Respecting Stories

Last week we looked at a dense information source, the book What’s Really Happening to Our Planet? by Tony Juniper. This week I want to dive into some very controversial territory by examining another dense information source and the phenomenon it represents; Christian fundamentalism American style.

Torchbearer is the latest film directed, produced and written by White House strategist Steve Bannon featuring Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. It is another type of information source claiming to share a number of facts. It is presenting a picture of the world in which the only thing a person really needs to know is the Bible. In the film aspersions on man without god multiply until the message is basically to be human is to be a hell creature – fallen, fallen, fallen! This narrow interpretation of Christianity embraced by fundamentalism is, in my mind, a perversion of Christianity through and through. Man does not come off looking like something so loveable god would give his only son to reveal to them his unending love for that which he had created. Man comes off looking like the devil, no, better, comes off looking like nothing so much as an unruly adolescent in need of a good beating by those in authority.

The problem with this Bible-only approach to truth is that it dismisses many of the most important insights other compassionate human beings have discovered outside the confines of religious thought over the last two thousand years. Misunderstanding the ecological crisis is the most obvious problem with this type of intellectual mono-vision from my point of view but the psychological understanding of trauma and the effects of abuse run a close second. People who wish to nourish a love of their fellow man cannot, in good conscience, ignore these modern insights. To do so is to dismiss the very spirit of revelation as it is talking to our age, to use the mythic terms from our monotheistic background. The person in front of you is alive and real, to kill them because a book tells you to is to make that book an idol. Instead of worshipping the living god, one has been seduced into necrotic worship of the dead. God is not found among the dead.

This is what I fear: the patriarchs of the bomb are invoking the patriarch in the sky, cloaking their oil procuring war plans in the most giant beat stick of them all. They are calling on a wrathful god to bring his holy beating to earth “for our own good,” as Alice Miller explained.

I appreciate the sincerity with which a fundamentalist approaches the problems of the world. Much of what seems to inspire the fundamentalist is a virtuous desire to protect their children from the fallout of a consumer culture gone over the edge, refusing to recognize any limitations on its hunger and greed. I feel in many ways more akin to them then to the shallow people of the endless party our mass media teaches us to be. I applaud their willingness to look the darkness of history in the eye and not flinch. Torchbearer includes a number of gut wrenching film clips of our historic atrocities and unspeakable cruelties. More people should remember these things more often. Still, it is traumatizing to gaze into the abyss and fundamentalists, I believe, are traumatized. These people’s sincere soul-needs are being shepherded through the topsy-turvy world of symbolisms of the highest order, those which directly concern the archetype of the Self. There is a healing potentially working its way through their love of the Christ as portrayed in the Gospels which these true believers try to nurture and discover. It is like they are so close, and yet…. Instead of that which liberates, they are under the pall of that which enslaves.

The Self archetype is not to be toyed with. Miss your shot at god and you arrive at the anti-god of the feared meaninglessness and nihilism which has inspired the misbegotten faith of the mind parasites we looked at last week. As James Hillman pointed out, if we are off just a few degrees when the projection of our path between where we really are and the foot of the cross takes place, we end up kneeling before a thief. Now there are good thieves and their are bad thieves, but they remain thieves. What they steal is life itself; these parasites are Vampires feeding on days spent serving false gods and nights spent dreaming in theologies fantastic, instead of theophanies properly imaginal. So many hours sitting in meetings, fearfully praying to invisible powers, listening to preachers, doing what you are “supposed” to do and following orders, writing checks, judging everyone not in your cult damned, talking always about your religion and little else – in so many ways the days of a life of a fundamentalist are stolen by the false infinities haunting their minds, born of the traumatic wound.

There is another way to say we should have respect for facts as facts. We say the same thing when we say we should have respect for stories as stories. That stories move us so deeply is one of the greater parts of the mystery of our being. That they do play such a central role in our ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’ is simply a fact, a feature of our humanity. We have had to live with this mind a long time and have learned a thing or two about it. Replace facts with stories and the result is tragedy. Enliven facts with stories and the result is a living grace.

Fundamentalism denies the reality of the psyche. It denies the realm of symbol, insisting on literal interpretations driven by a fear that if it something was not historically real, it has no reality at all. In this they are mistaken. Carl Jung once commented that all of his work was to try and convince modern man of the reality of the psyche. There is very much a reality involved in these mythologies that guide civilizations but it is not the reality of the Calculus and molecules. It involves the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of how we derive meaning from perception and love from flesh. The problem the fundamentalist has is that they cannot trust the symbol to point beyond itself. For them everything is literal; wheat cannot be transmuted into flesh, the grape and the wine it gives us to make our hearts glad cannot be transmuted into the emotions of our fiery blood, they do not hear the Word in our words of kindness and comfort we give freely to one another. Yet this is just what happens on the earth. The fundamentalist has a problem of faith, they lack its “fundamentals” and so are unable to see the sacramental nature of our sacred world. They cannot bring themselves to believe in the miracle, existence as it is, nor that at its fundamental root this creation is good. They are instead driven to seek magic and miracles, not as symbols but as real events, to prove existence is not as it is. They are the great doubters among us, making themselves over as true believers in reaction formations. Their wounds keep them away from the healthy faith in an intelligent creator and good creation that enlivens compassionate and wise actions undertaken with a cheerful heart out in the real world just as it is. They cannot forgive god for including death in the way of life.

The symbol of the crucifixion captures the sorrows of the world like no other. Here goodness is tortured by Empire: that which is compassion is scorned as weak by those blind to the fact that this is god among us. As they kill they triumph for a day, but in doing their deed of devilry they have also released the spirit of the Christ. There is nothing they can do about that. Everywhere eyes are opened and the poor are given the good news as the dark deeds of devilry expose the emperor’s nakedness. The alpha males are brought to answer to the voice of thunder, their ego fortress shattered in a confrontation with the real power that runs the cosmos. On that same cross the poor and suffering are comforted by the voice of god who they find not in the thunder but in the still small voice, the voice of conscience. At that moment of Christ’s death the veils of the temples were torn and the mysteries openly proclaimed to all the world. This is just what Clement of Alexandria proclaimed so long ago in his Exhortation to the Greeks, that Christianity was the public revelation (exposure?) of the heart of the pagan mystery religions. Fundamentalists are a return to the pre-Christian mystagogue and a Gnostic reading of creation as the work of a demented god. Christian fundamentalism is a misunderstanding and misuse of our own Western tradition, pagan and Orthodox.

