Magical Christianity, an Oxymoron

“In the wider Middle East, it undermines and weakens America’s partners, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and others who have worked with the U.S. on issues relating to Iran, but also were hopeful that there would be a peace plan they could be part of. It weakens and undermines them.
The ones perhaps who are happiest, other than the Israeli government itself, which certainly is very happy, are Iran and its allies and Russia’s President Putin. We saw President Putin immediately take a victory lap, visiting Syria, Egypt, and Turkey all in one day, denouncing the Jerusalem decision, while also declaring victory in Syria and other places.”
The Long Term Global Consequences of Trump’s Jerusalem Move, PBS News

 

The failure of Homo Colossus as laid out in Limits to Growth is evident on every hand.

So what gives? Why is this blog, ostensibly interested in ecology and meditation, spending so much time on Christian teachings, to the point of quoting chapter and verse last week? It is because my studied opinion is that the fault line for the collapse of the Western Consensus runs through the Church. The 1970s saw more than just the publication of Limits to Growth, it also saw the publication of The Late Great Planet Earth and with that, the whole view of magical Christianity began to increase its influence on the culture of the United States.

Mindful Ecology leads each of us where it will. I believe ecology is, if I may put it this way, the current message of the Holy Spirit. That is, it is the communication to the human psyche, both individually and collectively, about what is the most urgent “revelation” for our day. The ecological crisis is a communication coming directly from the earth itself, what theology named the creation. It is a revelation of its creator-ways, or what we today call its molecular laws. There is a place for god-talk if it reminds us that what we are talking about, the earth ecological systems, are so much larger than we puny humans. There is a place for god-talk if it engenders respect.

The relocation of the United States embassy in Israel is an important move for the true believers. I worry that because the Christian message was abused by so many for so long, today many people who call themselves Christian wouldn’t know the actual, historic, mystical Christianity if it jumped up and bit them on the nose. The publishing industry phenomenon The Left Behind series is a good example of the popularity of the doomsday message, the Christian message gone haywire. “They can’t get enough of that doomsday stuff, they can’t get enough of it all,” sang Bowie in the The Next Day. Magical Christianity seeks a real world Armageddon in the Middle East, unable to differentiate wisdom teachings in symbols from rational discourse. The current earthquake changes around the geopolitical balance in the Middle East, the source of the neo-liberal system’s key oil supplies, are not happening in a vacuum. Geology is having a say as the largest oil field in on the planet, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, quietly peaks behind the headlines. This is the truth that must not be spoken. Peak Oil was banished from our public discourse at just the time when the use of reason requires addressing it. We have been whistling past the graveyard since the 1970s made clear our position, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. It is not as if we never heard from Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, Clinton, and Obama or the report from our own armed forces insisting the United States has a serious oil dependency problem. But culturally we made different choices, and now there are consequences.

We are being offered religious packaging over the fundamental ecological problem. On this score, if I am reading the tea leaves right, the manipulation of public relations have only just begun. I think the Tillerson – Pence – Trump team have plans for the Middle East. When those plans are in full swing I expect they will be delivered to the public in a package of fundamentalist Christian faith. The ‘Crusades’ are already justified and meaningful for many folks within such traditional spiritual interpretations of the daily headlines.

In every religion throughout the long ages of the human story there has always been a tension between those who seek the mystical truth of spiritual things, and those who seek the magical power of spooky things. The mystic and the fundamentalist have never seen eye to eye, and from the looks of things, never will. As one of the mystical camp, a person who strongly believes in the value of contemplation and silent meditation, I offer a warning to those singing Onward Christian Soldiers. Things may not work out the way you expect them to, wrapped up in your flag and cross of self-righteousness.

If you were born with Christianity in your mother’s milk, you need to understand what that mythological constellation of symbols is really all about because it does concern you, whether you want it to or not. As it is said, Jesus would have come to earth to save you, and you alone. Christian mythology is the teaching of how the human conscience has an element of the shared collective or social world in it. In our most intimate inner sanctum we find the touch of other hands. Here we find the interests of other sentient beings equal to ours and thereby laying upon us an obligation. The obligation is to respect the life given even to “the least of these.”

What this means is that unscrupulous people can use this feature of the Christian mythology to manipulate others. The encounter with conscience holds a surprise for all people that were raised around the Christian stories. They are talking about, as pointed out last week, your body, your mind etc. Our culture has a practical understanding about this aspect of its symbol-rich inheritance and deals with it fairly well in Christian camps for adolescents and such. The problem comes when the wondrous vulnerability of love, so clearly on display in the Gospel story, is rejected. Then people have no alternatives but to go fishing around for things creature-reason cannot deliver. In the murky waters of a hunt for god-like power, the temptation is ever present to use the most powerful concept of all, namely god. But it is not right to use people, and god, so the Christian story teaches, includes personhood from all eternity. This means god is the ultimate person not to be used. It provokes righteous anger, as it must if any sort of justice and fairness is to exist.

What is revealed in this mythology is the very heart of the “one true god,” the inescapable ground of our being which is “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” The loving kindness human beings share with one another is real, because we really are free to choose otherwise. It is in that freedom that our love is made real. How could it be otherwise? Puppets cannot love one another. Love shows how that which created us, respects us as persons. It is astonishingly good news that love comes directly from the “maker of heaven and earth.” This is what is witnessed by the true man taken up into the true god. The man who is real and honest with himself, particularly his own experiences of emotion that so deeply move us in both our flesh and psyche equally, is the true man, the authentic human being. These wellsprings of consciousness that move us so powerfully and so deeply, they are the witness to us of the mystery of reality. The reality is that the grandeur of the cosmos with its endless galaxies, the starry nurseries, and the explosive creation of black-holes, all of it is also our nursery and the grandeur resides in our chests.

Everyone on this path of ecological awakening arrives at the silence in which conscience speaks. Here the stars, those ancient watchers who record everything that really happens, are not mute. Mystics, like scientists, have long understood that, after a fashion, the stars are on the inside.

