Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Earth Mysteries — 5 of 7 — The Law of Cause and Effect

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

“Everything that exists is the effect of causes at work in the whole system of which each thing is a part, and everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system.  In these workings of cause and effect, there must always be a similarity of kind between an effect and at least one of its causes, just as there must be a similarity of scale between an effect and the sum total of its causes.”*

Under the guise of karma, this principle is superficially familiar to more people, perhaps, than the other six laws.  Though not exactly what some people have in mind when they wish you “good karma,” as if it were the same thing as luck.  Where does luck fit in a world system of cause and effect? Worth considering.  A Wise One once remarked that it’s not always possible to be the cause in every situation — to initiate, to be the active force, to get things moving — but that if we must be effect, at least we can strive to be conscious effect.  Recognize the cause, and respond consciously, rather than be manipulated by it unconsciously.  Because who knows? — it may not have your best interests at heart.

That’s not to say that a cause is necessarily actively malevolent or is seeking you out to destroy you and unmake you.  But it may simply be a cause you or someone else set in motion at random, unconsciously, unintentionally.  If you’re its unconscious effect, it’s suddenly detour time.  Willing to go for a ride with a strange cause, one that beckons to you, flashing those stunning looks, that oh so beguiling smile?  Have fun!  Just don’t expect things to be the same when you get back.  Whenever that turns out to be …

You can be spontaneous and conscious too.  But be the cause.  Otherwise, what’s consciousness for?  I find that a fascinating, troubling question.

So many beings get along fine without the human excess of self-consciousness, that strange echo-chamber or feedback loop that tells us our thoughts, our feelings, our thoughts about our feelings, and our feelings about the thoughts we’re having about our feelings.  How often we long for pure experience, without that inner narrator who insists on supplying second thoughts, doubts, fears, insecurities, grubby little (or big) desires, and so on.  It’s like a bad voice-over in a film, a jangling mess that some spiritual traditions remedy with meditation to calm the “monkey of the mind,” so we can get at whatever of value may lie underneath the noise of consciousness.

OK, that’s human consciousness, and specifically self-consciousness, at its least attractive.  But what of consciousness itself?  It’s not all bad.  In fact, it seems to confer some evolutionary advantages.  A conscious being can make choices, react with more than instinct — maybe even live through challenging situations where instinct isn’t enough.  If you’ve observed animals, you can sometimes catch reflection and thinking.  Dogs and cats give evidence of it.  Both birds and mammals can learn and adapt, maximizing their ability to survive, and to pass on their genetic material to their offspring.  But is there more than evolutionary advantage to the species?  How about to the individual?

In more conscious creatures, play and possibly even pleasure are gifts that consciousness also seems to confer.  Otters play for hours, and birds — if you’re convinced by people like David Rothenberg — sing not only to defend their territory, attract mates and warn off rivals, but also to express joy. Is that too human?  Are we anthropomorphizing?

And creativity … to me that’s the greatest gift of consciousness. We’re problem solvers.  We love smooth sailing for sure, long for it deeply in the trough of trouble, but we’re often at our best when challenged, when pushed to grow.  Even our attempts at avoiding growth are frequently clever, creative, inspired.  We procrastinate, rationalize, justify, repress, suppress, distract ourselves, get addicted to something too small for the love we’re driven to express, and our suffering is outrageous, ridiculous, painful, outsized, exaggerated — often because we’ve made it just that way in our struggles to escape what we know we must do eventually.

And here’s the kicker:  even — and maybe especially — our avoidance just makes us stronger for when we finally do face down the problem or issue or challenge.  We’ve tried everything else, all the other options, and they’ve failed in some way.  So we bring to that eventually unavoidable moment of growth a head of anger and frustration, true, but also a chunk of wisdom and strength that we got precisely because we’ve resisted for so long.  That momentum, that power and wisdom with a glow of a little anger and a dash of curiosity under the fear — this very mixed package of preparation — may not always get us through the challenge.  It still may not be enough this time around.  Now we’re still effect, but we’re on the way to becoming cause.

The failure to meet the challenge this time, to pass the test, signals to us what we still need to do to be ready next time.  And the heightened emotion clinging to the lesson, the issue, and the events and people around it, flags it for us.  Never again will we completely be able to avoid it, to shove it entirely back into the shadows, and let ourselves slide into unconsciousness.  A tail sticking out of the box, or paw scratching at the door, or fur on the carpet, will be evidence of this animal self, our helper, our “trouble double,” that we’ve tried to hide.  We will be cause, even if we can’t yet pull it off.  Something in us knows this.  Our growth will seem to pursue us on its own — because we’ve made it ours by being cause even to a limited degree, and cause must, inevitably, unavoidably, have its effect.

