Secrets, Part Three   Leave a comment

Yes, secrets can be dangerous.  But live long enough and you notice that most things which may be dangerous under certain conditions are often for that very reason also potential sources of valuable insight and energy.  Poisons can kill, but also cure.  Light can disinfect, and also burn.  Different societies almost instinctively identify and isolate their favorite different sources of energy as destructive or at the least unsettling, just as the physical body isolates a pathogen, and for much the same reason:  self-preservation.

For many Americans and for our culture in general, sex is one great “unsettler.”  We need only look at our history.  Problems with appropriate sexual morality have dogged our culture for centuries, and show no signs of letting up, if the current gusts of contention around contraception, abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education mean anything at all.  Wall up sexuality and let it out only on a short leash, if at all, our culture seems to say.  Release it solely within the bonds of heterosexual monogamy.  Then you may escape the worst of its dangerous, unsettling, even diabolical power.  You can identify this particular cultural fixation by the attention that even minor sexual miss-steps command, surpassing murder and other far more actually destructive crimes. Let but part of a breast accidentally escape its covering on TV or in a video, even for a moment, and you’d think the end of the world had truly arrived.

a Mikvah -- ritual bath

Other cultures diagnose the situation differently and thus choose different energy sources to obsess about and wall up, or shroud in ritual and doctrine and taboo.  For some, it’s ritual purity.  At least some flavors of Judaism focus on this, with the mikvah or ritual bath, various prohibitions and restrictions around menstruation, skin diseases and other forms of impurity, and the importance of continuing the family along carefully recorded bloodlines.  The first five Biblical books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, list such practices and taboos in often minute detail.

The Bible also testifies, in some of its more well-known stories, to the fate of individuals like Jacob’s brother Esau, who married outside the family, and thus forfeited God’s blessings and promises that came with blood descent from their grandfather Abraham.  And one need only consider Ishmael, son of Abraham but not of an approved female, who is driven out into the wilderness with his mother Hagar, a slave and not a Hebrew.  This Jewish Biblical story accounts for the origins of the Muslims, descendants of Ishmael or Ismail.  (The Qur’an, not surprisingly, preserves a different account.)  The flare-ups of animosity and sometimes visceral hatred between Jews and Muslims thus originate quite literally in a family inheritance squabble, if we take these stories at their word.

If secrets have at their heart a source of potent energy and culture-shattering power, no wonder Americans in particular suspect them.  We like to think we can domesticate everything and turn it to our purposes: name it, own it, market it, even cage it and sell tickets for tourists to see it in captivity, properly chastened by our mastery.  But the numinosity of existence defies taming.

Such an oppositional stance of course almost guarantees conflict and misunderstanding and ongoing lack of harmony.  But the experience of some human cultures tells us that we can learn to discern, respect and work with primordial forces that do not bow to human will and cleverness.  (Likewise, Western and American culture have demonstrated that fatalism and passivity are not the only possible responses to disease, natural disasters, and so on.)  Master and servant are not the only relations possible.  For a culture that prizes equality, we are curiously indifferent to according respect to sex, divinity, mortality and change, consciousness and dream, creativity and intuition as forces beyond our control, but wonderfully amenable to cooperation and mutual benefit.

So how do secrets fit in here?  The ultimate goals of both magical and spiritual work converge.  As J. M. Greer characterizes it,

… the work that must be done is much the same–the aspirant has to wake up out of the obsession with purely material experience that blocks awareness of the inner life, resolve the inner conflicts and imbalances that split the self into fragments, and come into contact with the root of the self in the transcendent realms of being (Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, 98).

Of course, much magical and spiritual practice does not (and need not) habitually operate at this level — but it could.  “By the simple fact of its secrecy, a secret forms a link between its keeper and the realities that the web does not include; a bridge to a space between worlds,” Greer notes.  This space makes room for inner freedom, and so the effort of maintaining secrecy can pay surprising psychological dividends.

Keeping a secret requires keeping a continual watch over what one is saying and how one is saying it, but the process of keeping such a watch has effects that reach far beyond that of simply keeping something secret.  Through this kind of constant background attention certain kinds of self-knowledge become not only possible but, in certain situations, inevitable.  Furthermore, this same kind of attention can be directed to other areas of one’s life, extending the reach of conscious awareness into fields that are too often left to the more automatic levels of our minds … Used in this way, secrecy is a method of reshaping the self … (Greer, 116-117).

Thus, the actual content of the secret may be quite insignificant, a fact that baffles those who “uncover” secrets and then wonder what the fuss was all about.  Is that all there is? they ask, usually missing another aspect of secrecy:  “things can be made important–not simply made to look important, but actually made important–by being kept secret” (Greer, 118).  The effort of maintaining secrecy and the discoveries that effort allows can mean that the supposed secrets themselves are often next to meaningless without that effort and discovery.

In this case, the danger of secrecy lies in what it reveals rather than what it conceals.  Once we discover the often arbitrary and always incomplete nature of the web of communication (and the cultural standards based on that web), we perceive their limitations and ways to step beyond them.  Here secrecy has

a protective function on several different levels.  To challenge the core elements of the way a culture defines the world is to play with dynamite, after all.  There’s almost always a risk that those who benefit from the status quo will respond to too forceful a challenge with ridicule, condemnation or violence.  Secrecy helps prevent this from becoming a problem, partly by makng both the challenge and the challengers hard to locate, but also by making the threat look far smaller than it may actually be (Greer, 127).

Secrecy forms part of the “cauldron of transformation”* available to us all.  Most of us balk at true freedom and change.  We may have to relinquish comforting illusions — about ourselves and our lives and the priorities we have set for ourselves.  So like a mouse I take the cheese from the trap and get caught by the head — I yield up the possibility of growth in consciousness in return for some comfort that seems — and is — easier, less demanding.  All it costs is my life.

Guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them, goes an old saying of the Wise.  The deepest secrets we already know.  That is why awakening confers the sensation of coming home, of return, of reclaiming a birthright, of dying to an old self, of extinction of something small that held us back — so many metaphors that different traditions and cultures and religious and spiritual paths hold out to us, to suggest something of the profound, marvelous and most human experience we can have.

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Images: cartoon; mikvah; cauldron;

* See John Beckett’s excellent blog post on this topic here.

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