Suffer the little child to come to the Christ. This is the innocent one within you that still lives inside the memory of your nervous system. It is the spark of personhood before and after the terrifying abuse children suffer at the hands of those few evil adults that seek them out. The inner child, flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone, is silent when at peace. They are at peace when the adult they have become understands and respects who they are and the truth of what they have experienced. An adult that accepts their creature status finds in Jesus their protector, the one who will plead your case before those who would falsely accuse you. It is he that would, as we say, go to the carpet for you, or in this case, the cross. The old Christmas hymn O Holy Night states that with Jesus “the soul felt its worth.” Finding yourself as the latest generation in a history of countless ancestors, finding yourself as one individual in a world full of people, and finding yourself a victim of evil abuse, this is all a bit overwhelming. Allowing the little child to come to the Christ is, symbolically, how you come to know that your life matters. Jesus would have come to earth to share the teaching of the kingdom and the loving father with you if you were the only human being ever to exist throughout all the ages, to compassionately suffer your pain with you so you would not be alone if yours was the only human pain this universe would ever know, and would come to carry your bruised and broken heart when love dies in the dark night even if your heart were the only one to ever be broken. There is an encounter here with a very real psychological, biological, and social truth about the human condition. Call it what you will, this encounter with the higher should result in a healthy adult pride, one capable of sustaining a person through the trials and challenges of seeing their dreams come true through hard work and a good dose of faith, hope, and love.

Basically real faith is able to quite the mind when it becomes too anxious, and it is able to quite the body when it becomes too fearful. The witness of martyrs self-control is the classical example of faith and it is exactly this. A deep enough belief in a good god becomes a pervasive enough conviction, that persons can withstand assaults far beyond what the ego as a lone individual could endure. We see the same thing in the self-emulation of the Tibetan Buddhist monks in a non-theist framework. Those who mess around with this Christian symbolism in their unscrupulous fundamentalism are messing around with this biological control system in people. Hence so many abused by religion end up with substance abuse issues. They need additional help to maintain the faith.

The mystical teaching is that the human race is one body after a fashion, that we share in the experiences of being one flesh. Any injury or insult to human dignity is a direct assault on us all. The teachings ask only how we treat the poor, in the end there is nothing else. The poor and outcasts we discarded in our selfishness hold the hidden gold we desperately need to find as a species. In our hearts of hearts we judge ourselves by how we treat “the least of these,” not how well we treat the most wealthy and powerful. Now, with the crashing of Homo Colossus, the rich are being made poor. It is both an opportunity and a danger. Whether the lack of loving kindness that touches you with the cold finger of poverty is economic, emotional, intellectual, sexual, or spiritual, they all leave torture’s scars on the body. Our tears do not sleep and then, in our hurt and anger, we become twisted and confused and in need of healing. That this healing does in fact come to individuals, untangling lies and providing the courage to speak the truth, sustains a rational hope that it can also come to our communities. We can swing the tenor of the collective conversation towards real-world issues if enough of us insist on it.

Contemplation is the birthright of everyone, the sweetest gift life has to offer, a love-making with the cosmos and a resting in the arms of creation’s gifts. It pierces the darkness of our lives and finds meaning in their events, often painful and sorrowful but real and lasting and true. Learning to be still in body and mind allows us to sit openly listening to our hearts. Our hearts know what we are. They know our worth.

Street Theology

Spectrum of Possibility for the nature of existence:
evil creation by an evil god — neutral creation — good creation by a good god

We have seen how the traumatized have a brainbody that has been taught to believe in a universe ruled by monsters. Reasoning is evidence-based and the evidence for those who have been abused has been clear as hell, literally. A move towards atheism, for these haunted people, is actually a move towards healing. It can provide a light-heartedness to their days, a space for some breath and freedom in which they can try to make their own lives into something they can enjoy despite the terrors of the past. This is denied them while they live condemned to carry the burden their torturers injected in them. As long as this destructive burden remains they sense, quite physically, that who they are as individual personalities are flawed mistakes, unworthy of existence, the universe’s trash properly punished by a cruel and vicious god. Atheism is a serious improvement to such a point of view. They are better off writing a Dear God letter. The godless meaninglessness is more acceptable to the human heart than the trauma god of spite and cruelty.

Perhaps the rise of science over the last half millennium is a collective compensation of sorts. It is through the scientific lens that we are able to comprehend the molecular nature of our earth and our own biology. It is through this lens that we encounter deep time and deep space. It is through this lens that all people of goodwill are being asked if their “spirituality” extends far enough to disrupt the road to ecological collapse and nuclear war we are currently on. All this high talk of god and gods, virtues and faith, churches and mosques, temples and relics, is not going to matter one bit to our progeny if it proves itself incapable of protecting our children from the greedy and short sighted among us. Is there a future for the human species far beyond 2100? I am afraid that if you are able to answer that too easily, if you are sure things are going to work out ok, you are either ignorant of the science or caught up in magical thinking.

To shift in the direction of a neutral creation it helps if the intellect can begin to imagine a good creation by a good god. This takes training in faith. The evidence of the earth’s splendors and wonders is the teasing thread by which such hopes are kept alive. The way they are most intimately manifest to our consciousness is through the chemistry of our bodies. If a person is struggling under the evil god view, their body might very well seek out chemical enhancements so that they too might have a few moments of feeling good, feeling like most people who were not tortured as children feel much of the time. For example, the use of psychedelics, as dangerous as they are for the personality and potentially for a person’s sanity, do show the bodymind undeniable evidence that there is more going on in this life than initially meets the eye. The unabused typically understand this immediately in their bodyminds due to the love they have known. Love for them has provided nutritious meaning to their human experience, but this avenue was cut off for the tortured. Opioid drugs are offering hurting people a more direct escape from pain; instead of visions it offers luminous sleep free of nightmares. These few moments of escape from the gnawing guilt that is destroying their lives is purchased at a high price, the price of slavery to a desire for the drug. It takes the place of the desire for a sleep free of nightmares we call the paradise waiting us on the other side of death.