The truly faithful are to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”, as Joseph Campbell once put it. This is what the grace in our myth is there to assist us with, for this is hard. It is truly an ongoing challenge to lean towards the good in a world where life feeds on life and Empires so often seem to crush all that is good in the world. (Ring any bells?) This learning to live in “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world” is a challenge worthy of human beings with our many skills and abilities. When the symbolism of the human imagination is working properly so that facts are facts and stories are stories, this is the result. A deep joy wells up from the depths of our consciousness, unassailable by the tides of time. The Vajra diamond, or Kant’s transcendental, or the image of god in man, whatever the metaphor – that which they point to cannot be stained by human folly for we do not create ourselves and this bliss pours forth pure out of that mysterious emptiness from which the next moment comes. This deep joy is a reflection of that which we are building up in our characters over a whole life time of choices and there is no short cut to getting there, no magic words that suddenly make everything over into what it is not. This is the great insight seen in the moment of repentance; that what you do matters, what you say less so. This Self is the over arching archetypal reality of who and what we are as unique individuals, which is created and expressed through what we do with ourselves and with others during that whole lifetime. We never see this Self in its totality, yet we are never separated from it either as long as we live. This Self will weave its thread into the interdependent fabric of earth life whether the ego cooperates with the process or not, learns to embrace its mortality and human limitations, or not. Though rooted in ignorance vs. wisdom instead of good vs. evil, the end result is no different in the East or the West: be careful of those crying Lord, Lord.

“Go ahead and cheat your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,
do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end.
There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day
and on the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away.”
One Tin Soldier, The Original Caste

 

The Threshold

“Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside.
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

David Bowie, Blackstar

 

This week, in a rather longer post, I would like to touch on a piece of information that might be relevant for some readers at some point and, I hope, interesting to all. It deals with one of the ways the human mind has evolved to deal with trauma. The reason it is a necessary subject to deal with in this set of posts about subjectivity is that it gets to the heart of what it means to be an embodied awareness. It does so by showing us how that awareness behaves under extreme duress.

One of the more interesting things about our understanding of ourselves as human beings is how the so-called occult, or discarded knowledge of our culture often forms a mirror-like impression of what the mainstream knowledge contains. If the mainstream is convex, the occult underground is concave. Among the many tales of ghosts and angels, spirits and demons, magical and psychic powers found in the occult literature, there are traces of actual events people have experienced. Many of the events are encountered in what we call altered states of consciousness, states that range from the slightly unusual to full twilight consciousness in which we seem to be transported bodily to other realms or places.

Some altered states seem to teach us more about our body and mind in the place we actually are. These are what we seek in our contemplations of ecology. Other altered states seem to go the other direction, providing us an escape from the material world, leaving the limitations of the body and earth far behind. Anyone who engages in any spiritual discipline needs to know about these very different currents. If I may indulge in a too simple metaphor for a moment I would suggest this is why Buddhists meditate with their eyes open and seek the middle way. Others teach meditating with the eyes closed and seek cosmic consciousness. There are two currents. This makes things sound black and white which in practice are anything but, yet there is an important distinction here that this simple metaphor captures.

One staple of the occult literature is the out of body experience, or OOBE. This is said to be a separation of the soul or mindstream from the body it is currently occupying. The soul is then free to wander the so-called astral planes. Much of the literature describes visits to other planets or realms populated with a menagerie of alien beings. Magicians and mystics of every stripe have added their stories to this semi-underground cultural inheritance. It is quite a mixed bag. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. And a few, we can assume, know the score.

One of the things that quickly becomes obvious as one stays with ecological studies (remaining mindful of ecology) is that there are any number of loud, self proclaimed experts who are absolutely clueless. This is a very, very important lesson to take to heart. These are all those people who are misrepresenting the facts, as we best understand them, concerning global warming, ocean dead zones and acidification, the sixth extinction, the poisoning of land and water in fracking operations and so on, right through the rest of the list of horrors we who do study ecology know so well. Some of these people are little more than paid shrills. Others, however, are simply confused. None, evidently, really know the score.

The same lesson should be applied to sources that speak to the human condition as well. Our inheritance includes any number of works by people equally clueless about what they are really discussing, just as clueless as the ecologically ignorant of our day are. The OOBE books are, I suggest, propaganda for the Descartes Error we have been exploring: that the mind is more real than the body, which is presented as little more than an optional appendage. Some of this occult tradition, including OOBE material, is the production of liars and con men flat out, nothing more. It is hard for some people to imaging using spirituality this way, just to make a buck and get laid, but history shows there is no shortage of such people. I’ve always thought this might be a really bad way to go about messing around with people if there ever turns out to be a real god or a real day of reckoning in any form. Anyway, this group is not the most dominate. Among the authors of reported OOBEs the majority are true believers. They have experienced something unusual and have done the best they can, given the contextual intellectual tools they have, to integrate that unusual experience with the rest of what they know.

There is no question that it is possible for the human mind to experience itself disembodied. There are reports by the bushel full of people seemingly leaving their body and looking back on it still lying on the bed, or the operating room table, or the floor of their torture cell. Something like this can happen. The data is there. The question is, what does it mean? Are these actual experiences of crossing the threshold of death? Epistemologically, are these experiences of the mind dying or of dying itself?

There is another set of literature in our cultural inheritance that also deals with OOBEs. This is not the occult traditions but the psychiatric ones. Here is a typical case report:
“During the raped I found myself looking down on the act from on high, from a point in the corner of the ceiling. I was looking down on my body but it wasn’t me, it was like a doll, a puppet …”

The point to see here is what has happened to the victim’s subjectivity. The body of the victim has been used as an object. When the victim reports seeing their body from a third person perspective, they too have taken the view of the perpetrator. They too are now seeing themselves as nothing more than an object to be used. There is a body over there, just a body, not my body. I – all my inner feelings and memories, cognitions and images – am up here floating; as insubstantial and invulnerably untouchable as a ghost.

