A Pound of Flesh

“Throughout his life, Trump has been obsessed with nukes. In 1984, he claimed that he could single-handedly force Russia to accept a nuclear truce, telling a reporter: “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles … I think I know most of it anyway.” In 1990, he told Playboy: “I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process,” adding that the assumptions behind the US’s long tradition of non-use were ‘bullshit’.”
Paul Mason, For Trump and the US right, breaking the nuclear taboo has always been thinkable

“…the deepest human fear is to face the anarchies of personal madness or civil breakdown. That is why the urge for lawful order stands at the bifurcation leading either to imposed tyrannous rules, or to harmonies of inquiry, self-knowledge, and compassionate identification.
In tyranny, a fundamental despair over the possibility of lawful order in the universe leads to an attempt to master it, to become the law, to dispense fate, to externalize pain rather than be subject to it. But when lawful order matures, the laws of the living organism of the universe are understood and counted on to extend through every boundary, to reach everywhere; or to originate everywhere. The same unfolding rules regulate my heart and the stars. There is only one place. There is no person-like being who sees everything with a giant eye; but each event billows upward out of nonbeing with a sovereignty that marks out the paths of electrons as well as the orbits of galaxies. The simple comfort of a law-giving father can be relinquished, when lawful order brings awareness and comprehensibility to an otherwise improbable and pell-mell world. Dispassionate, accurate observation of reality reveals an infinitely layered and exponentially complex order everywhere. The sense of lawful order is the sense that there is something behind it all, that there is something to it all. “An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is reality. That is the truth. THOU ART THAT.”
Paul R. Fleischman, The Healing Zone: Religious Issues in Psychotherapy

“He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly mislead.”
Mark 12.27 NAB, italics added

 

This post continues our discussion of religious child abuse. It also touches on the horrors of nuclear war. It may not be suitable for all readers.

Dr. Fleischman’s point about tyranny as a lack of faith in law and order is crucial, as is the point about there being a bifurcation exactly here, a choice to be made. This ability to believe in a universe of law and order is what is destroyed in victims of religious child abuse. Those who have been religiously terrorized as children form an evidence based belief that the cosmos does not contain a core of dependable law and order. They have experienced deceit in those society holds reverently as its main truth tellers, they have experienced the death of morality at the hands of those society holds as the pinnacle of ethics. Justice in the courts and fairness in social relations never come to these kids. The powerful remain powerful, almost untouchable as the 2015 Best Picture Spotlight made clear. As a result the hurt now live in a world where human facades fail to fool their broken hearts. The preacher going on and on about how god is love might just as well be from another universe entirely. The preacher going on about the god of love on Sunday and raping them on Monday is a monster that calls into question the existence of meaning in existence itself. Just imagine, if you will, seeing the universe from their eyes. The Western idea of an all knowing, all loving god who is all powerful but chose not to intervene does not answer their needs. So many of these victims die on our streets unacknowledged: overdosed with needles in their arms, hunted down by the diseases of prostitution, driven to suicide, murder or madness by the “saints.” It is in their name I offer these speculations.

These discussions are going to turn their focus towards Western religious traditions. The Biblical influence on the development of arts and letters in the cultures of the West is pervasive and remains so. It is not possible to understand the ecological crisis we are in without also understanding the psychology of people that allowed it to develop this far and are allowing it to proceed at its ever accelerating pace. Each culture will need to examine its roots as the maturation of the psyche under the tutelage of crisis continues. I absorbed Christianity with my mother’s milk, I am sure others are making similar investigations into their religious traditions in the same way. The silent abused child is silent no more the world over.

These comments around religious abuse and the misuse of Christian symbolism are offered in the spirit of compassionate speculation. Many of my acquaintances are people who, like myself, were hurt very badly in their childhood by the misuse of Christianity or more broadly, the mytho-poetic symbolism of Western religiosity. For those who were tortured and terrified by the followers of a perverted form of Jesus Christ, clarification from the psychologists’ position are going to be offered to aid healing by, hopefully, increasing understanding. This is valuable in itself. There is, however, a larger relevance to these speculations for the culture at large as well.

The issues brought to a head in this type of child abuse are the same issues that are driving formerly Christian countries crazy. These countries are becoming less and less able to bring wisdom to bear on the real problems and challenges they confront. They turn towards fantasy, seduced by magical thinking. Everywhere we see these formerly Christian cultures giving up on the ideals of Christian charity when it comes to public discussion and policy making. Even hypocritical lip service to these ideals is becoming rare among their leaders as they flirt with the older ideals of the strong man where might makes right and woman and children and members of other races are no more than slaves, trophies and property. Religion, in these countries, has become a nice-to-have but hardly necessary component of societies that seek to increase their economic might above all else. The old fashion Christian ideals of helping the poorest of the poor, orphans, and widows has been placed on life support.

Against this tide of secularism defined as neo-liberal values and consumer capitalism, a backlash of Christian fundamentalism has risen and taken positions of power. Christianity is being redefined as unquestioning obedience to male authority by those who “know” it is the “only true religion.” Satan, by this narrative, is everywhere and everywhere winning. The only thing to do is bring back the days of Puritan Law and Order, Christian Reconstructionism along Old Testament lines. This is highly unlikely under current circumstances so racial and class differences are being used to divide and conquer the population, shattering the social contracts. This social and psychological fragmentation serves the interests of fascism – government run by corporations instead of citizens. Populations confused about the wisdom in their own inherited religious traditions are cut off from their cultural roots. They are easily persuaded they have found a new purpose when they are united by their leaders against a common enemy. They can drown painful anomie in patriotism. When the hot wars start, all the painful social inequalities are set aside in the rally around the flag.