The bliss these chemical means offers might be the lesser light but it is bliss. It can keep the bodymind alive because it provides alternative evidence to that of the abusive events. They show undeniably, and at the level of physiology at which the abusive scars exist, that some aspects of the universe can also bring delight and pleasure. The lesser pleasures non-abused are able to find in eating, conversation, and sex are not capable of penetrating the inner defenses they had to erect to protect the preciousness inside. They can pierce the character armor temporarily by using these chemical props. “And the shame was on the other side, Oh we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we can be heroes, just for one day” David Bowie sang in Heroes. Those involved with hard drugs are contemplating suicide. Death, after all, is where the use of hard drugs are leading a person. “We could be lying, so you better not stay” Bowie went on to observe in the same song. This applies to the world too. Here we all are, at the peak of our fossil fueled industrialized heroics as we roar through our landscapes sitting in our magic chairs (thanks Kunstler for the image) and fly through the air in our steel birds. As life devoted to GDP grows ever more thin and meaningless we too are toying with suicide collectively. Our drugs of choice are no longer keeping the shame away.

What is it that religion might offer such broken people that can stand equally real in this fight for their souls? The chemistry reveals wonders but not happiness. The “I told you so” will not help the broken and the Pollyanna approach will not impress. A cheap “all things work out for the best,” offered by someone never tortured in their childhood, is just heaping more coals on the heads of the abused. That evil can be turned to good is another thing entirely. The abused want to know, if there is a god like you say their is, where was my Holy Guardian Angel when the torturers had their way with me? The fundamentalist has disguised the god of love and vulnerability as an all powerful wizard. Such a god can give no answer to the abused child’s question.

Let me illustrate exactly what I mean. There is a teaching among some of the fundamentalists about chastity that I recently heard. Women teach girls that their virginity is like a stick of gum. Once it has been chewed, well, who else would want to eat it? If we look at this type of teaching from the innocent point of view it seems to just be making a dramatic point about how important chastity can be to maintain one’s self respect (setting aside for now the overtones of patriarchy owning women and selling their virginity for social status). How do you think the girl in that Sunday school class whose father has already taken her sexual innocence through incest hears such a teaching? This is what the Lord God, creator of all things and all powerful wizard, thinks of her inner worth?

I think this all too typical goody-goody preaching is little more than Gnosticism. It is another sex-is-evil message that seems to permeate all the Christian influenced traditions in our time. We really do not seem to think that the marriage bed is holy, that the deep time engine of evolution we experience in our crotch is god’s doing. We think it is the devil. We are now experiencing the biosphere, ruled as it is by the ways of sexual and natural selection, as a place unworthy of us. We seem to no longer sense our place in the real world, out beyond our man-made artifacts, as beautiful and worth protecting at all costs. In a nutshell: the ecological crisis is a manifestation of a bad theology. Though science taught natural selection as a neutral universe view, our anti-sex baggage did not let us hear it that way. We have come to believe the devil rules the world, that the devil was the creator of our bodies, our flesh and blood. The unashamed display of flowers and farm animals is banished from our minds in our false sense of human virtue and nobility. It returns from its repression in our culture’s pervasive gonzo pornography. It is not wrong to appreciate the sexual beauty all around us, it is in fact honoring how we are made. Whatever happened to “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed I lie upon” ?

Faith, in my view, is not a cognitive trick. It is not a unnatural belief in something that contradicts reason and emotion and needs to be upheld by a blind act of will (more accurately fear) or obedience (allowing ourselves the luxury of the excuse ‘just following orders’). Faith, as we are going to use the term, is the whole orientation of the bodymind to the universe as it is actually experienced. Ego cannot fool the dreaming mind for what we do we carry in our bones. What makes the faith journey such a challenge is that the intellect needs to accompany the heart every step of the way. This is not to say that we can think our way out of our ordeals but that we cannot get out of them without thinking. This is where the modern world’s lack of faith is most evident, right here in the war between our hearts and our heads. Our emotions as compassionate mammals are at war with our thoughts as ruthless capitalists because we have allowed “its just business” to rule all of our practical affairs.

So how might we use intellect to image our way towards faith in a good god? In Dr. Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections he writes that when his father, a Lutheran preacher, tried to explain the meaning of the Christian conception of god as a trinity of persons, that he gave up and said he could not make heads or tales of it. That is sad really. I do not see the trinity teaching as gobbledygook. Out on the street where the lost are in need of healing and the nuclear bombs are being built, it is symbolic dynamite. Nor do I think what it has to teach is exclusively “Christian.” I think it is “Catholic” in the sense of the non-exclusive, universal catholicism each of us participates in through our shared experience of human flesh and blood.

“God” is the word we use to indicate the ground of being, what some Buddhists call emptiness. It is the source from which all that is real flows forth and is sustained. Each of us has immediate communion with this ground of being, it is the source of what we are as well. Human beings approach the ground of being as persons. It becomes very important to us, as individuals, whether or not this ground of being is personal or impersonal. Let’s put this another way. When we are really still and open to the rest of existence outside our own skins, we cannot help but notice that much of it is impersonal. Most of what exists consists of so-called inanimate matter. The vast emptiness of space and the massive stars and galaxies showing up here and there within it is something every mind will need to struggle with, if only in our dreams. What can it all mean? Here on earth we see rivers, clouds, and mountains, all inanimate and larger than the bodies living on and among them. They all outlast the little creatures. Is it, as science suggests, a purely random accident that life arose? Is the personal point of view, by which life always and everywhere and only manifests itself, an epiphenomenon? Is my existence no more than a happy accident occurring as a side effect of self-reproducing molecules full of sound and fury yet indicating nothing? More to the point, we want to know ‘does my life matter?’ Or really most to the point, ‘do the lives of those I love matter?’ Is love real? When we are in times of psycho-spiritual crisis we are watching love die within and around us. Ego is unable to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. It’s own self-deception and the deceptions of others does not fool it anymore. In crisis, the lie and liars stand exposed.