The abuser has forced themselves into the mindstreams of their victims and displaced them. How? In a mistaken attempt to feel some power over what is happening to them, a part of the victim takes on the role of the perpetrator. If your only choices are between being the abuser or the victim, the urge to survive insists we take on the power the abuser seems to have. This is perhaps most familiar in the Stockholm Syndrome in which victims of kidnapping come to identify with their kidnappers, explaining to all who will listen that they really are not such bad people after all. Patty Hearst was the poster child for my generation of this frightening feature of the abused mind’s potential.

What power is that which the perpetrator wields that causes such pervasive disruptions to a person’s identity? The power to blind oneself to the value of another sentient being’s subjectivity. That is it. That is the great magical power – but it only enchants those who use it. It does not change the reality of the victim’s subjectivity. It is kind of like the two year old making the world disappear by covering their own eyes. The perpetrator pretends not to see the relationship with their victim as one consisting of I and Thou, but this is to deny what is obvious to the senses. The perpetrator knows that what they see in their victim’s eyes is equivalent to their own subjectivity. In a confused attempt to make the “I” real, to assert their own abused subjective value, they try to make the “Thou” unreal by pretending it is an object and not a fully sentient being. Then the rules governing a relationship between I and It take over, instead of the rules that are to govern relationships between I and Thou. In the narcissistic delusion the mind believes that by doing so it will become master of the world, no longer vulnerable to the shame and humiliation only another Thou can deliver.

This, then, becomes the ideal adult. It is the one we in the over-developed world have come to worship: the asshole, the action hero quick to kill a few hundred in every picture show, the gangster warlord who is a tough son of a bitch and seems to have the whole world just eating out of his or her hand. We are trying to decide right now which is the coolest – the soldier who drops cluster bombs and wipes out a few bad guys along with truck loads of children and brags about patriotism, or the CEO who lays off ten thousand hardworking household providers, then eats a feast that would have cost his workers a month’s salary and sleeps well that night. You know the types; they are on every channel, every day with the same old tiered script: “Look how awesome I can be because I do not care what you feel at all, I can torture you and eat a sandwich, doesn’t phase me a bit!” In our pain we come to believe hard-heartedness is humanity’s peak achievement.

Torture was supposed to be condemned, not worshipped.

The perpetrator has tortured their victim using sex, violence and emotional-cognitive manipulations. As the victim tries to process what has happened to them, particularly as children with no means of escaping the environments in which such tortures take place, a type of amnesia is created. Imagine, if you will, what it is like to wake up each morning in a home where you never know if you will be beaten again today, or worse. Additionally, if this is a child’s mind we are trying to empathize with, we need to add the fact that they have yet to know if they will ever be able to live a life outside the influence of their abusers. Children have yet to prove to themselves they can make it on their own. They know, in fact, that they cannot yet. They are not stupid.

The psychological solution that aids their survival is disassociation. One part of the self comes to know things about the truth of one’s own story that other parts of the self do not normally have access to. Sadly, a house divided against itself cannot long stand. The shunned part, like a thief in the night, will break into the daylight consciousness whenever the strength of repression grows weak. When that happens the human being will respond in less than skillful ways. The part that identified with the abuser will come clothed in anger at the vulnerability of the victim part that was sensitive enough to suffer so. Therapy consists of making some kind of peace between these warring parts. Healing comes when the person recognizes that the introjected abuser that is within them is not the same as the external person who caused the actual abuse. That, in fact, it is sharing the same body with all the rest of the parts of the mind’s psychological makeup.

The self is normally grounded through a set of nerve pathways connected to the major energy processing centers and senses of our physiology. When the therapist asks their client where they feel their pain they will typically point to one of the chakras. We can think of these nerve pathways as cords tying the mind to the gauges and instruments it uses to maintain homeostasis and orient itself within its environment. In the OOBE those cords are cut. To protect the ego from shattering in madness, the self is taken to a safe place concocted by the imagination. Another part of the person comes to take the place of the absent self and takes on the burden of the trauma. This part is then so disowned, repressed and denied that they come to feel like they are in another body entirely.

This becomes the source of the disassociative pain that accompanies most people who were abused as children throughout their lives. The part forced to play the role of the self remains a source of confusion as it continues its semi-conscious existence. It seems to get stuck in time and remains always on the lookout for the next attack. Abusive events in the external world of the adult can continue to trigger this part, which then takes over and deals with things as best it can. It has its say, speaks its truth to power, as it were, in binge drinking, violence, cutting or whatever and can then settle down again for awhile. When these things happen we say we were ‘not ourselves’ or ‘I don’t know what got into me.”

All people deal with this phenomenon to one degree or another. Consciousness itself seems to depend on opposites which creates a continuum of disassociation. Psychological maturity consists of re-associating these disparate parts so that we come to recognize, for example, that our early caregivers had elements of both good and evil in their hearts. Psychological maturity in general consists of the ability to tolerate complexity instead of insisting on the black and white thinking of childhood which would separate everyone into the overly simplistic categories of sinners and saints, angels and devils: Us and Them.

The painful dissociative confusion will remain a driving factor in the victim’s life to whatever degree the traumatized part remains un-integrated with the rest of a person’s life story. The direction is not further out into space on the wings of the ghost, out there with Major Tom that Bowie warned us about. We are not seeking the great Gnostic revelation of what the universe is all about. We are seeking to know that part of the universe given to us to know intimately. The direction is down and in. The work is to get to the place where the monster dwells and to unmask it by seeing the truth of our own past. Then we are succored by our own individual pain and our own individual joy. It puts an end to provisional living. We recognize we are living in a sacred world.

This is where this whole thing about working with dissociative persons gets rather fascinating. It is reported by councilors who work with the severely abused that often when they are dealing with a part like this, that part does not believe they are in the same body as the client. These clients suffer under the false idea that each part has its own body. The acting out associated with emotional pain often bears this mark. Those who cut themselves or who have eating disorders, to site two common examples, can be modeled as consisting of dynamic psychological parts that are using the body to make themselves heard or to satisfy their unmet needs – as if that body belonged to someone else. They use the body as if it were an object, instead of who and what they are. They treat themselves the way their abusers taught them to treat themselves.