Let’s make these speculations a bit more concrete. A few days ago the official spokesman for the United States military used a very carefully crafted phrase to state that the US “is not looking to the total annihilation” of North Korea, but “we have many options to do so.” This is fear mongering. As hypnotists know, the unconscious mind does not deal in negative propositions. (‘Don’t think of an elephant’ doesn’t work in dream land.) When that phrase was planted in our minds the little word “not” was stripped off. At some semi-conscious level images of a whole population consumed in flames took place in every educated mind that heard that phrase. It might even be that the night after hearing these words most Americans dreamed a shaman dream, one full of BBQ’d flesh and beastly Eucharistic meals. Dreams most people would not be likely to remember on waking. Why would we do this? Because warriors become great again by eating the flesh of their enemies, one of the oldest ideas in the history of ideas, one still very much alive in the unconscious mind. Because we are a democracy we share in the responsibility for the actions of our leaders. As citizens we understand this on a very fundamental level and can be expected to process it in our dreams. Because this is how the human mind works, trying out various scenarios in our imagination to aid our ability to make good choices in our waking life. This nuclear scenario as a possible future was rather forcefully implanted in our minds by the use of that phrase “total annihilation.” This proposed act has such large potential ramifications on the probability of the United States future survival, that it became impossible to ignore by the mind’s scenario spinner that lives within each of its citizens.

However that may be, it is important to recognize how disproportionate the threatened response was to the provocation. This is a classic sign of psychopathology. Granted we said we don’t want to do it, just like any bully convinced of their own self-righteousness might say “don’t make me hit you.” This is all very dangerous. We need to be damn sure we are not goaded into flippantly using nuclear weapons in response to hurt pride and little else. The rest of the world could then make a strong argument that we are too dangerous to not be placed in some sort of quarantine. We would stand accused as the only country to have used these terrible weapons.

Parts of the unconscious mind are rather primitive in their ideas of justice. Purely illustrative, lets indulge for a moment in the bizarre world of fully distributive justice. But first a word or two for why, to set the context. I think there is an element of real evil in the escalation of threats around using nuclear weapons that is taking place on the world’s stage just now. I think that cause and effect, karma if you like, might somehow really matter in the ongoing effort to avoid World War III, which all people of goodwill have been involved in, at least in their hearts, since 1945. It is something I hope every reader will spend some time seriously contemplating. What if, just for example, nuclear weapons are going to be used again on earth six months from now. If you knew this was going to happen, would it change anything about how you live today? Might it change your contemplations and prayers? Would it change what you have the courage to talk about with your friends? Might it make the easy, flippant answers we normally give about the satanic majesty of our arsenals ring a bit hollow?

Here, presented more in the spirit of poetry, dark and dismal, than in the spirit of prose, is a back of the envelope version of distributive justice. The scenario is that the president of the United States presses the red button in a few months and brings “total annihilation” to North Korea. We avoid all the real world complications in an effort to get to exactly what was implied in the fear mongering phrase used. Because citizens of the United States live in a democracy it must be said that our fingers would also be on that button, at least in some ethical sense. But how much guilt should each of us rightly be assigned? This is the kind of question the human mind goes to work on, and it can become obsessive. Just ask any concentration camp survivor. Distributive justice is a first attempt at finding some rational answer that will satisfy the mind. That it is wholly inadequate to satisfy the heart will become obvious.

The existing population of North Korea is 25.37 million people. The average body weight in Asia is 127.2 lbs. Multiply these together and you find the pounds of Asian flesh being targeted. There are 323.1 million citizens of the United States. Divide the total US population into the total pounds of Asian flesh to find the distributed justice allocation for each of us. It works out to be just about 10 lbs of BBQ’d human flesh for each.

I present these ideas about the death of charity and this admittedly bizarre calculation as evidence that the meaning of the Western Christian tradition has been sorely misused and misunderstood. I believe, like all legitimate traditions of all peoples, that there is an element of inescapable truth about the human condition within Christianity  – and a trap for those who would misuse it. It is what we are going to be exploring by contrasting that life affirming aspect of Christian religious thought with this other tradition, this one of Rambo Jesus born from those who would flip the crucified one upside down and turn the cross of Christ into the sword of Damocles, the sword of nuclear wrath.

The Next Day

“What about the criticism that perpetrators of religious child maltreatment should be discounted because they are not ‘real’ believers, that they are misguided as to what faith is truly about? In response, I question whether anyone is qualified to ascertain just what constitutes a righteous individual. I know that I am not in a position to know what makes someone a ‘good’ Christian, a ‘real’ Jew, or a perfectly devout Muslim. I do know, however, that in case after case of religious child maltreatment I have studied, the perpetrators believed without a doubt that they were the real deal.”
Janet Heimlich, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment

 

Next week marks the third year anniversary of this blog project. With some trepidation, it is time for the graduate studies. I want to talk next about spiritual child abuse. This type of child abuse is not as well known by the public as the horrors of physical and sexual abuse, nor, in my experience, is it very well understood by many of those working directly with its victims. I think this subject is a necessary ingredient in Mindful Ecology. My trepidation comes from recognizing that it is a subject very likely to be misunderstood by readers who have not gained some insight into the Mindful Ecology view from the previous years of essays. If this is your first encounter with this material, it might be best to start with earlier subjects.

Every religion has a light side and a dark side. The point I will be making is little more than this. I believe that it is in an honest recognition and healing of this shadow cast by religion’s light that we might find a way forward. Harnessing faith could be just what is needed to wake up to, and embrace, our human responsibilities under Homo Colossus. In other words, if we can be honest about what spiritual abuse is, how it works and what we must do to protect ourselves against it, we will find the door opens to deal rightly with our abusive relationships with the earth. In my experience this is how it works in individuals, this process of waking up. It might be the means that can also change the existing suicidal society.