A life lived constantly haunted by a bodily fear of death and spiritual fear of damnation is not a well lived life. Such a bodymind has been poisoned in what we today generally refer to as PTSD. Healing comes, if it comes, by a shift in something deeper than the ego can reach. No such suffering human can simply will themselves to health. Ego has been given evidence that it should not trust – not life, not other human beings, not god. It must be given evidence to the contrary, what we call an encounter with the divine.

The Christian trinity is the teaching that the ground of being has a personal realm within it. It is saying that the universe of the inside that we experience as consciousness is just as real and inherent in existence as the particles and waves we experience on the outside. It is not saying god is a person but that the mystery of being includes personality and personhood in some fashion. The ground of being chooses to perceive itself through the medium of individuals, be they dust mites or kings. This is observable evidence. The question remains whether or not the whole thing is just an illusion. Is there any element of something really real in the manifestation of the uniqueness that is at the heart of each animate arrangement of molecules? Christian Trinitarian teaching says yes. It asserts that the ground is real, or at the least that that which makes the real seem real to us comes from the very ground of being itself. It teaches the emptiness is truth eternal, far beyond words and the grasp of thought. The ground of being includes in its “nature” the will to love, that is, to know not just one’s own being but the being of another as well. For there to be real love the other “person” cannot be just a puppet, they cannot be just an emanation or reflection, they cannot be simply a molecular machine with unusual quirks pretending to individuality. They need to be a real other person, hence the second person of the trinity. This too is what we find in the evidence of life as it is lived. We, as a person, confront everywhere other living things acting all the world as persons themselves. Though the bully’s blind eye cannot see that others are as real as they themselves are, that is the case none-the-less. The Holy Spirit, third person of the trinity, is this love. It is the assertion that the relationship between the unique mystery of personhood and the mystery at the ground of being is a real relationship. It is not a trick with mirrors at the level of the quantum or galaxies. Nor is it a trick of solipsism consciousness condemned to eternal isolation and only pretending others exist through the illusion of the created universe. (This is a complex thought in eastern teachings. My take is that each individual recapitulates the Atman, the full human experience of being alive, in their own way. The Atman is not simply the sum of all individuals dissolved by death into a mass. This undifferentiated mass is the Atman the Buddha denied with the teachings of no-self.) Belief in the Trinitarian “god” is a recognition that in all the known universe there is nothing as special to us as the people we encounter. It draws a proper inference from the fact that the human brain is the most complex structure of matter that exists. It has been crafted and shaped with quite some care however such crafting and shaping came to pass. It is the recognition that in the spark of light in the eyes of the living, there is a bit of divinity. “Spiritual” people are taught by life itself to always respect that light, that it contains real magic. It is the same recognition beautifully expressed when we greet one another with Anjali.

Explained in this way the Christian trinity is inseparable from the idea of god’s incarnation in human flesh and blood and the “sending of the spirit” among humankind. It affirms that the vastness of interstellar space is there as a necessary ingredient of our being here. It affirms the vastness of deep time as being necessary for there to be now and our ability to experience anything. Interdependence insists on it. It affirms that not just the cosmos but also that the vast multiplicity of creatures on earth are interdependently required if we are to be who and what we are. It does not affirm a cheap and easy creation for those populating the biosphere but one that requires real work, effort, and struggle. This deep time creation we are a part of cannot happen without pain; the pain of childbirth, the pain of mind birth, the pain of individuality given mortal birth. It affirms that the creation of that which is most special among all the mysteries of being, is the creation of the living individuals within it. Humanity is not special because there are 7+ billion of us, we are special because each and every one of us is fascinatingly unique. When a person’s heart really understands this, they are personally at home in the cosmos. The ground of being is addressed intimately, lovingly, as father. Respect is shown to ourselves and our family, both human and animal, when we recognize the whole of existence that proceeds from emptiness as our mother. This is the womb like container in which our lives are manifest. One we worship, the other we honor. This was never meant to be a one-upmanship for men over woman but a basic metaphor of our sexual nature where one bears the seed and the other the egg. We begin to see why Trinitarian teaching without a role for Mary, and the feminine generally with its associations with the earth, flesh and blood, is as lopsided as Carl Jung warned us about.

Death and hell are said to have lost their sting in Christianity. The faithful have trained in trusting that which created persons as persons and mountains as mountains. When such a person returns to the ground of being in death they are reassured that, even though they are saying goodbye to all they have loved on earth, the process that brought them forth still has their best interests at heart. Now, when the ‘father’ reveals his impersonal side, as it were, in the grave dirt that welcomes our bodies back to their elemental home, there is nothing to ultimately fear. There awaits us the eternity of the beatific vision, not an eternity of torture in hell. Nor are emptiness and nothingness the same thing. We faithful contemplatives have already trained in the stillness – the peace that surpasses understanding – and found it was not an interstellar abyss teeming with monsters foreign to the human heart. We found, instead, our nobility as children of god, children of universe. We find, eventually, our equivalence with any and all other created things.

Christianity teaches that god is love, a love overflowing as a free gift for all. Gnosticism, its rival heresy, in one form teaches that the god we deal with is a fool and that his creation of the universe was a mistake. The creator is an ignorant demiurge by this way of thinking and suicide is our best response to his traps of fleshy torture. In its more popular form Gnosticism teaches that the true creator can be a loving god, but that this love must be earned or forced, otherwise we are back to dealing with a hateful god out to trip us up, kill us, and then damn us for all time. This Gnosticism holds out the deceptive hope of the child hurt by parents incapable of unconditional love. They believe that this conditional love can be earned if they can blackmail god with their virtue, good works, fasting, magical incantations, evangelism, holy wars, child sacrifices, and the whole religious bag o’ tricks. The Gnostic of either form stumbles on one simple truth. God does not love the priest and preacher one wit more than the prostitute. God does not love the abused child one wit less than the unabused child. The Gnostic wants to be able to use religion for some earthly end: to use god as a beat-stick or a checkbook, a Pez Dispenser full of blessings, or a guarantee that all will turn out right in the end, like a sic-com. (I think it is this last one that is most at fault for keeping us from responding rationally to the ecological facts.) The most dangerous thing these Gnostics disguising themselves as Christians do is turn the god image upside down, justifying their inhumanity to man by either killing for Christ or insisting “the devil made me do it.”