This is where Descartes Error leads. Or, perhaps, this is where Descartes Error comes from.

The body, mind and imagination are all working together in this OOBE move to protect the survival of the victim. There is something within this body, mind and imagination complex that understands just what has happened in the psyche. It remains unconfused about what is real. The same physical continuity remains throughout all altered states of consciousness. The body does not lie, it knows the score.

There is a whole collection of psychological techniques designed to bring this truth to the alienated part, to orient the part again to the person. It is a milestone in treatment when someone is able to realize all the parts share the same body. Typically this insight requires a confrontational approach. One technique, for example, uses two chairs side by side. The councilor asks, say, the angry part to stay in the current chair while the client moves to the one next to it. Once the client is in that second chair the councilor , making eye contact, asks puzzled, ‘Hi angry part, why did you not stay in that chair?”

This might sound just too strange and of no use to us trying to get by in a time of ecological ignorance. What does it mean for a traumatized individual to recognize that all their psychological parts share the same body? Of course they do.

Yet, here we are – building weapons of mass destruction and mass deception as if we could poison one part of the earth’s skin with radiation and not poison ourselves in the process, or poison the public marketplace of ideas and not become fools ourselves. It is not a good thing that the war hawks are talking again about winning nuclear wars. It is not a good thing when we insist we can treat other human beings without concern for their individual differences, lumping the ones we do not like into object categories based on religion, race or politics and then treating them all like dirt: the ultimate It. We even treat dirt like dirt when we saturate our soils with chemicals and force it to produce the yield we desire. This too is not a good thing. All this is not much different than those occult treatises describing all manner of colorfully imaginative alternate realities the soul visits once it is freed from the shackles of the gross body. Somehow, long after the oil is gone and food harvests have become unreliable, we won’t mind because we will still be able to go shopping: our reward for keeping the faith and prioritizing economic growth above all else. We are acting as if we really believed this.

In our cultural confusion we honestly act as though a new, purified earth awaits us on the other side of our social and ecological collapse. To those who would abuse us so, to those who would hurt the earth this way, we should raise our voice and say the word that undoes the bewitchments: No. Not on my watch, not as long as I draw breath. The only tool I have in my arsenal is rational discussion. It might seem pale next to slo-mo close-ups of monsters and gore, but it has a power all its own. We cannot stop the abuse handed down the long generations. We are not personally responsible for the weapons of the mind or the weapons of the nucleus. We are asked to live our story, to contribute our thread to the tapestry of life this precious earth uses to cloak her nakedness from the cold of space. We should live them well, mindfully.

We do not need to remain in the liar’s double bind: “I am both responsible and helpless.” We can learn to train in both / and after we have graduated from the school of either / or. We do not need to remain Or Men, those who would cut everything Right In Two. It is not the case that our only choice is a bad one between becoming victims or perpetrators ourselves. We can choose to be compassionate adults, wise in the ways of the world. We can face our monsters and recognize when our gods are scarecrows of our own invention. We can learn to nurture the child within and protect the child without, the hope of our species. We can wake up. That is, we can learn to recognize when we are dreaming, dealing with psychological projections and emotion laden-images even when our eyes are open, and when we are not dreaming, when we are dealing with real things in our real molecular world.

“In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen,
Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah
In the center of it all, in the center of it all,
Your Eyes…”
David Bowie, Blackstar

Dead Things?

“My way has been to scour the whole world through.
Where was delight, I seized it by the hair;
If it fell short, I simply left it there,
If it escaped me, I just let it go.
I stormed through life, through joys in endless train,
Desire, fulfillment, then desire again;
Lordly at first I faired, in power and in speed,
But now I walk with wisdom’s deeper heed.
Full well I know the earthly round of men,
And what’s beyond is barred from human ken;
Fool, fool is he who blinks at clouds on high,
Inventing his own image in the sky.
Let him look round, feet planted firm on earth:
This world will not be mute to him of worth.”

Goethe, Faust. Part Two: Midnight

 

What is the role of consciousness in the universe? I think this is a very meaningful question in light of the failed relationship between consciousness and its container which the ecological crisis displays. It is worth spending some time mulling over, contemplating, even, as we will do today, speculating about.

First we should take a moment to appreciate how far our self understanding as a species has come. We understand the role of evolution through deep time so well, that today we read it at the molecular level like a vast clock. How much further might we grow into understanding what we are in another thousand years? Another ten-thousand?

How, we wonder, can the nervous system and hormone systems of the body work with the massive neural networks in the brain (and gut) to produce what we subjectively experience as awareness? As Francis Crick rightly pointed out in a book capturing the essence of our position, to believe mind arises from matter, given the Cartesian split between them modern science assumes, is an Astonishing Hypothesis. For all the world, it does in fact seem to be case that properly structured matter produces mind. But what is the cosmos herself but structured matter through and through? And is it not shot through with information in the patterns it displays? And, finally, is not information the currency of intelligence? Intelligence is the central feature of evolutionary adaptation, the means by which living things participate intimately with their environments. Notice how this requires that we grant awareness of that environment to that which evolves – we are back to the question of subjectivity.

We have become comfortable with the idea that dead things exist. Not the trivial difference we recognize between here is a live cow, there is a dead cow. We have become comfortable with a conception of death that is absolute. This allows us to see things, such as oil and the other minerals used to build Homo Colossus, as mindless items we are free to do with as we please. This attitude towards the geological strata extends then to molecules in general. These too can have no purpose or meaning since they have been placed into this strange category of wholly dead things. Then we learned about molecular pathways in biochemistry. Watching the molecular exchanges within living tissue we gaze at life’s metabolism, the magic by which it’s homeostasis is sustained. Life arising from absolutely dead molecules. The philosophical blowback has been extreme: the logic of the Cartesian premise condemned our own self-consciousness to be classified as evidently dead as well, resulting as it does purely from molecular interactions.