Fundamentally the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis: we are terrified of existence; our god is dead and in a tantrum we are destroying all our toys. It has got to stop.

Are you enjoying the lungs full of forest fire smoke as you count the days of this year’s record breaking drought? Or, where you’re living, are you one of those caught in the torrential rain and howling winds flooding your neighborhood? Maybe where you are weather records are not being broken and your summer season is wrapping up more or less as you remember it did in years past. As I read the charts there are not too many folks in that later category, blessed as it would be. For all the rest of us – welcome to swimming in karma. Swinging to the left, a little too far. Swinging to the right, a little too far. Touch too much sun, touch too much rain; will we ever find our way back to the middle path?

This is Earth abuse. I think this is what we are doing every day in which we do not work to minimize the destructive ecological footprint of Homo Colossus. Giant-sized fossil fuel industrialization might have been built in innocence, but those days are long past. To continue accelerating our rates of pollution and resource over-use is a crime against humanity, plain and simple. It is a crime against the human heart and a crime against the human future.

Earth abuse only happens because some people have some other people so scared, they cannot speak. Psychologists say that the perpetrators of abuse ‘project their own shadows’ into their victims. This means that they inject guilt into them, guilt which they do not deserve. The young girl victimized by incest tends to come to the belief that somehow they were at fault in the crime, the young boy beaten ‘for his own good’ comes to believe they deserve to be treated this way. All abuse shares this secret, this technique for gaining authoritarian power over another person’s will. Every sick family, and the species is a family, projects the shadow in the same psychological torture routine:

Two Rules of Madness
A – There is no problem (from divorce to incest) (from ocean acidification to topsoil loss) and you are elected the Black Sheep / Scapegoat to carry it for us (outcasts and heretics)
B – Rule A does not exist but must never be broken (and will not be discussed)

There is very little understanding of the full ramifications of childhood sexual and physical abuse within our societies. We are not self-aware enough to normally see how the acts perpetrated in secret get shouted from the rooftops, how these seeds of hate sewn in our private lives reap wildflowers of fire in our public events. There is even less understanding of the spiritual abuse of children and what these things cause. Earth abuse, I am suggesting, is a further step along the spiritual abuse continuum. We act the way we do, treating the earth as a whore and a sewer, due to our values as a people. A people’s values are intimately connected to their intellectual convictions around what has worth and what is worthless; who has worth, and who is worthless. But values are not wholly rational, they also involve a people’s emotional reactions to various social rituals which invoke the strong, visceral reactions of purity and disgust associated in our nervous systems with the holy.

Spiritual abuse can be defined as sexual or physical abuse that takes place in a religious context or when the perpetrators are in positions of power within religions. The essence of the crime, however, is much more subtle and involves what can quite accurately be called a psychological rape. That is, it forces ideas and images into a person’s psychological interior life that they did not choose. These ideas and images cause extreme emotional and intellectual reactions within the victim against their will. It is a crime against another person’s soul for cults and cultists to inject religious idea-images that trigger suicidal reactions when the victim dares to consider leaving the cult, changing the faith, or otherwise exercising their free will. We are not talking about normal persuasion or education here. There is a definite line that is crossed that makes what I am referring to clearly abuse.

The couple phrases italicized above could also be used to describe the global psychological circumstances that are involved in our ongoing ecological and social breakdown. People of good will do not want to be destroying the world their grandchildren’s grandchildren will be playing in for the sake of an iPhone. Yet here we are. How are we to understand this? The faith in neo-liberal economics does not suffer fools gladly, silencing every dissenting voice. Though the true believers cannot see how they are being driven to make the world inhospitable for human beings, it has become evident that this will be the result of their efforts if they remain unopposed. What I think we need is not another set of street protests that lead to replacing the old boss with the new boss, exchanging one set of chains for another. We need stronger medicine.

Fatherlessness is epidemic in the lands where ancestors once prayed the Our Father. Hate and cruelty are replacing compassion as the social ideal, much as Nietzsche thought might happen in the West with the death of god. A culture of suspicion has spread its influence into every nook and cranny of our social intercourse. Cultures steeped in Christianity, its Western form in particular, are breaking down under class and racial divisions that have become so extreme as to be un-sustainable. What we need is a street theology. One powerful enough to overcome the destroyer, one that can “bind the strong man” within ourselves and our institutions.

Must?

“He practiced rational emotive imagery at least once a day by imagining that people were really acting stupidly, letting himself feel very angry about this, and then working on feeling only disappointment and frustrated, but not angry, about their stupid behavior.”
Albert Ellis, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything

 

I care deeply about the destruction of the ocean. Since my earliest childhood, playing in the waves has been one of the ways I most treasure participating in the powerful natural forces of our earth. I have taught my wife to bodysurf. I have taught my children. I deeply want my children to be able to teach their children the same joy of splashing in and swimming with, instead of against, the great currents of our planet. I tell you this so that you can understand when I say it is important to me that the oceans do not die on my watch. When I consider that what my society is doing today is likely creating the ocean die-off time-bomb that will haunt my children’s children’s children, and on, and on, for longer than my heart can bare to think about, anger lives inside me. Then I remember that even an ocean die-off is unlikely to remove the act of bodysurfing from the planet. That sweet kiss of flesh and salt water in which an organic return encapsulates billions of years of hard earned evolution by choosing to come back and play, to laugh in the tides, that will remain. The anger is gone. I am deeply disappointed in the people around me. I am frustrated they do not see and value as I see and value. But somehow in correcting my view of the ocean die-off it also alters my view of my fellow human creatures. No one is deliberately setting out to do evil; that’s one for the comic books. Tough, but there it is.