“They know god exists for the devil told them so…” Bowie, The Next Day [after Heroes]

What religious myth can offer is the path of healing found through stillness and contemplation. In the process of the bodymind learning to be still we encounter the scars and character amour of our own personal wounds. When the bodymind does grow still the fears of death are brought to consciousness. On this path intelligence and reason can comfort the heart, for we have not been left orphans in a universe of nonsense. Such a person can celebrate the mystic wedding of their personality, their spirit, and their flesh. They can honestly say “yes” and “thank you” for the life they have actually known. They no longer look to dreams of inhuman exaltation. With a heart broken and humble, yet lifted up, our eyes gaze on the eternity unfolding in time and find we are living, right here and right now, in a sacred, or as it is most often said in the West, a sacramental world.

The Ground of Goodness

Since April we have been looking at our times as the age in which the limitations on humanity’s ability to continue growing as Homo Colossus start to bite. I’ve said what I think needed to be said, time to move on. We have a lot more territory to cover. Our next investigations will be looking into how the Buddhist lifestyle of low consumption and non-aggression is both ecologically responsible and can teach us how to live a meaningful, high quality life. But first, this is the 100th post. It seems a good time to state again what Mindful Ecology is all about.

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. We live in a molecular world that follows its own laws to create a spectrum of emergent phenomenon, a very tiny proportion of which we are able to become aware of through our senses and their technological extensions. The primary characteristic of our molecular world is its impermanence; it is everywhere in a state of flux due to the electrical forces that bind the atomic constituents of these molecules. It turns out that electricity, or more generally electromagnetism, is the great shaper of the world as we experience it at the human scale.

Physicists and chemists have taught about the electrical nature of the natural world in the tradition of materialism. Relativity teaches that energy and mass are not two different things and the conservation laws teach that energy and mass cannot be destroyed. The universe is functional across vast reaches of space and time and everywhere in space and time it exhibits, simultaneously, a wholeness that includes the tiniest quantum particles, the largest galaxies and everything in-between. Teachings like this are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter non-living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Yogis have taught about the electrical nature of our human nature in the tradition of contemplation using chakras, wheels of energy whirling around seed syllables. These chakras are said to be located at the primary ganglions of the body’s nervous system and at nexus points where the nervous system integrates the muscles, organs and bones. Teachings like this one about the body containing chakras are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter another living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Complimentary teachings like these are ways of reminding ourselves that there is a basic goodness to existence in all its detail; the fundamental ground of our experience is that it all works so well together. Even when it doesn’t.

Recognizing the electrical nature of the world that is experienced at the human scale prepares us to better appreciate some of the implications of the modern world’s use of electricity. We all understand that it is the power plants that keep the lights on. Most people also know the majority of these power plants world wide use coal as their fuel, a dirty fuel that is the source of much of the excess carbon emissions driving climate change. What few seem to fully appreciate is the rate of growth these power plants are being asked to serve. Since 1980 the global demand for electricity has doubled. It is expected to double again by 2035. About thirty years for the first doubling, twenty for the second; how long should we expect for the next doubling of demand after that, ten years as per the trend? How long before even the most obstinate among us admits we are on an unsustainable trajectory?

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. It is not a question of what new green techno-gadget we need to invent to keep the wealth pumps going but a question of what we can do to avoid being hit by the falling debris as the large life support systems of mankind’s built up, artificial environments come crashing down. We should be discussing triage techniques and battlefield tactics, not dreaming of self-driving cars and going to Mars. I ask all people of the beleaguered planet to consider the possibility that what ecology is teaching us today calls for a whole different point of view about what it is to be a human being and why we gather ourselves together in human societies and, perhaps most critically, how our species relates to the rest of the organic and inorganic environments which make up our one and only planetary home.

If one is convinced that the life we live now is unsustainable and has no future, what is a person going to do with such knowledge? It seems that there is so little an individual can do in the face of our collective choices driving our society to make a bad situation worse. If the only hope is for our society to wake up and start making sense, well, that I fear is not much of a hope at all. It looks all the world like our societies are hell-bent for leather on pressing this unsustainability just as far as it can go before crying uncle. Where then should we look for real work that just might be of real benefit to ourselves and, most importantly, might really benefit the next couple of generations that are going to have to live through environmental hell? What can we do? As it happens I believe it is only in the world of individual lives that the true balm for what ails us is to be found.

I am presenting the argument that the ecological crisis is a symptom. The disease is in how modern ideas about mankind’s role in the universe have poisoned our relationships with each other and the rest of the living and non-living world. My position is that we do not know our own minds well. We do not know what they are capable of in peak moments of bliss and cognitive clarity, nor do we comprehend how easily they can carry us away on delusional abstractions that have no basis in the reality of our molecular world. We are so in our heads we are at risk of losing touch with our body, the physical reality in which our lives unfold; so into our abstractions of economy and nationalism, status and hierarchy that we are losing touch with our need for clean air, water and soil. To be risking even the slightest chance of the kind of planetary chaos ecologists are warning us about, with the calm demeanor of our existing social discussions is, in my mind, a sure sign of collective psychosis.

Traditions of meditation and waking up are surrounded by a wall of Cosmic Foo Foo so high it is almost impossible to see the point. I am suggesting that most of that is just not relevant to what we are really trying to convey by these types of teachings. What we are trying to say has everything to do with waking up to the reality of your situation as it is in the here and now and as it will potentially become in the future. We have a funny habit of making ourselves slaves to our own ideas about ourselves and our world by forgetting that, as long as we draw breath, we are completely free to remake today in any image we desire. People walk away from lifetimes spent in bad marriages, dogmatic religions and hateful ideologies all the time. One day some insight dawns and they see through some ignorance on their part which had lead them to believe in their own slavery. At that moment they are free and there is no going back because the truth of the insight is always right there in front of them, reflected in the ceaseless unfolding of reality as reality. There is no going back into the cocoon of make-believe.