All this time, we’ve not been idle; we’ve also been building up strength for our next attempt:  by more avoiding, maybe (if we’re really good at that), but also by a slowly growing awareness that growth is what we’re destined for, that we can actually work toward it, even if our own lives have to drag us there kicking and biting and howling the whole way, functioning as some of the causes we ourselves have set in motion.  There’s more strength building in us, and if there’s a cost, then we’ll pay.  (Another cause, another effect.)  We’re slow learners, because sometimes that’s the only way the lesson sinks in deep enough that we really get it good, get it down pat, and run with it.  One way or another …

And so the causes we absolutely needed to set in motion will become just the effects we need to experience down the road.  But because we grow as a result, the effects which were “everything we ever wanted” at the time will eventually come to box us in, because we’ve grown, and so they’re no longer enough for us.  Then they start to strand us, and constrict and blind and infuriate us, until we arise from them stronger and are again able to set new causes in motion.  Open-ended growth.  Our ideas of perfection often seem to involve stasis:  at some point we imagine we’ll “arrive” and not need to grow anymore.  Heavenly choirs and streets of gold, no telemarketers or spam or mosquitos or flu, and sitting around all day in Paradise Lounge, plucking at harps and sipping (virgin) daiquiris and margaritas.  Likewise our perspective on setbacks often doesn’t take in enough time to see the causes and effects playing out. Sometimes we can’t see them all, if they span multiple lives.  Or parallel ones, if you’re not prone to reincarnate like I am.

But back to perfection as stasis:  from what I’ve seen, that misses how the system works.  “Everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system.”  No final perfection — that’s just another trap or sidestep.  Which is fine, if you’d like that experience: then it’s no trap or sidestep so much as interesting or even productive diversion.  (Having your cake is eating it too, after all.  Otherwise it just sits there.) We don’t arrive at long last at any unchanging endpoint.  That’s not perfection.  We’re travelers.  We may get rest stops, but the growth is endless.  “Eden bears those footprints leading out …”

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

Image:  paradigm shift.

Earth Mysteries — 4 of 7 — the Law of Limits

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

“Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself.  These limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and they provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.”*

Though it’s not good New Age gospel to admit it, we’re faced with limits and boundaries all the time, and more to the point, that’s a good thing, for the reason Greer points out, and for others.  Limits are the counterweight, the resistance for our training, the sparring partner to keep us in fighting trim.  Rules change on other planes of existence, but to manifest power and beauty here, limits are absolutely essential.  They’re the valve that allows us to build up pressure in the boiler, the enclosure that intensifies the heat of the fire, the focus for the laser — or the conscious, persistent human intention that manifests a goal.

Physical limits allow us to give shape to things, and to have a reasonable expectation they’ll stay in that shape, usefully, predictably.  These rules don’t apply in the same way elsewhere.  All of us have had experience on, and of, at least one other plane, the astral, where most dreams occur.  You know how fluid and changeable the forms and shapes are there.  The dog chasing you morphs into a car you’re riding in with the person who bullied you in high school.  You look closely and that person’s hands aren’t holding the steering wheel any longer, but clutching a bouquet of flowers instead, two of which turn into ropes that winch you so tight you can’t breathe.  You struggle, wake up gasping, and — thank God! — you’re in your bed. It’s the same bed as last night, last week, last month, the bed which someone made years ago, and it stays put, reassuringly solid and unchanging beneath you, obeying the laws of this physical world.  You slowly come back from the feeling-sensation of your dream on the astral plane, welcoming the heaviness of your physical body around you, touching a few of the things here, pillows and sheets, your partner, a pet curled against your thigh or your face, the nightstand or wall beside your bed.  Familiar, stubbornly solid objects and beings, responding to gravity and inertia.  Yes, things mostly stay put here, in this world.  Though we all have stories about the car keys …

The image at the top comes from a site with its own take on freedom and limits.  What I find interesting is the image of flight presented as one of limitless freedom.  Yet flight depends on air, resistance, lift, momentum, wing span and area, an appropriate center of gravity, and so on.  Not everything stays aloft after you fling it into the air, and flight in a vacuum like in space follows different rules than flight in an atmosphere.  It can seem paradoxical that freedom increases the better we understand and work within limits.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

Image:  glider.

Versions of Your Life, and “Being Erica”

Since my wife and I are too cheap to spend money on cable, we get most of our programming through the internet.  Vermont sometimes gets tagged in people’s minds as one of the hinterlands of the U.S., though in fact it’s scheduled to have ultra high-speed internet by 2013, billed as “fastest in the nation,” and VTel (Vermont Telephone) installers are actually ahead of schedule in some areas.