I have transformed the anger into frustration. Anger is susceptible to rage and rage to violence. Shutting the door on anger I now deal instead with issues around how well I am able to tolerate this frustration and disappointment. Working on my frustration tolerance is no walk in the park, but I can do so with a peace denied my angry mind. The key to shutting the door on anger instead of repressing it was using my reason to reframe my understanding.

Flights of fancy, day dreams, artistic inspirations and many other states of mind use the non-rational and irrational productively. The bounds of reason are far too limited to capture all that the heart needs to communicate. Symbolism and metaphor fill our art and poetry, drama and literature to compliment our understanding. Comedy and humor, so often the balm of life, very often depends on cognitive errors like exaggeration for their effect. We are called, at times, to be our own poets, artists and comedians, so it is important in mind training that we do not try and control our ever changing thoughts too much. If we grasp at all this too tightly we just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Still, the art of cognitive training consists of catching the mind as it engages in irrational thoughts being passed off as rational – and firmly disputing those irrationalities. In our mind training, as in science, we are after more truth. We do not expect perfect or absolute truth. We do expect we can whittle away a bit at our own ignorance with work and practice. The key is to look for those thoughts that will not stand up to a rational analysis yet claim to be rational. These are the ones that are worth keeping an eye on. Their deceptive cloaks can make us feel as though we are being rational in the moments we are entertaining them. It is only when we step back and take a look at things more objectively that we recognize that what they are asserting is highly improbable, if not down-right hokey. Happiness, even sanity, depends on firmly disputing these cognitive errors.

The model of REBT teaches that when we are deeply disturbed we are telling ourselves something in a semi-divine imperative voice. We are lording over ourselves with a MUST. Which is giving you your greatest difficulty?

I must do well.
You must treat me well.
The world must treat me well.

We greatly prefer to do well and be treated well but we only hurt ourselves if we think we must be. That is nothing more than childishly magical thinking born of taking ego as divinity. Adults should recognize that human beings are fallible creatures and the world is an imperfect place. The sort of absolutism this kind of must-thinking represents is not at home in these conditions. It is not well adapted to reality so it can cause all sorts of trouble both for individuals and nations.

One of these variations of what Ellis calls MUSTerbation will likely be at the root of whatever it is that is disturbing you. These beliefs destroy peace of mind by judging your self-worth against unrealistic criteria. If you believe these types of things you have been set up to fail because these are really double binds. If these are your criteria for self-worth you just cannot win because even when you do well today, or someone treats you well today, or the world bestows its finest gifts upon you today, you know that tomorrow will most likely be a different matter. Win and you fail; fail and you fail; the Catch 22 of the double bind.

So of course, once we clearly see this, we simply must not use must. Right? And around and around we go. Here is where skill comes in. It teaches us to bring to the work a gentle touch, knowing we are most effective when guided by patience. The psyche is complex. As we have previously discussed there are many times that the shadow is working important work in maintaining our actual adaptation to the actual environments we find ourselves in. All that seems weak, sinful, sniveling, all those parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and make outcasts, they need to have a place at the table of the Self too. No self improvement program started by the ego should dare to try and shed that shadow too quickly or too completely. Perfection is not for us. We can not even perfectly accept our imperfections – but we can imperfectly accept our imperfections and that is good enough.

REBT is a good tool to have on the cognitive tool belt. We all are prone to some crazy-making and we have it in our power to diminish or even, sometimes, remove it entirely. I have found myself using REBT periodically for decades. There are times it’s powerfully helpful to lay out the semi-conscious irrational beliefs that I have gathered from the on-going confrontations between my character and the world. Things shift around with the passing of the years and this technique has let me periodically tighten up the Ship of State, as it were. Writing out the irrational beliefs and writing out their disputations as taught is a bit silly but it has had surprisingly powerfully positive effects for me and thousands of others. Your mileage may vary but I am convinced that some form of disputing the mind’s irrational beliefs is required for mental health.

It is also required for social health. A society that cannot hold its own irrational beliefs up for examination loses one of its most effective means of navigating events and finding appropriately proportionate responses. The idea dominate in the over-developed world that the earth simply must give us the resources we need to continue feeding Homo Colossus is one of those irrational beliefs. Seen through the lens of mindful ecology our accelerating use of dirty oil, dirty coal, and dirty nuclear energy in the face of climate change facts is just a way of saying to the earth, like a somewhat ungrateful bully, “you owe me.” “Look at all I have done in my building and dreaming, creating technologies that mimic the magic of the gods, it cannot all have been for naught!” This is just more MUSTerbation and now it is doing a deadly dance with All-or-Nothing thinking. It implies, no, it insists that the only way forward is more of the same or “by god we will blow the whole thing up.” Isn’t that how the rest of the semi-conscious threat-thought runs in the haunted basement of the public square?

Working on our minds is the most direct route to working on the issues of ecology.

The REBT exercises train the mind to be on the lookout for temptations towards exaggerated conceit on the one hand, or self-damning on the other. These are the mistakes that accompany irrational beliefs. If we allow ourselves to have too high and mighty evaluation of our place then the slightest ego threat is perceived as an attack on our fundamental worth and can lead quickly to violent rage. In the other direction self damning leads to depression by confusing the guilt that might rightly belong to an action taken in the past which we have come to regret, with guilt about our very existence. We are confused by thinking not that I did a terrible thing but that I am a terrible person. This cripples the solution to past terrible actions, namely, future non-terrible actions.

These cognitive errors represent the human mind claiming god-like powers. This is rather obvious in the commands behinds the MUST but its not hard to see in the All-or-Nothing’s black and white perfectionism either, and so on for the rest of the cognitive errors we are prone to. This western mind training becomes a way of keeping in touch with the genuinely human. This is where, as the pages of our life history and our community’s history unfold, we will do many things well but not all things, others will often treat us well but not always, and the world will take the most exquisite care of us, furnishing us with everything we need to survive, even thrive, but not always.