I am convinced that the same one-way insight comes into the lives of everyone who plumbs the depths of what our ecologists are saying. This ecological insight is already pervasive, like a shadow running through our modern societies, and it is spreading. More and more people, young and old, will be caught and forced (or is that called?) to plumb these dark and depressing depths in their search for the truth. Mindful Ecology recognizes this process as a full blown hero’s descent into the underworld, the first step on the road to enlightenment. It offers both a like-minded community and an encouragement for a serious, daily practice of meditation. It is by developing the skills of meditation that we are able to begin to integrate our head’s knowledge with our heart’s responses to that knowledge. It is my position that we are in crisis due to a disease within our minds and bodies that cuts us off from our ongoing experience of the living earth. It is a disease with a long pedigree in the non-indigenous cultures of the East and West, but one that can be cured within the individual. Mindful Ecology seeks to live once again in a sacred world as our ancestors once did. That is what the world looks like to one who is awake.

Awake. Then we can trust to the wisdom of life itself to show each of us what individual way we must travel to remain on the path of beauty. Then we can trust the womb of emptiness from which all things come forth, instead of placing our trust in the fickle whims of social and religious dogmatisms. We do not need to wait for samsara to suddenly become less insane before stepping into the sacred world.

Our neighbors need to meet shamanistic warriors, yogis and yoginis and others harmonizing their minds with their bodies and their lives with the land. Not many are happy; sharing joy has become a work of great virtue. Not many are fearless; daring to know and yet enjoying life anyway has become a great witness. Not many are free; showing the power to choose kindness in our rude, violence-soaked cultures has become a great liberation. Working to spread the enlightenment of our endarkenment is the great work, the most meaningful of all work, for we hold the elixir of sadness in the compassionate heart that establishes each person in their own place.

Grateful and content we can move among our time as unshakable peacemakers. Grateful because we have conquered our fear and strong emotional resistance to seeing emptiness. Content because we have pushed desire to its end in the cremation ground and learned the true value of a breath. Unshakable because in our hearts we have let sadness take root in compassion and tasted selfless equality. We are peacemakers for we have communed with the bones of our ancestors in the earth, buried the hatchet under the tree feeding on fields of blood, and now carry our ebony flint sharp and our powder dry, ever ready as protectors of the land.

It is an extremely beautiful and fortunate thing to be alive. As human beings we have the opportunity to share the most profound depths of one another, including the awe and wonder of our clear light of being. It is my conviction that each of us embodies a cosmic seed of sorts, that we have cosmic roots, that in a way we have all been here a long, long time even as we are thoroughly and completely mortal. I am a Buddhist, I believe there are two truths. In the exquisite moment, quick as a finger snap, is all that we dream might some day come true for us in our heart of hearts. To see it we need only set aside the veils of aggression that blind us to the powerful electrical and elemental magic of ordinary life.

Molecules Contemplating Molecules

“If in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling when being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”
Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, italics in the original

“April was the seventh month in a row that broke global temperature records, NASA figures show. Last month smashed the previous record for April by the largest margin ever, the data show. That makes it three months in a row that the monthly record was broken by the largest margin ever.”
April breaks global temperature record, BBC News

 

Physics, chemistry and biology have found we live in a molecular world of cause and effect. Whatever gods might exist, if they are to exist, would be no less subject to the molecular universe than we are. This, as it has been said, is one of the charms of the Lovecraftian gods and the polytheistic pantheons in general, who while unimaginably powerful, remain very much members of this universe and as such are never beyond the pale of restrictions and struggles entirely. The Tibetan Wheel of Life captures this idea graphically by showing that all possible states of existence share a common hub and rim, a common inside and outside.

Our time is uniquely characterized by its abundance of scientific understanding. We have caught a glimpse of ourselves in the mirrors of our sciences but, frightened by the emptiness in the view, we have recoiled in horror. Some are desperately trying to resurrect atavistic stories from the Sunday school and nurseries of our intellectual childhood. Others have reacted to the emptiness by becoming angry atheists, losing the valuable perceptions only open to those who can look on nature with reverence and respect. They completely fail to appreciate that the role of the gods – whatever else they might be – is to embody important aspects of human consciousness by which we communicate our gestalt intuitions and ideals; they and their stories give us a means of sharing our deepest hopes and fears with one another.

I’d like to suggest the programs of the anachronistic fundamentalist and the angry atheist are both non-starters for people sincerely interested in responding well to the ongoing ecological crisis. I think we are being called on to engage in and explore a third option that doesn’t throw out the sacred but also no longer believes naïvely our all-too-human stories are more than that, our stories. We can learn to take the emptiness our science has revealed as a tonic. Out here, in the molecular world far larger than any story, the planet is heating up and everywhere ecosystems are failing. Hello? Is anybody in there? Now would be a good time to wake up…

The third option uses devotion to penetrate the hearts of the archetypal realm divinities to arrive at the mystery of the nervous system and awareness itself. We are fortunate to have a precious human life and – here is where ecology enlightens us – all that makes it possible is precious to us as well. The strange world of the neurosciences provokes awe within us before the tunnels, winds and seeds; the nadi, prana and bindu of the mammalian nervous system that allows me to be aware of you… Through direct experience we participate in this world as sacred.

In my mind this is what it means to bring Buddhism to the West. It is not meant to be just another religion in the great melting pot. It would be better understood as the harbinger of emptiness, a clearing house for a culture in decline, and a creator of yogis and yoginis. We are all intellectually aware that we live in a molecular universe. For the rest of this post we are going to try and suss out the barest hints at what that might really mean, by looking at it through the eyes of a contemplative.