Which leaves us a choice. We can either admit we were in error about this whole ‘we are the only fully aware living being on this dead earth’ thing. We can either admit we were in error, which will entail a new relationship between humanity and the living earth, one characterized by much more concern and care. Or we can carry on the war of all against all. In this view only the small spark of human self-consciousness is really real and, we fear, even that is likely nothing more than a delusion from start to finish; a curse from a meaningless, mindless universe. This small spark of awareness, alone in a dead universe full of rocks and fury but no mind, suffers, knowing what the rocks do not. In this view there is only one way to end suffering: to become unaware like the dead rocks (which we assume is absolute).

Opposed to this is the ecological view. It is supported by the evidence of our sciences and the great spiritual traditions of our ancestors. This view sees that which we walk upon is not a dead rock but a living earth. It is a place in which every fully interdependent thread is inseparable from a feeling and a thought somewhere, somehow. This view comes to those willing to grant subjectivity to all living things and information, if not intelligent mind, to the very rocks themselves. This view is true, you know, within the great all-inclusiveness of interdependence. The view of absolutely dead things actually existing, as they say in Tibetan debate, is not the case.

Let the soil and the compost heap be our guides to understanding our earthly sojourn. In the soil we learn how even the rocks serve the needs of life, lending it support and critical functional elemental capabilities at the molecular level. From the compost heap we learn that even death is turned to the service of life. We learn that life and death are actually two sides of the same coin, complementary like a wave and a particle.

We have prided ourselves on our heroic stance. We human animals, alone of all the species, were made aware of what we are, our position in the great scheme of things. It was a lousy position, meaningless. But we put on our stiff upper lip and got on with the business at hand, namely making a lot of money. We compliment each other on the unique courage by which we can finally face who and what we really are: evolved apes that are little more than robots sent out to battle against the stars.

Oswald Spengler was sure the Faustian myth captured the essence of our western civilization. Faust, you will recall, was a great scholar but all his learning and studies left him unsatisfied. He longed for absolute knowledge, unlimited knowledge, with a healthy dose of worldly pleasures tossed in for good measure. The myth has captured our scientific devotion in its sketch. Science has given us unprecedented understanding of the molecular world, but has not satisfied the cravings for meaning lodged in the human heart.

To obtain these desires Faust makes a deal with the devil. Have our cultures not been willing to sacrifice moral integrity for the success we have achieved? Ah, but the devil was a liar from the beginning. The Cartesian split is a lie. It said we needed to make a choice between our hearts and heads.

We understood that knowledge was power and if there was anything this poor pathetic orphan of a species, all alone on this isolated dead rock circling a non-descript star needed, it was power. Due to the Cartesian error we expected we would have to pay the price of sacrificing our emotions to gain that knowledge. It was not so much that there would be no emotions along our way. Though we prided ourselves on our objectivity, in fact, as the Faust myth illustrates so poignantly, what we did was allow the search for knowledge to blind us to the truth of our emotional nature. In our hunt for achievement we bound ourselves to competition, blinding ourselves to the value of simplicity and contentment. Ethics and compassion took a back seat in our dealings with “the real world,” the one only we moderns ever had the courage to perceive truly.

These seem to be some of the unspoken assumptions of the world we live in. I don’t think they stand up to conscious, rational examination. The heroic stance we have taken in the west was for the sake of learning to think rationally about what is real. We made heroic sacrifices in our pursuit of that knowledge, for which we should be rightly proud. We should not let our disillusionment in its dark side delude us the way it is doing now.

What our Faustian program uncovered was exactly what it set out to find, a universe of dead rocks ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, thoroughly meaningless and without emotion. Just as a patient with a neurological disorder that prevents emotion from participating properly in their reasoning soon finds that their reasoning is ultimately meaningless, so to culturally; our search for knowledge at the price of emotion found the universe to be meaningless as well. Today, of course, we have learned that it is in the nature of things to find what we are looking for. Build an apparatus to find a wave and you will not capture data about particles, though that does not necessarily mean there is no particle data to be had if other tools were applied to the observations.

We moderns wonder, how could there be a feeling in the attraction of the electron to the proton? To entertain such thoughts, we are quite sure, is to indulge in the crudest anthropomorphism. Yet, we fear, if it is not there among the particles, how could it really be in any of the myriad things they produce, including ourselves? Are we no more than chemical robots, meat puppets fooling ourselves that our awareness of our awareness means something more, something else?

We trip up on the role of awareness. To admit the electron is ‘attracted’ to its mate with an element of love involved, seems to ascribe to elementary particles the same conscious awareness we are familiar with, which is patently absurd. Is it only metaphorical to say the electron is attracted to the proton like lovers? It must be. Yet… We are left wondering just what the role of metaphor actually is in the embodied minds we think with. In a world of will and representation, many of the modern conceptions of consciousness are just too small to carry the full burden of the evidence.

And because consciousness is directly accessible to everyone, we all know a lot more about all this than we tend to give ourselves credit for. It would be good if we could befriend this western wound. Compassion is called for. Goethe’s treatment of Faust is in two parts, the first of which ends in tragedy. Parallels with our own circumstances are obvious. Part two of Goethe’s Faust, written years after part one when Goethe was an older man, begins with the spirits of the earth forgiving Faust, and mankind. How this, too, has parallels with our own circumstances is less obvious. It is the work of mindful ecology to encourage them. The final scene of Goethe’s masterpiece has Faust’s soul carried to heaven by the intercession of “Virgin, Queen of Motherhood… Eternal Womanhood.” The artful clue turns our attention to Gaia, Mother Earth, the living earth. Mephistopheles had fearfully threatened Faust that when he died he would encounter the absolute death spoken of earlier in this essay, the “Eternal Empty,” making his life meaningless. No, Goethe insists, the goddess beats the devil every time. There is only the compost heap, and the ongoing saga of our kind.

Our Shaman

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things”
Isaiah 45:7 KJV

“You can’t get there from here, and besides there is no where else to go.”
Sheldon Kopp, No Hidden Meanings

 

Christmas can be a hard time for many western Buddhists. Some of this is from family issues, some of it from toxic encounters with Christianity itself. We have touched on family issues and how the contemplative runs into them under the tutelage of training in compassion. I want to talk now about the toxic twisting of a Christianity too often co-opted by patriarchy and consumerism or used by others to play out the needs of their own neurosis.