Reason’s Rudder

“To challenge your misery, try science. Give it a real chance. Work at thinking rationally, sticking to reality, checking your hypothesis about yourself, about other people, and about the world. Check them against the best observations and facts that you can find. Stop being a Pollyanna. Give up pie-in-the-sky. Uproot your easy-to-come-by wishful thinking. Ruthlessly rip up your childish prayers.
Yes, rip them up! Again – and again – and again.
Will the millennium then arrive? No. Will you never again feel disturbed? I doubt it. Will you reduce your anxiety, depression, and rage to near-zero? Probably not.
But, I can, almost, promise you this: The more scientific, rational, and realistic you become, the less emotionally uptight you will be. Not zero uptight – for that is inhuman or superhuman. But a hell of a lot less. And, as your years go by, and your scientific outlook becomes more solid, less and less neurotic.
Is that a guarantee? No, but a prediction that will probably be fulfilled.”
Albert Ellis, How To Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything Yes, Anything

“These new methods present a unique opportunity to assess the origins of a fundamentally human condition: the costly yet advantageous shift from a primitive “live fast and die young” strategy to the “live slow and grow old” strategy that has helped to make us one of the most successful organisms on the planet.”
A Long Childhood is of Advantage, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

“The god I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”
U2, Bullet the Blue Sky

 

The god I believe in is not afraid of science – to crib off U2 – nor reason, psychology, or engineering. Nor does the ground of all being fear the negative way of atheists, for they too see there is a real absence, and that that too is part of the mystery. There is nothing verboten to study, though not all things are equally of benefit to the cause of liberating the student from the shackles of thinking-too-small. All the details of the elemental molecular world are just so many signatures of the all-pervading intelligence that forms the ground of our being. Does that make sense? The truth cannot be one thing in the Sangha, Mosque, Temple or Cathedral, another thing in the laboratory or counseling office, and yet another thing in the streets.

God is a term with so many different possible connotations that without careful definition it is best if we comprehend it as our pointer word; it points to truth or being directly and as such is not a noun, verb, adverb or adjective in any ordinary sense. Eastern traditions are careful to include the emptiness features of any positive assertions when talking carefully about these ultimate things. We see this in Buddhism and in the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Apophatic traditions. I mention this because for some people the thought of allowing a rational, dare I say scientific, view to guide their daily lives seems to be a threat to their faith. In my experience that is not the case. Surrendering ourselves to what is real is the Way.

We are an incredibly complex psychobiological phenomenon actively interpreting and adapting to our environments. With physical bodies always needing to be protected we also use minds to position ourselves within the greater scheme of things that we encounter within our understanding of how the world works. The complex psychobiological phenomenon has evolved in an on-going quest to open to that which nourishes and avoid that which poisons, in fulfillment of life’s primary objective: its own continuous survival obtained by maintaining mental and physical homeostasis. Steer your complex psychobiological phenomenon incorrectly and you end up mad on the one hand or feverish and without immunity on the other. The point of homeostasis in the psychological realm of daytime consciousness is rational discourse.

When we talk with others we project an expression of our character. When we talk to ourselves we do the same thing. This inner dialog that spins around in our minds every day of our lives is a very important ingredient in determining the type of life experience we will ultimately have.

What type of life do you want to look back on when the day comes to lay it down? It can be helpful to ask ourselves what sort of influence we have had so far on the world around us and assess if we could use a course correction, large or small, while we still have the chance. The time will come when the choices for how we think, feel and act will no longer be our own to make. There will come a time when all our choices will have been made, at least for this life, at least for this personality.

When the day comes to lay our bones down in the dark earth, consume them in fire, or feed them to the mountain birds, we will become the summation of our whole life. For as long as breath lasts we have the power of choice. This leaves the future open, radically open. The whole story of an individual’s life cannot be known before the whole story has been played out – but once it has, it enters the domain of humanity’s inheritance. While we live, our lives are a whole piece with the generations around it and the society in which it unfolds. After we have passed, our lives leave ripples in the webs of cause and effect. Others will enjoy, or suffer, from the inheritance we leave in the same way we have when our generation was in the ever changing spotlight of psychobiological awareness. This is the truth. It is self-evident. It is spoken to us from the witness of our senses.

Our senses provide us with the gates through which our complex psychobiological phenomenon participates in reality. Our perceptual apparatus maintains an on-going physiological communion between our characters and their unique expression of the will to live and the worlds they find themselves participating in. They teach us there is no isolated self. They also teach that there cannot be a unitary self, for how could one compare the input of sound to that of sight or touch to that of smell? These are fundamentally different data streams, wholly unlike one another so that cannot be simply summed. Things are more subtle and complex than a simple summation. It is in the orchestration of many different parts that the on-going maintenance of our being takes place.

In Tibetan Buddhism the mind is considered a sense just like vision or taste. It too has the function of adapting ourselves to the environments in which we find our lives unfolding. It too has a data stream, one not of scent or color but one of thought. The words and images of the mind are the intimate arena where our choice making is most clearly expressed, for to some degree we choose what it is we will spend time thinking about. This is hardly the whole story however, as anyone who has spent any time minding the mind will know; things pop into our heads for often the most obscure of reasons. It is part of being a complex psychobiological phenomenon. Sometimes those winds of thought larger than our ego are pleasant and inspiring and other times they are terrifying and bring fear. However these bully thoughts appear, the power to make choices in the mental realm remains. This is an important point. When the bully thoughts arise our freedom to choose is not expressing itself in choosing what to think about but in how we will think about what has, quite literally, captured our attention.

