the empty calories of a fast food meal; they crowd out the place nourishing thoughts might have been. The jingle mentioned earlier is a good example of a type that I find all too pervasive. It’s Apollonian message is basically adolescent romantic angst, playing on the fear that after 30 years old life is nothing but one unremitting downhill slide. This is a useful message if you want to sell things to younger people. It paints a picture that their youth is the only time of their lives that really counts – so rack up that credit card!

“Oh ya, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” Think a moment what it is you are telling your mind about life and what types of experiences one can expect as one gets older every time that little ditty loops around inside one’s skull. So many lives of quite desperation haunt the cities and towns of our modern world. One is left to wonder how much of it is the result of mind programming tricks like this. What is the jingle but a claim of corporate property rights in your inner landscape? This is what the thinkers of the past used to call the battle over the human soul. There is a reality to the psyche, as Jung was at such pains to point out, call it what you will.

It is only when we think that what our minds are capable of is trivial, so easy as to become unworthy of our continuous respect, that we can fail to properly protect them. It is then that we can become haunted by wanting more out of self-conscious mammalian life than it is prepared to deliver. In doing so we become susceptible to the wiles of the uncouth manipulators of mind. When we want more like this, we open ourselves up to the tragedy pattern which always starts when a person or a group pursues a fantasy that is not aligned with reality. Such projects do not end well, how could they? Better to work hard ourselves to acquaint consciousness with the art of paying attention to that which actually concerns us as self-conscious, caring individuals alive on a threatened earth.

Exodus, the Magic of Liberation

The violence claiming a religious justification that continues to dominate our headlines surprises and shocks the secular cultures of the West. Though it was very secular politics that provided the means and justifications for the last century’s two world wars, the largest conflicts in human history, somehow the explicit religious justifications in the current incidents make them seem just that much more barbaric to us. After centuries of bloody religious wars the European continent grew weary of paying their costs in lives and treasure. To have a Jihad bombing in Paris causes an atavistic reaction for many in the West. We rightly fear the dark nationalism that can arise in response.

One does not need to read far into the holy book of the West to encounter a record of similar murderous fanaticism. The people of the book, as the Jewish people were known, systematically put one city after the other under the “ban.”   On orders from God they left no stone unturned and killed every man, woman and child in these populations that were condemned. Their sin was to be following different Gods.

Now we need to be careful here. What I just presented is a bald reading of what the holy books report themselves. Archaeologists have combed the holy lands and found the number of places affected by the Jewish expansion into the “promised land” were fewer, and that in many cases the destruction was far less, than what the written records that have been passed down to us claim. Telling the story of a people’s origin these documents are as much political as they are religious. Exaggerations are understandable. Apologists also make a point worth mentioning in light of our previous conversations around the abuse of children. It seems just possible that the sources of the ancient records are from a time in which human sacrifice was a widespread religious practice. Offering a child to Moloch entailed that child’s death. Such a perversion demanded justice from the ‘real God,’ or so these apologists claim.

The same message is found in the story of Abraham which is said to come from the time of the patriarchs, a time even earlier than the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Abraham is going to sacrifice his son Isaac to God when the ‘real God’ intervenes, stopping his hand as the sacrificial knife is about to strike. Abraham sacrifices an animal instead of Isaac, the first scapegoat. The Jewish civilization will go on to develop around a temple cult run by a priestly caste that would perform the obligatory animal sacrifices.

The role of the scapegoat takes center stage in the anthropological study of human evil undertaken by Rene Girard. His attempt to discover the genesis of all tragic myths and the origin of religious rituals leads him to conclude there is an intimate bond between, as the title of his most well known work has it, Violence and the Sacred. Perhaps a future post will provide an opportunity to explore his provocative ideas but I mention it here to underscore the point that it is not at all uncommon for religions to have an element of violence entangled in their histories, rites and enthusiasms. Girard argues they need to if they are going to effectively serve their role in human societies which, in his view, is to renew support for and rejuvenate the social order that keeps chaos and barbarism at bay. That societies most powerfully unify themselves in the act of collective murder of the other, the scapegoat, is what makes our circumstances tragic.

Though it is easy to find parallels between today’s headlines and the “ban”, our project of exploring our Western roots is aiming at a deeper analysis. Before we became these secular societies, we too could have been called a people of the book of sorts. These stories of Abraham and the ram, the conquest of Canaan and the “ban” we’re familiar to every educated person. They were the common currency by which we exchanged ideas in theology, poetry, literature and politics. Of all these stories none would pervade our collective consciousness like the one about how the Jewish people came to be conquering Canaan in the first place; the story of Moses and the great Exodus from the fleshpots of Egypt.

Again archaeologists and Egyptologists point out there is no evidence that a large number of slaves ever revolted and escaped from an Egyptian empire. What, if any, actual events transpired we will never know but our ignorance about the facts and figures in this case leaves the importance of the tale as told undiminished.