Contemplating the molecular nature of existence is one of the more direct doorways into non-dual awareness. A range of altered states are available along this dimension which the contemplative can use to learn things directly about conscious experience within an energetic universe. At one end of this spectrum are those states that are aware of the fuzzy nature of our body boundaries, where our extremities are continually participating in an exchange of substances with the environment; a bubbling off of molecules of ‘us’ not unlike what occurs at the surface of evaporating water. This bubbling off is balanced in the bubbling forth of the rebuilding of ‘us’ out of the substances we have absorbed from the environment,  like a fountain of overflowing jewels often found in thangkas. A Buddhist finds a process ontology, not a substance ontology; this flowing is ‘us’.

Next along this spectrum of states are all those in which the molecular exchange penetrates our boundaries through activation of our sensory apparatus. The organic molecules of our being react to the molecules and atomic particles of our environment and the interaction provides what we experience in our various sensory modalities. We become aware of this patch of red or that scent of cinnamon through a cascade of biochemical pathways initiated by particles oscillating at a particular frequency within the visible spectrum in the case of color or shaped in a very particular way to mesh with the olfactory sense and convey information in the case of spices. In the quite mind of contemplation it is not hard to sense these meetings of inner and outer worlds as ongoing, direct energetic exchanges from which our identity is born. Life lives us.

Next stop on our quick survey of altered states involved in assimilating our conceptual understanding of the molecular universe through direct experience are all those involved with the classic practice of gently placing one’s attention on the breath. Breathing is perhaps the most immediate form of ongoing molecular exchange with our environment we can consciously experience. With every breath there is an exchange of carbon dioxide gas, which is poisonous for us, with oxygen which we use to fuel the metabolism of our carbon-based life forms. All thanks of course to the coevolutionary relationship all animals have with the plant kingdom, elegantly complementing our needs by fueling themselves with carbon dioxide and giving up oxygen in exchange. It is as if when we exhale the green environment around us inhales, and visa versa.

During a contemplative session at first these factoids about the molecular universe provide a type of conceptual scaffolding that aids our concentrated focus on the immediate sensations of our body breathing. As the conceptual, language-geared mind grows quite, direct awareness of this exchange grows; it is what we are and feels like a homecoming. Remember that third family of emotions that lead out of poverty mentality and into contentment? One way to use this contemplative learning experience is to educate and nurture just such typically ignored and atrophied aspects of our psychological lives. All these exercises are involved in training the mind to be at home in the molecular universe and recognize, eventually, the joyful play of sacred world.

Which brings us to the last step on this spectrum of states available to the contemplative who takes up the subject of the molecular world. Down in between the sub-atomic particles we have discovered there is a disconcertingly large amount of empty space. In the final exchanges between man and his environment we tune in not to the reality of our shared molecular nature but with the shared empty space between our particles and the shared empty space between the stars in the cosmos at large. (Here the dark kiss of infinity reaches with tentacled tunnels through the night side of Eden as a deathless inorganic being, like a jeweled skull held by Our Lady of the Stars, suffers the hard rain of the stellar kisses, ravishing the lover’s heart. Or not.)

So how does a contemplative go about preparing themselves for participation in these episodes of learning directly from the source? The yogi puts on the hat of the scholar and studies the ways of the elements. Traditionally these are referred to as earth, water, air, fire and space. Each are assigned an indispensable role in maintaining the environment in which consciousness can appear and love can be known: firmness, moisture, a medium of communication, the warmth of emotion and a distance in which to be.

It was easy to dismiss these elemental classification schemes as overly simplistic remnants of our superstitious childhood as our advancements of quantum mechanics and chemistry uncovered the ordered complexity of the periodic table. Carl Jung was the first to recognize the alchemist’s schemes were aiming at a transformation of the alchemist by pursuing their chemistries of turning lead into gold, that there was more going on here in that dense, dream-like symbolism than first meets the eye. In the same way these elemental summary classifications are not as primitive as they seem if they are used to break habitual, reductionist interpretations of our experience. I think there is an important clue here for those of us looking for ways to work with the modern mind. We should exert ourselves to our utmost in our studies, by applying whatever natural curiosity our genius lends us, to understand what we can about what our species has learned about how our molecular universe actually works. The alchemists had a saying that the last page of one book opens the first page of another; we should trust that, trust our own minds. The traditional teachings talked about course and subtle elements. The molecular world is the world of the subtle elements for us moderns, our doorway. These, and studies like them, become grist for the mill of our contemplative awareness.

Some examples; from the point of view of the germ cell life does not die, it just passes from one bodily form to another; or consider carefully the intimacy of the germ cell’s chromosomal binding in the DNA as it is found in every other of your body’s trillions of cells and one might perceive the act of sexual union extended throughout time and space, not unlike trillions of Tantric deities enthroned in their embrace within each nuclei. With an understanding of molecular epigenetics the mind can come to appreciate the histones extending their sinewy receptors from the DNA coils into the surrounding molecular soup as the expression of life’s great library of biochemical recipes skillfully adapting moment by moment by remaining coupled with its ever changing environment. We are all equally members of life’s unbroken stream, all of this and more is our inheritance, but it takes a contemplative mind to recognize the lineage.

In meditation we review what we know by applying it to deepen our direct perception of existence in all its vastness, exactly as it is this instant, all across the cosmos. In meditation we soak ourselves in wonder.

The View from Here

“‘Everything exists’: that is one extreme.
‘Everything doesn’t exist’: that is the second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
The Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle…”
Buddha

 

In wrapping up our whirlwind tour through the foundational view I would like to share a sketch of how these ideas might be helpful in understanding our times, like an impressionist painting in words.

First here is a reminder of why any of this is being discussed. We are trying to find a way to live knowing all the detailed horrors of our ecological circumstances yet still be joyfully appreciative for life just as it is. The paradoxical nature of this agenda is leading us throughout. Earlier posts have already addressed that this joy we are looking for is not the happy face, Pollyannaisms of popular feel-good society but recognition that in order to be of benefit to those we come into contact with, being suicidally depressed is less than helpful. If you are in a relationship, celebrating your loving bond involves being happy to be alive in the circumstances of that relationship. If you are a mother or father, inspiring your children with the best of your love entails showing them how life can be lived well. If you are a teacher or a nurse or any of the countless other professions that seek to serve the needs of others your effectiveness involves the ability to share an appreciation for life. Basically we are trying to understand how in spite of it all, being aware and awake to the exquisite highs and lows of life is worth the pain involved.