Those things that capture us most deeply typically involve the interpersonal hopes and fears, loves and losses, and the most profound regrets and traumas we have experienced. We ruminate on these things in the process of adapting ourselves to our environment. For us social primates there is no environmental feature more dominate than our interactions with other human beings. Our complex psychobiological inheritance has seen to it that this is so, beginning with our long childhood and extending into our most intimate thoughts which are of necessity couched in a language we inherited and did not make ourselves. The result is that we have the images of the society’s roles and expectations within us. It is as if the mind sets up semi-automated puppets as stand-ins for the people we have met and the various roles they have played in the development of our psyche. We must deal with this internalized community just as surely as we must deal with the people we meet with each day. Most of them are quick to judge us and tell us what we must do at all times if we are not to be no-good bums tossed out of the tribe. Many of them cause exaggerated emotionally driven reactions in us before we even recognize our buttons are being pushed.

The start of wisdom in matters of mind seems to be when we fully recognize that our own thoughts might be wrong. It becomes possible to sit as a judge over one’s own thinking only when we lose the narcissism that fails to question our own cognitions with the same skepticism with which we greet other’s ideas. Some of what passes through the ever-changing thought streams is hardly worthy of entertaining at all and other bits are useful but packaged all wrong. In order not to get lost in the tides it is imperative that there be a place of reliable reference back to the real world associations the thoughts are involved with. This ability to stay grounded happens when the person’s innermost is able to trust reason as the rudder of the psyche. Reason is not the devil’s tool to trick us out of our faith in a good creation; reason is the expression of that faith by trusting in that which is.

The poetic turn of phrase, the emotionally colored perception of beauty, these and so many more of our cognitive experiences are obviously entwined with our emotional natures. In moments of emotional distress this harmony of heart and head is disrupted. The mind, as we say, gets carried away. Exaggeration and irrational conclusions can lead each other into loops that can spiral out of control until what the internal dialog is telling a person leaves them incapacitated for dealing skillfully with whatever is troubling them. Things in the mind will bully you around if you let them  by causing you to tell yourself all kinds of things about your sense of worth that just do not stand up to a rational examination.

“Oh I never do anything right!” or “People always take advantage of me!” are typical of the kind of thoughts that might accompany an emotional outburst or period of emotional pain. Peace of mind can be reclaimed to the degree we learn to recognize when our thinking is going off the rails like this. Looked at with a calm, cool and collected mind it is obvious that all of us have done some things right and other things wrong. The statistical odds against “I never doing anything right” are beyond astronomical. Additionally the definition of what is right for you implied by that first sentence is likely not at all what would actually express your true will but is nothing more than the mores of your family and culture. These are valuable but not the last word for you as you seek to work your way through the adventure of your own life. The second sentence is no less insane than the first. It is a willful blindness to all those other times when people extended compassion and aid to you in your struggles or celebrated with you your life’s sweet victories.

Perhaps a simple example will drive the point home. I hit my thumb with a hammer as I try to drive a nail. On some days I respond with a quick ‘Ouch!’ and carry on a bit more carefully. Other days, however, that same event might lead me to tears. On those days it is as if the pain found in this moment of working with the world has been lumped together with every disappointment and pain the world has ever inflicted on me. The world for me seems a mean and dangerous place which doesn’t really give a hoot about me at all. My mind echoes the sentiment that no one cares if I live or die or what it is like to experience things the way I do. This cognitive and emotional attack aims directly at our self-worth.

The hammers that really hurt are swung by tongues. We need to understand how hurt and frightened people strive very hard to control other people. To do so they develop a range of psychological manipulation techniques. These include the injection of guilt and threats of violence if the injection process is pointed out. It happens in families and it happens in nations. This temptation towards manufactured consent remains the dark underbelly of human interactions: ‘I am here to be satisfied’, this impulse runs, ‘you are here to be used.’. Ask yourself how often your speech involves getting others to change what they do and how they do what they do or otherwise dismisses their own style or character? Do you place the whole world into your personal boot camp and sergeant-over all you meet? Anyone who continues to look to others for a confirmation of their self-worth exposes themselves to these dark manipulations. It is in our resistance to their crazy-making that we come to find the path to our own personal best.

Once someone really understands that this is the lay of the land psychologically, they become capable of taking a-hold of the rudder for themselves. In every step we make towards that trusting in our own ability to live our own lives well, we become a more genuine human being. Instead of being little more than a spokesman for an institution, or a holy book, or a dead relative, we become a voice speaking up for our real selves and their real needs. These are needs for love and respect as much as they are needs for food and shelter. We can tear each other’s dignity to shreds by calling one another heretics and apostates, the lost and damned, populating our world with the anti-Christs and devils of our angry damnations but this will not change our need to be understood one whit. Each of us wants to be loved by those we love, though many a tragedy is rooted in the fact that we cannot force someone to love us. Love is a gift that can only be accepted, we can only yield if we are to know another’s loving-kindness, but to yield is to open oneself up to their rejection. These are the issues we confront in the judgment of the heart and the on-going dialog with our conscience it provokes. Our loved ones, as they say, live in our hearts forever. They are trying to teach us the lesson of compassion. At times it is a very hard lesson.

If we had to tackle the whole psychological meaning and biological substratum of these things at once we would be overwhelmed. Instead the psyche unrolls these things in its own good time. What we experience is the tip of the ice berg where thoughts haunted by exaggerations and irrationality come into our conscious awareness. When they arise in these forms we can be sure that under the surface some of these heart-issues are stirring. What is downright liberating is when we understand that our conscious minds are meant to be the guiding light for all these semi-conscious aspects of our dreaming and transcendent self. The daylight mind with its ability to reason can teach the irrational and exaggerated thoughts just where they have lost their way. It is a cop out to expect your dreams to reveal to you what you should do. Harry Wilmer in Understandable Jung captures what we are discussing quite succinctly: “By accepting our fate, that is, our present reality, we take the first step to change our destiny. Our destination is another matter. Dreams do not tell us what to do or where to go. If one attributes such knowledge to the dream, one abdicates responsibility.”