Following Oswald Spengler I have characterized the modern world as a Faustian culture. There are a number of reasons I agree with this characterization; one of which comes from my reading of the tale of Moses in Pharaoh’s court. Though the giving of the Ten Commandments is the central encounter of man and God in the holy book pre-Christian, we will respectfully not treat it here and focus instead on this battle of magics. It is the ten plagues of Egypt that make the liberation possible.

Moses has entered Pharaoh’s court and demanded release of the Jewish people so that they can go into the desert to properly worship the ‘real God.’ This sets the stage for a contest between this God and all the Gods of Egypt. It will take place as a battle of supernatural powers between Moses and the court magicians and resident God, the Pharaoh. Though many tales of the ancient world took the form of ‘my magic is stronger than yours’ this is the one that has played a formative role in shaping our Western sensibilities.

Oppressed people over the millennia have found comfort and solace in the biblical tale of the Exodus. A people living in slavery and bondage are lead to freedom; the underdog wins even though they are a rag-tag assembly of the poor daring to defy the most powerful empire on earth. They win because God is on their side. No wonder so many people suffering injustices at the hands of their governments have found the ancient tale to be a source of strength and at times, political dynamite.

Casting about for examples in more recent centuries the inspiration the black church of the American south drew from the story of the Exodus comes to mind. What a soulful power still resonates in the gospel songs of that era… More recently throughout Central and South America liberation theology among the peasants drew its motivating inspiration, as well as its name, from the story of the Exodus.

Liberation theology appeared at a time when the United States was training and funding, often covertly and against the explicit direction of the congress, far right elements within a number of countries to the south of us. Death squads ran rampant. In places like El Salvador the Catholic Church was made a target and soon priests and nuns were ‘disappeared’ alongside the poor they worked with. Archbishop Romero’s murder was one of the few incidents that broke through the general media apathy at the time. Nothing I know of more clearly states the power and importance of the stories we tell and the actions they can inspire than this chapter in the history of Latin America. The events, teachings, torture techniques and death squad politics are all laid out in Penny Lenoux’ Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America – The Catholic Church in Conflict with US Policy. The Library Journal commented at the time, “A stunning blow to North American consciousness… should be required reading for all U.S. citizens.” I agree, it should still be required reading but be forewarned, dealing with the reported atrocities made me physically ill.

Another point: as mentioned last week it is not necessary to know all the details of suffering for compassion to arise but I do believe there is a need to educate ourselves about the reality of suffering. As citizens we should be particularly willing to learn about the actions that have taken place in our name, both the good and the evil we and our ancestors have done. These are the reasons a work like Cry of the People can have such profound and life changing effects. Other people and other generations will find their own sources for the same maturation. What is important is not the content, which changes with the headlines, but the context in which power is abused, corruption rules and the breakdown of law and order follows.

While liberation theology is Christian and the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role in its teachings, I was struck during these studies by how meaningful and powerful the people’s found the story of the Exodus to be. People struggling to live with the most brutal manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man in their own lives and the lives of their families were able to do so in part by seeing their lives as participating in the long struggle of God in history, working for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. It should go without saying these are not the cute cliches of a story for children in Sunday school. Even all the pomp and special effects Hollywood has brought to the telling of the tale are incapable of capturing or obscuring this core meaning which is capable of giving strength to people who are standing up to the face of evil.

Poorer parts of the world have often paid dearly for mistakes made in richer parts of the world.

Speaking of special effects… How does Moses convince Pharaoh to “let my people go”? Through the ten plagues of Egypt; the miraculous displays of Moses God’s power over the God-Pharaoh’s power. The list of plagues reads like a hellish shopping list; let’s see, rivers of blood, swarms of locusts, rains of frogs, and death of all the firstborn children throughout the land. There is more but the point has already been made – these are all acts of death and destruction.

When the contest begins Moses’ companion Aaron performs the first wonder, yet the Pharaoh is unimpressed because his court magicians are able to do something equally marvelous. They turn a staff of wood into a living snake. Here is the point I think explains a lot about Western culture and Western religious ideas. Aaron and the magicians of the court use magic to bring forth life, animal life from vegetative life. In common parlance today we would say it is an act of white magic. As things proceed however we see that Moses’ God performs the blackest of black magic, that which is designed only to bring about death and destruction.

Though of course it is not really black magic because it is God’s doing. To put it bluntly, it is presented as a case in which the end justifies the means. These terrible plagues are the only way God can get Pharaoh to change his hard heart, nothing less will do. We know this because the story mentions Pharaoh’s hard heart time and again… “and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against him.”

This ambiguity around magic and miracles will continue to haunt Western thought right up to our own day. Should we storm the gates of heaven or wait patiently on the lord? We will pick this up next week when we look at the Jewish mysticism that developed as people reflected on these stories.

Psychology

This last day of the year seems a good time to wrap up the current set of posts dealing with mindfulness. By looking at both its meaning and its practice there is now a working definition for what the term means for this blog project. All that remains at this stage is to place it in context, which for our society means examining mindfulness’ association with psychology.

