“His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.”
Magnificat of Mary, Luke, Chapter 1
“…for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush Monticello
I never thought I would live to see the day nuclear weapons would be discussed by a world leader in a tweet – twinkle dust text. Burning may well be the most painful way to die. Cancerous pain accompanied by teeth and hair falling out due to nuclear fallout is a close second. The birth deformities for the survivors of a nuclear bomb are a living horror, take a look if you can stomach it.
I’ve been talking about the difference between things you can put in a wheelbarrow and abstract ideas that exist nowhere except in the human mind. It is altogether too easy to allow ourselves to wrap phenomenon with profound implications in the real world into nice sounding terms that are dangerously abstract: climate change, the sixth extinction, war. In part we do so of necessity. A good abstraction retains the essence of the subject while making it simple enough to allow us to communicate successfully with one another as we explore it in depth. Without some abstraction the details of any item in the molecular world we might wish to discuss would overwhelm us. History, philosophy and scientific insight are all characterized primarily by our skill in creating the right kind of abstractions.
There is another, more seductive aspect of this process of cognitive abstraction however. It can provide the wielder of the terms a false sense of having power over what they refer to. I call it a seduction because it tempts us to hubris exactly where humility would better serve our developing a true understanding.
These seductive terms can be used to bypass cognition’s critical and skeptical skills. They can appeal directly to the emotions and trigger a wide range of physiological states including fear, paranoid suspicion, fellow-feeling with the amassed crowd, and the strength of the vigilante mob mind. Used by the unscrupulous these seductive terms become cognitive weapons. They provoke extreme thoughts and emotions within the listeners. Actions follow the mind, as the Buddha taught, and wisdom is found along the middle way. Extreme thought and emotion lead to people acting out, acting extreme. Some of these potentially seductive terms which should be handled with great care, in my opinion, include ‘god’ and ‘nuclear weapons.’
Armageddon has been festering in the images and imagination of the world ever since 1945. The fireball has become entwined in the minds of many with god’s plan for the earth; a final showdown between the good guys and the bad guys. Somehow, under the kindly direction of a society lead by arms manufacturers above all others, we have managed to condense centuries of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions and teachings into this. What was a splinter theological position has become the working currency of religious thought for the man in the street the world over. What a mixed up theology that is. The Left Behind series, among the best selling books of all time, is a study in how to mix up the planes. Evidently there really are some among us who think that if we let the nuclear bombs fly, god will catch them or some such; direct them, use them, aim them? I’m not quite sure, the whole psychotic concept strikes me as a Tar Baby like morass. It is a dangerous delusion to imagine that a nuclear exchange will make Jesus come back from the sky, or cause the long awaited Messiah to finally appear, or bring to earth the supreme Caliphate. I do not think this is worthy of the adult reasoning we are capable of, nor is it worthy of the rich religious traditions these childishly simple ideas use like a parasite uses its host.
As we complete the winter holiday season we would do well to meditate on the core message about peace on earth. Don’t let them sell you a ticket to paradise. In the quiet of your own subjectivity you stand on the shared ground of all human beings, equal. The rich and powerful, while playing with powers they can barely understand, are not spared tears, fears, or suffering due to their wealth and influence. And what of the poor and powerless? The battlefield casualty is not only an individual dying, though of course they are that. They are also a part of us, a shared bloody stain we all carry inside. As mentioned last week, the shaman understands this inner world where it is clearly the truth that the happiness of the ninety-nine cannot be complete without the healing of the lost one. It is the nature of the mind, the nature of the familial species that we are.
I think it is important for all those who deeply love the earth and love their children to become very clear about their commitments to these things. Refuse to let seductive abstractions steal your awareness away from the reality of the molecular world and its elemental power of manifest intelligence. These are our allies against ignorance.
The shaman finds all things real, even real imagination such as we have been discussing, for these imaginings too are things that really happen. The shaman works to find the real by calling the unreal non-existent. By seeking out the real the shaman takes a seat of sorts in his or her heart, the center of their being. Though Christ is the western shaman, as we discussed last week, the teaching is that all are called to participate, to complete the sufferings of Christ with our own. Our mental, physical and emotional joys and sufferings, what do they mean? Our encounter as individuals with the collective stories of our shaman involve encounters with our conscience, but in a manner very nuanced. Society is full of mind games: burdens are injected into young and vulnerable psyches; sins are passed along anew to the seventh generation – all this complicates the judgment of the heart in the halls of Amenti. It makes the final, absolute assignment of innocence and guilt rather tricky. Here, with the proper view of the real world of abuse and consequences, suffering evokes compassion. The shamans teach us that to live with heart, that is with compassion, is to carry the sun into midnight. A lantern. A single star in sight, over a manger, as they say this time of year.
At some point whatever good you can do with your life will fade, as will whatever evil. Each of your actions will become a part of the whole; this inherited bundle of causes and effects each generation receives from the past. Your individual deeds will weigh in, but only as a part of the ongoing fight of the shaman Christ light against the darkness aka as a part of the big picture scheme of things that includes this whole journey through deep space and deep time the human race is on. This picture is so big only myth can begin to capture it at all, it dwells forever on the threshold of what we can conceptualize. Myth like this is not asking us to pretend to believe in things we cannot. It is sketching out a way in which each individual might fill in their own wheelbarrow, as it were. They offer a framework in which the real events of individual experience can be laid out in such a way that they might lead individuals to healing and wisdom.
The Christ light of myth speaks a poetic truth about where the ego cannot go. The body that sweat tears of blood in prayer and was “pierced and given up for you” shows us something so simple really: that god is also in the death and pain of human experience. The Christ light, as mentioned last week, comes to banish the devil from death, to break the devil’s hold over death. Men fighting these dark superstitions were meant to be the “balm of the nations.” Un-possessed by extreme cognitions and emotions – the embodiments of the archetypal gods and demons – individuals of all races and creeds were called to “Come, let us reason together.” Why? to seek peace.
The mythic Christ light goes beyond the reality based ego. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see god.” Here, where poetry and dreams come from, dwells his peace, the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Our western shaman has returned with the boon: “my peace I give you.”
Our myths are here to teach us about the meaning of our existence, to teach us to trust and have faith in what the human adventure is all about. It is a mistake to use them as we do, as if they could shield us from the clear consequences of our actions. This leads me to suggest another very simple truth that can act as a boulder for the contemplative: reason guiding compassion is the path of peace.
Does this seem too simple? What alternative would you offer?