Peace of mind comes, in part, from recognizing how comforting it is to encounter the same molecular world each and every morning when we awake. Though the evening’s psychic experiences may be all over the map, the powers of conscious awareness return to greet a grand continuity when we wake up. Because the environment we find ourselves in is always there much as it was the day before, the daylight world offers us a chance to improve our skills in living the one life we have as it unfolds here and now. If the daylight world followed the same a-causal associations we find in the nighttime world this would not be the case. Here is the human middle way, difficult to find, but once found it cannot be perturbed by either gods or devils. The day consciousness learns to ride on the deep of the night consciousness as a talented jockey rides their great and powerful horse. The day consciousness can become wise and loving only with the cooperation of the denizens of the deep, if the wisdom and love are to be more than a thin veneer over a raging beast inside just waiting for a chance to attack others for the painful self-abnegation it has been subjected to. Force your ego into the straitjacket of a saint and you only invoke the beast. If instead you work with the spirit that moves across these deep waters in a patient alchemy ruled by gentleness, then, it is taught, another type of wholeness – holiness becomes possible. Not one that would castrate humans and turn them into angels who are forever gazing at visions of gods but instead a holiness born within our most genuine humanity.

We are here to carry on the mission of art, the art of living. This is the clay we are each working with for as long as we draw breath. In the slow leavening of the daily contemplative discipline we pursue a more spiritual life, yet hope to obtain, in the end, one that is more genuinely human. We are training not to fear what this entails as we come to recognize we are beings with cosmic roots dwelling in a sacred land.

Safe Containers

While we are watching the acceleration of the great clash of monotheisms in the Middle East it is a good time to be strengthening our triage skills. These can be worked with during times of lesser crisis to prepare us for what’s ahead. This is similar to the mind training that the eastern traditions teach. It is a way of practicing with our minds today so that when the day comes that things get difficult (classically in the east this is the day of one’s death) we do not find ourselves without any reserves to call on. Mindful Ecology involves mind trainings that are designed to strengthen a person when lesser deaths occur. These might involve the collapse of the economy, an ecological system, good will among citizens, integrity in government, authenticity among religious leaders, or any number of endings that cause an increase in suffering, anomie, confusion and loss.

No one’s life is spared the rough spots. It is not the case that the wealthy and powerful, or the poor and simple, live a life without serious challenges to keeping sane let alone keeping an open heart. It is not just because of our ecological knowledge that the skills we are talking about have relevance. These are skills that can aid us in any number of life’s arenas. The thoughts in the mind are the earliest seeds of what will become emotions and eventually actions. The actions we perform or refuse to perform are where we find our character reflected back to us from the world soul. Countless decisions over years are expressing something that can be expressed no other way, something about how we are in our innermost.

Along the path of expression from thought to action there is an element of choice. The will uses this element of freedom to express itself. Though circumstances typically constrain our ability to make this expression one that is fully in accord with our desire, there is never so little choice left to a human being that some sense of character cannot be made to dwell within the manner by which their actions are undertaken. I believe the prisoner on their way to their execution still retains some degree of freedom in how they will meet the event. How much more so than do each of us, who are not under such immediate threats, have an opportunity to make real in the world that which is part of our innermost. This expression of true will is always a question of degrees and that is where our training comes in. It is inescapable that each person actually will express their uniqueness, there is no way not to. It is, to put on the science hat, an expression of your parental DNA inheritance and as such a unique biological event. Add the uniqueness of each environment you have inhabited from childhood on and the one of a kind nature of your personality becomes even more obvious. It is important we learn to thoroughly grasp this, see the truth of it, and really hear what is being said. To the best of our human understanding it is a fact that throughout all of deep time and across all of deep space it is astronomically unlikely that the many contingent relationships between your DNA expression and the environment by which it was shaped will ever happen in just the way you have it happening right here and right now. This is it. You have a part to play in dreaming the dream forward, as Carl Jung used to say.

In our time of mass man, mass media, mass armies, and mass movements it has never been more important to understand the role of the other social polarity, namely that of the individual. It is not true for my heart that you could just replace my most beloved friends and family with anyone else. Though another person could play the role of my mother or father, son, daughter, or spouse, there is not the slightest chance I would find my body and mind responding to the newcomer in the same way that it has learned to understand the people that are in my life today. This is true for all of us. Keeping this truth in mind paves the way towards an ability to see the uniqueness of the world around us; to see a tree in the forest and not just so many board feet of lumber.

This is the skill that is lacking in our societies, this ability to appreciate the miracle of the life forms in front of us. We have been trained to fawn before the rich and powerful, presenting them with praises and constant reassurances about how great and awesome they are. Fearing social ostracism otherwise, often with real financial repercussions, it is certainly an understandable habit given the reality of our corporate dominated societies. Still, those are rather false expressions of an appreciation for another person because they are motivated by fear of what they can do to you if you earn their disfavor and the hope that by your flattery and attention they will come to gift you with some of their money and influence. This is very different than looking deeply into another sentient being just for the sake of witnessing their unique expression of the mystery of will. Too often, it seems to me, we cannot even do this among human beings. The way we treat those in our ghettos speaks volumes. It should come as no surprise that we are blind to the faces of the eagles, octopus, wolves, whales, and blue footed boobies. We have an interest in the ocean because it can provide us with food and those who fish it with money and power. If tomorrow a chemist invented fish in a factory, do you think we would do much to save the oceans for their own sake? What real value do we place on the lives of those who dwell in the depths? Just how much lower do we rank them then those many tortured lives in the world’s ghettos?