A lot of this sour taste for Christianity comes from those of its salesmen (or women) that insist you need to be a Christian or else your going to hell. What a mixed up theology that is. That is using religion as a magic stick to torment and control others. What the theology was meant to convey, far as I can tell, was that if you are not a Christian you are already in hell. Or, equally, if you find yourself in a living hell the way out is to become a Christian. This followed naturally from the definition of Christian that was being used, namely, anyone who had faith that in the end the good guys win. Saying yes and thank you to the new day after a long, dark night of the soul – this is the morning of resurrection, something often very hard to find. When it comes, it seems to come as a gift, a grace given to the brokenhearted. The idea of who was and was not a Christian was here very catholic. It is one that applies to anyone in any time who comes to believe that in the final analysis life, the universe and everything, just as it is, is worth experiencing. It is the conviction that it is good, that in some fashion that far exceeds our intellectual grasp, our lives and loves are precious and meaningful.

Those who would dare to bully others by using god as their beat stick have confused one definition of what it means to be Christian, a member of a particular institution, with this other which was much more universal in its motivation and meaning. I think there is a lot of this mixing up the planes which has all but completely obscured some enlightening messages we would do well to remember. In this post I am going to try and use the voice of the western tradition to talk to the themes important in every tradition. We don’t integrate Buddhism with western thought by tossing Christianity out. In my admittedly limited and dim view, there seems a way in which their reconciliation works. Is it a particle or a wave? Buddhism speaks to what it means to be fully human, and speaks of it as being mindful and awake to the precious sacredness of the world here and now. Christianity speaks mythically of that which is sacred and precious in every human, and speaks of it that we might recognize how the divine god, creator of the world, lives right here and now in everyone we meet.

With the winter solstice darkness has gone as far as it is allowed to go in its absorption of the day. Though the sunlight hours have been growing fewer and fewer, they never wholly disappeared and now, at this very moment, the balance between night and day ever so slowly begins to tip the other direction.

The ancient conception of the universe and man’s place within it held to a number of ideas we would directly recognize. Previous posts touched on the parallels between the Christian and Egyptian holy families and the stories told about their dying and rising god men. Works like Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, while hardly recommended for their conclusions, are useful for the summary they provide of other religious scholars data collection. They make the case that the key components of the mythical roles that Christ as the man-god fulfills are found assigned to Horus or Osiris as well as to Jesus. In other words, according to this reading of the evidence, the core western tradition we find in Christianity has western roots leading as far back as the archeologists can take us.

It is helpful to recognize that anything as long lasting and pervasive as a religious tradition that has spanned east and west for centuries will have a very rich and multifaceted presence. Different aspects of the western tradition have been emphasized at different times. I would like to suggest at minimum it is helpful to recognize three parts, that while they work together, each present fairly distinct teachings. The three are redemption, creation, and defeat of the powers.

Today when Christianity is discussed it is almost exclusively under its redemption mode. The whole of our mythic inheritance, for many people, consists of little more than a set of shoulds and should-nots. Religion, for these people, is what children are taught in Sunday school; be good little boys and girls and god will like you and you’ll get to go to heaven; be bad ones and you will go to hell. This is foolishly childish magical thinking which amounts to not much more than the ‘better be a Christian or you’ll go to hell’ magical beat stick we mentioned already. It captures the outer form but fails entirely to convey the essential point of the Christian conception of sin. This is not what I want to focus on in this essay but because there is so much confusion and pain around this topic a quick reminder of orthodoxy is in order. By the Christian view each human baby is created a loved child of god. The purpose of having created you and I, as well as every bird, worm, and wolf, is so that we can be happy. This is not easy nor is it always possible, but even then nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ.” That is, nothing can ever separate that which finds itself created amidst life, love and light from the life-love-light creator. This is a western version of a selflessness teaching. Sin is taught to be a collective problem that came into the world with Adam – not you – and was removed from the world with Christ – again not you. This view, properly understood, is as far from the Sunday schoolmarm trying to get rambunctious kids to make decent choices by threatening hell fire as it is possible to get. It is very adult, a teaching of freedom for free people.

The redemption story is concerned with forgiveness, vicarious sacrifice of the scapegoat, and tellingly, is the aspect of the mythology most able to be turned to good effect for supporting the ongoing viability of the church as a social institution. The presentation of the Christ as redeemer of sinners uses guilt and sorrow, human regrets and the hope that we can do better tomorrow they cause. All of this has a vital role to play in the psychology of the church’s members. Yet, just because this is true it also lends itself to being abused, to being used to enslave rather than liberate. The classic image of a corrupt Catholic church selling indulgences, more to line its own pockets than to bring peace to its congregations, captures the shadow side well enough.

There is another set of teachings in the same Christian tradition that is less capable of being used to prop up sociological institutions. These are the ones related to what we are exploring in mindful ecology and deal with what is sometimes referred to as creation spirituality. St. Francis’s sermon to the birds and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical addressing ecology are both representatives of this current. In my opinion this mode of expressing religious sensibilities is only going to grow stronger as the years of limits to growth’s inflections go by. We have spoken of it a little already and will pick it up again by and by.

It is the third mode, however, that has most relevance on the solstice. It is concerned with the meaning of the descent of the Christ into hell and the ascent of the Christ into heaven. By these activities, it is said, the man-god defeats the demons and devils of hell and causes the angels, principalities and thrones to worship him. He returns to us with a boon from his healing work, a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” Do you see what is involved here? Christ is the western world’s shaman.

One of the Tibetan Buddhist prayers is for any who do not have their own protector. Jesus is the shaman that is the final protector of the lost. This is all about the last shall be first, how those who cry out ‘Lord, Lord’ do not know him, how he is the shepherd that leaves the ninety-nine in search of the lost one. Remember our discussion about how the shadow is 90% gold? Remember the biology of violence and the very real multi-generational “sin” we touched on? The final truth of things is far from clear cut in the place where mythic story touches on molecular history. It is the Christ who goes the last bloody steps with those who tread in blood themselves.