There are therapeutic uses of mindfulness proving to be effective treatment for a number of painful psychic disorders for which we should all be grateful. The cognitive psychologists in particular are able to combine their work with traditional techniques of mindfulness for the express purpose of relieving the suffering of others. All of this is powerful stuff. My crystal ball tells me as tough times continue to squeeze, more and more people will find their way to practicing these very practical techniques for monitoring and rationally confronting paranoia, obsessions and a whole host of neuroses.

Also, it can be said that from the point of view that considers all consciousness the proper subject of psychology the states and insights that accompany samadhi, nirvana and enlightenment are all proper subjects for it to study.

That said, it is my opinion that what the mindfulness and contemplative practice as found in the wisdom traditions is all about is far beyond anything typically considered within the realm of western psychological science. It needs to be said that our society’s intellectual climate has no place beyond psychology in which to frame an understanding of something like the contemplative practices and their results. The natural way for a modern mind to approach such things is to consider that in some way they will lead to a healthier, saner, more well-balanced and well-adjusted individual. We expect the addition of wisdom to adorn our fairly modest ego desires and are ready to be satisfied with such milk toast.

The enlightenment I understand is much more dangerous than that. Those expectations are born from a culture that has been thoroughly psychologized. Our vision of ultimate human potential is shaped by a conformity to capitalistic norms, molded by the goal of psychology, namely, to aid the client in adjusting to the roles and responsibilities of the dominate consumer culture. There is a vast poverty of imagination revealed in this psychic characteristic of our time.

I do not want to be misunderstood as advocating that these adaptations are anything but good things, worth working for, even required to empower us to carry out our duties to ourselves and others. There is an ancient teaching among the Hindus that explains that for most people there are natural and proper stages in a life. The young are to gain their education, the middle years see us marry, raise families and work while the last stage in life is for turning inward and taking up the ways of yoga. There is a wholesome welcoming of each aspect of a full human life in this approach to things. Proper respect is paid for the skillful means displayed by adapting to your cultural norms. This is not the same as selling out. In every stage the contemplative does well to practice mindfully. Nor are the stages as black and white as the teaching might make them seem; there are phases within every stage of life where one element or another play a stronger role.

To return to our subject psychology, consider interpretations of a mandala. In depth psychology this is considered the central motif of the greater Self, that which is beyond ego at the core of the psyche, that which we experience as god. In therapy guided by depth psychology the client might make mandalas in sand or by painting, they watch for the appearance of mandalas in dreams and generally try to allow them to exist in their own space and take their own good time in revealing their healing message. All of this is great advice and the best we are able to do given the psychological context from which we think.

The traditional interpretation of a mandala differs in a number of respects. First in how they are used. They are detailed targets for intricate visualization practices giving a workout to the powers of the imagination’s inner eye. Instead of symbols of the individuation of the psyche they are gateways to the sacred world that is said to be around us right now though we are blind to it. Mandalas are the palace home for deities, yet in the center-most point is enthroned emptiness – there is a fundamental type of atheism in the traditions that use them. The last point of difference I would like to illustrate is a bit more of a stretch. The mandala in depth psychology is a manifestation of a psychic reality and while synchronicity might entangle the material world, its manifestation remains focused on an individual’s psychological states. The mandala in traditional thought is a manifestation of a transcendent reality that is neither all psychic nor all material.

In the center of the mandala is the central mountain of earth. It corresponds to the nervous system housed in the spine inside the body and to a specific mountain in the Himalayas. Or the center of the mandala is said to be a sacred tree; the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha became enlightened, which is a tree in India you can visit today. That same tree is also the nervous system branching through the spine within the inner body. These are the kinds of traditional teachings that accompany mandala images. They are clear statements of non-dual awareness and this places it beyond the reaches of most of what the west understands as psychology. These mandalas come from a world that is filled with magic.

In this worldview there are special trees, special mountains. The earth is alive with expressions of intelligence in form and flow, ceaselessly churning the dances of the ten-million things. In this worldview it is a precious, temporary condition to be experiencing a human life surrounded on all sides by clouds that dance, flowers that breathe, and waters that laugh.

Our psychologies are our containers; they are not the be-all and end-all of the contemplative path. They should not provide us with our final, ultimate sense of identity. We work with our neuroses as best we are able but shouldn’t confuse that with the great work: to seek enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is not navel gazing. This is real work. It works with consciousness and the world. It is needed now, right in the middle of this maelstrom of the sixth extinction event.

All of this is to warn us against a too romantic version of Buddhism, a subject that is even addressed in the Wikipedia article on Buddhism and Psychology where this fine diagram can be found.

EarlyBuddhismThis coming year may we all work to walk more lightly on the earth, save a tree or a stream or a species. Our anxieties and complexes will just have to deal with it. We have work to do.