These are statements in the realm of values, not of facts. The facts are that the uniqueness of DNA expression is undeniable. Facts pass over into values when we recognize that the human mind is born with the potential to know compassion as the highest value but it takes education, real training, to realize that potential. This is another fact we have learned over long millennia in the school of hard knocks. Through our mythology and traditions we do our best to teach the value of compassion to each new generation as it comes along. Though the value of compassion runs counter to the hubris of our egos, it is the sweetest liberty the heart can know: to love others as one loves one’s self, and to love one’s self as one loves others. It makes life meaningful.

Pounding the living daylights out of someone does not make life meaningful; not in an alley and not on a battlefield. Stealing every last dime from the sick and the old does not make life meaningful; not in a hospital and not from a TV preacher’s stage. Deceiving the innocent and gullible does not make life meaningful; not in the most surreal CGI enhanced advertisement and not in the slickest air-brushed glossy publication. Do you know that most confidence men commit suicide or end up paranoid? Do unto others…

What intelligent, caring human being are confronted with in the neo-liberal value system is nothing less than a legitimacy of greed promoted through self-inflicted blindness to the needs of any and every living thing that might get in the way of profits. It stands to reason then that intelligent and caring human beings should work hard to find the types of things that will work effectively against this tendency to dehumanization inherent in a mass society ruled by neo-liberal values. This is what the mind training in ecological triage skills is all about.

Last week introduced one classification scheme for statements of fact. The categories lend flexibility to the mind by teaching it to become more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. These uncomfortable cognitive states are more easily allowed a place within our characters when their scope is properly restricted to those categories of thought in which they are inherent. Knowing certain types of statements can never obtain to 100% certainty is a good way to check our own thinking and to protect our sanity from those who use underhanded techniques to try and persuade us that this is not the case.

What this means in practice is captured pointedly in the schools of cognitive therapy. This is not the therapy of the unconscious mind that is explored by the depth psychologists. Pursuing meaning among the symbols of myth and dream is life-long task for students of the deep psyche. These cognitive therapies, in contrast, are designed to help people as quickly as possible. They seek a rapid recovery from depression, lack of self confidence, pain management, or whatever their client’s debilitating emotional issues involve. In my experience these cognitive mental health techniques have a complimentary role to play alongside personal researches into the deep. These cognitive insights are rooted in the philosophy of the stoics who stressed that while we are not free to control the world, we are free to some degree in choosing how we will meet that world. These ancient insights have been refined through therapeutic need into practical advice. These insights can act as a key that unlocks many of the mental manacles we are shackled with as good little consumers.

There are a number of names these types of therapies are known by but all share the same fundamental insight about the way our thoughts lead to our emotional experiences and how together they lead to the actions we take. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), invented by Dr. Albert Ellis, is the particular one I will use as I like his rather rascally guru approach. Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s material might be more appealing to others. Mr. Ellis is not for the faint of heart, quick to use the F word and call bullshit bullshit; he is a New Yorker through and through. For me that personality was a perfect delivery mechanism for the message, one that could be summed up as ‘get a spine!’ and ‘stop stinking thinking in its tracks.’ Interested readers should take a look at his over the top How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes, Anything. It delivers the goods.

What these cognitive therapists have found is that when we suffer emotional problems they have a corresponding mental vehicle. The emotions are considered problems because they are proving too extreme for the client to continue living a productive life. Without life events expressing one’s will a person rightly becomes depressed since depression is a signal that what you are doing is not working. You can throw a pity party and bemoan fate till the cows come home but happiness is never found that way, however far down that path you might want to travel. Happiness comes from our sense of competency. We do not need to be genius but we do need to be able to accomplish whatever it is that we consider necessary for our own self respect. What that is remains an on going journey of discovery. It is a lifelong journey of discovery that should, for the most part, keep us enthused to be alive and grateful for each day we get. All too often that enthusiasm is lost in the worries and cares which are rightly born from the tragedies in our lives. What cognitive health entails, then, is not a disregard for bouts of depression when those are needed but a leaning into the wind, setting our rudder by the joy of being alive that is our birthright. We need to learn how to discern between a true need for tears and an unhealthy indulgence in sadness. Cognitive therapy skills can teach us to be childlike, not childish.

What these cognitive sciences have discovered is that we have a set of irrational beliefs as the source of our emotional disturbances. It is not at all hard for those of us who have studied ecology to recognize our societies are currently chock full of irrational beliefs and that they cause us to make decisions as a society that are just down right crazy. Well, that same mechanism plays out in our individual lives as well. When we are disturbed there is some internal dialog that reflects or sustains the extremes under which we are suffering. We gain power over these things to the degree that we recognize how the issues unduly disturbing us are accompanied by thoughts characterized by exaggerations, statements couched in absolutes, or other cognitive errors. We learn to take our skepticism inside and ask our own thoughts, ‘oh really?’

Things are bad. They really are. Things are going to get worse. They really are. It is not the end of the world. It really is not. Our descendants will live in that world. They really will. What we do today matters. It really does.

We will talk about these cognitive skills in coming posts. In this introduction I want to stress how important this particular set of skills can be for those who are willing to contemplate ecological reality. I sit and consider the end of our existing harvesting of ocean stocks in the next few decades, a simple extrapolation from today’s trends in global overfishing. I allow myself to feel the implications and feel that it is a bad thing we are currently engaged in making come to pass. It is critical that I do not exaggerate if I am to remain bound to the truth of what I am contemplating. It is not likely to be the end of the future stocks centuries hence, or the end of all the different species, nor even the first and worst die off earth’s precious ocean has ever experienced or will yet again. Now I have provided a safe container for my contemplations. Now I have a good chance of grounding myself in my own knowledge, refusing to pretend I do not understand what I do about the world and our activities in it, yet at the same time refusing to give in to unmitigated despair.