Reading the earliest works of the Christian world it cannot help but strike one as odd that the church fathers went on and on about how with the coming of Christ the kingdoms of magic and superstition had fallen. They discussed this by talking about how the invisible powers would be (or had been) overthrown. Those powers were not conceived of as spooky, ephemeral spirits such as a medium might channel, but as the very real deathless gestalts of institutional power. The angels, archangels, choirs of angels, principalities and powers all represented what we would recognize as emergent phenomenon. They were presented in a hierarchy of ordered creation, the so-called great chain of being. These angelic beings were said to represent a people, or a nation, a city or a family. They were related to the starry heavens as the place where astrological forces determined the fate of all that happens on the earth. The fall of Rome was taken by the early Christians as a result or illustration of the Christ defeating the powers. All this was rather common currency among the ideas of the time.

The main message of the of the Christ, pagan or otherwise, has been said many ways. I like ‘the sun at midnight is always the sun’ as it captures both the underworld journey of the boat of Ra, alludes to the Copernican revolution, is itself a quote from the Hellenistic mysteries and includes the essence of what I understand about the work of our shaman Christ. This work banishes the darkness of hell and reveals the darkness of night; aka reality is blessed just as it is, though there is darkness in it. But that is the darkness of the broken heart, a darkness without the devils, demons, and ghosts of our fears. Those are no more real than the horns of a rabbit. They are produced by a  mistaken view of things. The boon the Christ brings us is the good news that creation is ultimately gracious not malign, that we can call the creator Abba, not monster. The power of the mind-spooks’ bewitching develry depends on the idea that the other side (or eternity) is somehow more real than this world of flesh and blood that we deal with everyday. The Christ light comes to call BS on all that. The passion of Christ shows, in no uncertain terms, that living includes dying. It is a package deal – but death is not the devil. Even god must die.

Christianity teaches that death is rest, peace. Life itself, that which sees through your eyes, feels through your hands – it does not taste death at all. And that which does die, this mystery that is our existing at all, this mystery ends in a beatific vision. The beatific vision is the teaching that for each and every consciousness that has ever awoken on god’s green earth there will be a reunion with that which created it. From dust to dust. In the process our unique longings for love are fulfilled by our expressions of love, for it is taught that god is love. Love mystically embraces the soul, spirit and body in death in what is taught to be a marriage celestial. In this that which has been created is always the bride, passive to the touch of its creator’s kiss of dissolution. As I understand Dante’s celestial rose, this teaching of the final beatific vision in the life of a soul, it is a view from individual love, our own very personal vision of god, that is, how everything in our life was actually perfect.

Perfect? Well it was needed in the great work. To use western terms we could say god’s plan required it to be just so. In eastern terms we would say each event had to be the way it had to be to do its part in the all pervasive interdependent way of the Dharma or Tao. How do we know each thing that happened to us and within us and because of us was needed in the great scheme of things? Because they happened, really happened. Reality reveals complete interdependence. Whatever really happened stands under the creator’s purview, without one set of rabbit horns to be found anywhere.

However, the death is real. When a loved one is lost, as the poets say, god is the first to cry. The loss and the heartbreak, for those who remain among the living, is real. But, as anyone who has lost someone dear has learned, it is also true that in a very real way those people remain alive in our hearts. In the Christ myth, after the death of god, the disciples learned not to look into necromantic arts full of sigils and magic circles, books of the dead full of spells or any of the other tomfoolery centuries of superstition had burdened death and dying with. They found, it is said, an empty tomb because they too found their beloved teacher, their shaman, still alive in their hearts.

Buddhist eastern thought touches the same things in its teachings about rebirth where you come back but as someone else because, you see, you have no independent, unchanging self. The eastern teachings that include reincarnations, Hindu and Buddhist, also include the idea of eventually leaving the wheel of rebirth in a state of final nirvana or parinirvana. Is this so different than the final rest Christianity also teaches about, the peace which surpasses all understanding?

In all this it is easy enough the see the same mythic accounting for both the reality of death and the reality of ongoing life. Today we would touch on these things by talking about evolutionary deep time and the DNA: this mystery which has never itself tasted death and yet has only ever been expressed through unique individual incarnations each destined to die.

What east and west are affirming through these mythic teachings is that life is worth living. That it is worth living in spite of the fact that love must die. We are called to walk the path of beauty with a noble heart and live in a sacred world.

I offer you this to contemplate as my holiday gift. The sun in the sky also burns in our chests, sparks of stars that we are as molecular elemental beings. We walk the path that suspends these cosmic fingerprints between the earth and the sky, body and thought, perception and emotion. We live and move and have our being held between the ever embracing mother earth and father sky. Love, sometimes dark and elemental and other times light like a rainbow, really is all around us.

Black Friday

“The essence of hermeneutics, an art widely practiced in former times, consists in adding further analogies to the one already supplied by the symbol: in the first place subjective analogies produced at random by the patient, then objective analogies provided by the analyst out of his general knowledge. This procedure widens and enriches the initial symbol.”
Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 7

“Every interpretation necessarily remains an ‘as-if.’ The ultimate core of meaning may be circumscribed, but not described.”
Carl Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 9

 

Our ecological position is actually very simple to understand; we just do not want to see it, do not want to hear about it, we pretend not to grasp it, and we insist we do not feel its despair. We have raised the denial of Limits to Growth, climate change and the sixth extinction to an art form. All the most powerful people are doing it.

magicalcongressIsn’t it interesting that this image pops into the collective mind right at the time the US congress is about to be populated by magical thinkers quick to deny climate change science?

The view I have shared in these posts over the last few years has included a type of archetypal analysis of the social mind.  Just as a depth psychologist will look to a patient’s dreams to pick up clues to what the individual knows outside of their narrow ego awareness, so we can look to the ways in which our societies seek one thing consciously, yet leave clues as they do so about the larger questions of history and meaning those societies are dealing with. It is a working premise of mine that all cultures are deeply engaged in what scholars call the history of ideas. With one eye on mythological themes and another eye on the unfolding of history under the aegis of the Limits to Growth constraints, those who contemplate ecology are well equipped for such activities.