The pain is unavoidable, the suffering is optional. That is one way to summarize the teaching the view is trying to convey. It is a tricky thing to communicate and a tricky thing to grasp because it is looking to navigate a middle way between the two extremes of what was known classically as eternalism and nihilism or what might be more readily understood today as idealism and realism.

On one side there are all those thought systems that claim some aspect of our experience touches upon eternal, unchanging somethings. Platonic forms, deathless souls, mathematical truths and gods as popularly understood are a few of these types of thought systems that entail some aspect of eternalism. More pedestrian, yet perhaps more relevant in the final analysis, the same tendency is found in our social and political realms when the value of justice or freedom or other ideals are held up as more than guides amidst ever changing conditions. Ideas and ideals are meant to serve the needs of living, breathing beings – not the other way around.

The other side is populated by all those skeptical thought systems that wield a deconstruction of those eternalisms that are taken so far only confusion and meaninglessness remain. There are fewer widespread instances of these thought systems since they do not compliment our egos but they remain as undercurrents in much of what passes for normality today. The suspicion that mortals with conscious awareness is a joke at our expense or as H.P. Lovecraft had it most colorfully; that the universe might have a blind, gibbering, idiot god at its heart, the conviction that love is nothing more than chemical reactions and chemical reactions are somehow less worthy of holding such an elevated emotion is more of the same.

It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the eternalism position. Our ego would like to build a castle in the air and then move into it and thereby avoid death. The defense against this danger is the advice to always ‘take your body with you’, advice familiar to anyone practicing mindfulness. Our elaborate religious and philosophical systems all seek to identify a truth that will stand for all time, outside the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If we can just find the right combination of conceptual details the puzzle of existence will be unlocked and then we can proceed with life fearless and free of suffering. It is our happiness project.

When the happiness project falls apart, which it inevitably must if in fact all compound things are impermanent, the ego falls not to the ground of the particulars but into the hells of the nihilists.the-towerThat this is the usual way of things is well known yet resisted, feared. We see this in the religious fanatic quick to kill anyone who might threaten the legitimacy of their particular castle in the air. Just living in a way different from the fanatic’s choice threatens to be the lightning strike that will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. The same dynamics play out in the political realm when war is justified not because a physical threat to communities has occurred but because belligerents have dared to question our castles. Those of us old enough to have lived most our lives under the shadow of the Cold War between the United States and Russia are all too familiar with how these seemingly philosophical differences get translated into very real policies and actions. More recently all the rhetoric about ‘they hate our freedoms’ used to turn attention away from historical grievances and injustices between East and West is more of the same type of air-castle defense.

The classical presentation of the middle way between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism uses the idea of self and the possibility of an afterlife. The eternalism position is found in those that teach the self exists now and will continue to exist after the body dies. The nihilism position is found in those that teach the self exists now but will not exist after the body dies. The middle way between these two is held by those teachers that teach that the self does not exist now nor will it in some afterlife. This is the teaching of selflessness within the Buddhist traditions.

The idea of selflessness is important because relief from suffering is related to how well we understand it in our heart-mind, yet it is easily misunderstood. I recently completed Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy by Evan Thompson and can recommend it to those interested in the contributions neuroscience can make to our understanding of these things. The summary is that there is no self as an entity but only as a process; life lives us. We could say there is indeed a center to the mandala but that it is occupied by centerless space.

By the way, speaking of the afterlife, this middle way view is the root of the contemplative recommendation to call to mind one’s own death every day. While our feel-good, all is awesome in consumer-land culture sees only depression here, it is actually a way of staying in touch with what is most real and important, as well as cutting through the fog of habit that so easily blinds us to just how precious each and every day actually is.

Taking in the last few hundred years of philosophy in the west allows us to use reason to illustrate the middle way. I think for many people this resonates more deeply than speculations about selfhood. This is all about the role of science, the inheritance from the age of the western enlightenment and how we justify our educational and political institutions today. The Descartes – Locke – Kant traditions have placed reason on a pedestal as the means by which we might grasp the eternal truth and the really real. They would like to have the certainty deductive logic provides extended to inductive logic. Recognizing that inductive logic can only provide insights of a wholly different type the skeptics rise and in their deconstructions soon give rise to nihilism. The Hume – Nietzsche – Derrida traditions have been interpreted this way. The Bayesian approach to reasoning sketched out earlier is one way to navigate the middle way between these two extremes by recognizing that reason is a useful tool, thereby avoiding the nihilism and yet it is not some sort of direct line to cosmic truth central, which avoids the other extreme of eternalism.

It is worth returning to the point made earlier. The middle way is not meant to be a final answer, an alternative air-castle. The wisdom it embodies is that the answer to the riddle of life is to be found in the living of it. What it offers is an alternative lifestyle which satisfies the existential longings and conforms to the existential circumstances of a finite, conscious being. This contemplative lifestyle is the alternative to dogma and any conceivable conceptual-only system claiming to be or represent the final truth. It offers an ever changing process instead of fixed structures, relationships as primary instead of things. It teaches us to train in seeing that right here and right now is an ever new and fresh moment – open, spacious and relaxed, even while being in the midst of all these appearances that are so luminous, vivid and clear.

Ecological issues today also illustrate the three positions people can take regarding what is really real. The eternalists assure us there is nothing to worry about. The nihilists are sure the end of the world is just around the corner. The middle way between these extreme sees a collapse of fossil-fueled industrial civilization as inevitable but not fundamentally different than the collapse of previous civilizations in the past. Can you see how each of these positions will lead a person into distinctly different lifestyles? Can you see how accepting finitude might lead one to be able to let the huge cycles of history unfold as they will, while we carefully tend our gardens and take joy in their harvests?