This week the recent holiday comes in for some hermeneutic treatment. This type of analysis never reaches firm and final conclusions. It is in the spirit of playful creativity, finding insights by circling around and around an idea or symbol. It is an engagement with what things might mean for us.

This hermeneutic treatment is offered as a framework for introducing the next cognitively simple idea on which we can build an effective response to the ecological crisis. I am calling these boulders of simplicity. This is another bolder on which a mindfulness of ecological reality allows the contemplative to sit in some assurance that they actually know a little bit of what is really going on in the world. The more we learn to think like a mountain, the less tempted we are to fall for cognitive will-o-wisps pushed by the talking heads. It does not behoove us to hitch our star to some horseshit that is here today, gone tomorrow. We are looking for boulders easily able to weather the years.

Thanksgiving has traditionally been a time in which extended family gathered together to share a meal they cooked themselves. It is done in commemoration of the very important story to citizens of the United States in which the Native Americans’ generosity saved the first pilgrims from dying during the harsh winter in their new land.

There are so many things wrong with this, at least from the point of view of those whose job it is to keep the collective mind of the consumer society primed for consuming. It could be it is the most dangerous holiday: the one in which the contrast of values is greatest between classic Christianity influenced culture and the post World War public relations influenced culture. Let’s take it point by point. Extended family was targeted early in the mass marketing campaigns. You can sell more things to isolated nuclear families than to those who already have much of what they need by retaining multiple generations of goods. Cooking a meal together and then sharing the feast are not pastimes that should be encouraged because they can provide moments of happiness wholly unrelated to market place transactions. White pilgrims needing the help of Native Americans runs counter to our images of ourselves as the self-sufficient, self-made country. The Native Americans were repackaged as primitive savages to justify our land grab and besides, don’t they have way too much concern about ecology and walking lightly on the land to be modern anyway? They insist on such ridiculous things as water being more valuable than oil.

These are just the outer wrappings around the Thanksgiving holiday that threaten the consumer value system. These might have been manageable, in fact are. The one unforgivable feature of this particular holiday is the thanks-giving in Thanksgiving. Giving thanks for what one already has is the death knell to endless growth economics. To give thanks is to be in a place of psychological contentment. This is not acceptable to those who need to sell things.

And so Thanksgiving Thursday gained a parasite: Black Friday.

A tradition has grown in the land of consumerism. It started rather small and mostly unobtrusive, though it was a parasite from the beginning. First it was seen as an adjunct to the Thanksgiving holiday, a few bonus coupons and sales. Then the hours the stores would open on this special Friday were moved earlier and earlier. Lines forming at five in the morning became news worthy. The years went by and now many of the “best” bargains are made available at the stroke of midnight – the final capitulation to the instant gratification value system of consumerism.

This is how I would characterize the social phenomenon we have christened Black Friday: it is consumerism’s holy day. It is a special time set aside for obeisance to the first world gods of money and markets. The holy day breaks out of ordinary time in all the ways holy days usually do: there are special rites that change the time people do things (setting my alarm for 4 am to go shopping!); special markings granting boons from the gods (20% Off Today Only!); Dionysian danger to test the faithful (Shopper Crushed by Ecstatic Mob); participation in the nation’s most sacred sport, pushing shopping carts, and as a member of the largest national sport team each participant is granted the opportunity to give their all to beat the competition (Black Friday Sales up 17% this Year); if the magical rites are successfully carried out the gods will bestow their blessing on the coming new year (Retailers Report Consumer Confidence Restored!).

Do you begin to see how this hermeneutic analysis can aid us in orienting ourselves in our own time and within our own culture by locating things like this new secular holiday within the context of larger human experience?

Black Friday gets its name from the accounting profession. It marks the official opening of the holiday shopping season, which is when many retailers make the lion share of their profits and their accounting books move from being in the red to being in the black. That is the explanation of the name we use consciously, publicly. Those who designed the name for this special day, of course, did so with an equally powerful message for our unconscious minds following the standard dictates of the advertising profession.

Good Friday – Black Friday is the obvious linkage. I think very few of us have never made the connection, at least semi-consciously, but without some training in hermeneutics did not know what to make of it and quickly filed it in the interesting coincidences drawer and forgot about it.

Christ Friday. This god died to put an end to human sacrifice. This god endures pain and suffering for the greater good of the whole human family. This god dies to save the human race from sin.

Its inversion is simple enough.

Shopping Friday. This god demands human sacrifice. This god offers instant gratification, or at least distraction and narcosis, to soothe the isolated individual. This god lives to ensnare the human race in compulsions and obsessions.

Semi-consciously, the cleverness is recognized. Good Friday is Christianity’s highest holy day, Black Friday is the Anti-Christ’s highest holy day: aka not giving to the least of these but glorying in the world trade of Babylon. People are dying in desperate poverty, poverty all too often exacerbated by first world foreign policy and crony capitalism controlled foreign aid. People are dying from wars, wars all too often exacerbated by first world rapacity in its need for oil and other industrialization resources. The Black Friday holiday represses all these truths, and others like them, behind a slick set of ad campaigns. It turns our attention from the needs of the world, to the needs the advertisers have created.

It is as if we needed to show all the world that we have raised another god above us, one that will take from the poor and give to the rich. This god is beholden to petroleum, cloaking itself in the black mantel of that toxic Dragon’s Blood. If the Good Friday Christ was the light of life rising in the golden dawn of a new day, this Black Friday Christ is the dark of death sinking in the leaden twilight of a violent night. One said “man does not live by bread alone,” the other insists he does. Like the contest between the ecologists and the economists, only one of them can be right… and time will tell.

Finding the meaning of human society in the act of shopping shrunk our souls, leaving us little more than robotic husks going through the motions, waiting for the axe to fall. A good dollop of mindfulness can see right through this whole set of fun house mirrors. A good dollop of compassion can playfully watch the whole cognitive house of cards built by the ad men come tumbling down.

This then is our next boulder of simplicity: There really is no way to justify the destruction of the biosphere for short term profits. It really is that simple.