One result of our cable-free existence and frequent obliviousness to whatever is “trending now” is that we often discover programs toward the end of their initial run, or well after they’ve already gone to syndication or archive status.  Hulu is one of our friends, so if you’ve already watched the Canadian series “Being Erica” and you’ve moved on to newer fare, this post may not be for you.  It may be a case of BTDT (been there, done that).  So my electronic alter ego here with his Druidry and opinions and evident desire to pry where it’s sometimes uncomfortable (but interesting!) to pry isn’t offended if you log off and go do your laundry, or at least surf onward toward something more engaging.

==PILOT EPISODE SPOILER ALERT==

If you’re still here, the show’s pilot episode does a good job of making the series premise clear.  32-year old Erica feels she’s over-educated (a Master’s degree) and under-fulfilled (single, and with a low-level telemarketing job).  The pilot brings her to a low point — she wakes up in a hospital bed after an allergic reaction, and receives a brief visit from a Dr. Tom, who leaves her with a business card that reads “the only therapy you’ll ever need.”  As Erica and the audience simultaneously discover, he’s able to send his patients back through time to deal with events in their pasts that they regret.  Not to “fix” them in some facile way, but to learn more fully what they have yet to teach.

Vancouver Actor Erin Karpluk, who plays Erica, reveals a wonderful vulnerability and resilience, and she develops a daughter-father chemistry with Dr. Tom, played by veteran Michael Riley.  There’s also a “Canadian” flavor to the series, by which I mean something mostly vaguely felt, but nevertheless detectable at certain moments: many episodes are less politically correct, more real, better scripted and more risk-taking than the typical formulaic and “safer” equivalent might end up being in the States.  There’s been abortive planning to make both U.K. and U.S. versions.

So you know I just have to make a connection about now.  Ah, and here it is, right on schedule.  In my experience, the past is not some fixed thing, written into concrete forever, like one false step into a bog that draws you down and suffocates you.  Instead, it depends for its whole existence on you, in your present, here and now, in these circumstances and with this awareness, to understand and explore it.  Change your understanding of the past, and your past itself can change in almost any sense you care to claim.  Not what the “facts” are, which is almost always the least important thing*, after all (peace to all those police procedural shows and their fans!), but how they matter and still shape you today.  Just as history gets revised through time, as we gain new understandings and perspectives, so too do our own experiences, choices and destinies appear new or different to us as we change.  That bully in grade school turns out to have helped us develop a thicker skin, or empathy — or an unacknowledged contempt for “trailer trash,” or a keen taste for revenge that dogs our heels to this day.  Pick your blessing or poison.

The future is what is fixed, the track we’re still following, and reconfirming right now with our current habits, choices and focus — fixed, and set in stone — until we “change” our pasts by knowing and owning them more fully.  Seen from this perspective, “fate” is undigested, rejected past that’s come back to haunt you.  Healing comes not from literally changing “what happened” — possible only through repression or selective recall — but from squeezing out of each experience every last drop of wisdom and growth we can get from it. Yes:  easier said than done.  Much easier, often.

But if we find our pasts too painful to deal with, we’ll not only carry them around with us anyway, regardless, but miss out on their lessons as well.  As therapist Rollo May said, “Either way, it hurts.”  The point is not avoidance of pain, but growth.  My past comes at me whispering (or shouting, depending), “Do something with your pain, Dude.”  Revisiting and re-imaging the past may sound all New-Agey and Hallmarky, but if it’s one way among many to heal, why mock it or discount it, unless you love your pain more than anything else you have?  “Yes, it may be pain, but it’s mine, my darling, my precious.  Go dredge your own.”  Gollum much?!

This present moment is the pivot, the hinge, the point of transformation, if I’m ever going to act on those New Year’s resolutions that now seem so distant.  How many of them have I achieved?  (In a December post, I confess to not making any, at least not big ones, partly for this reason.)  Baby steps.  What’s the smallest change I can make?  That’s often the best starting point, because unlike the large resolution, I really can do the small stuff, and stick with it.  And then build on it.  Treat it all as experiment.  Document it — write it down. (Oscar Wilde says one should keep a journal so that one always has something sensational to read.)  My life as lab for change.  Talk about a show.

Part of the appeal of “Erica,” of course, is watching somebody else go through this.  Yet this isn’t merely a voyeuristic thrill so much as it is a provocation to reflect.  A significant part of the interest of the series for me is that even Erica’s therapist Dr. Tom, while often truly guru-wise with her issues, isn’t God, or some perfected being.  (We often really can see and understand others’ problems more clearly than our own.  The challenge is not to abuse this insight, but make the most of it in the best way for our own specific circumstances.)  He still has his struggles too — deep ones, as we come to discover, ones that come play a role in Erica’s therapy, to the dismay and growth of both of them.

And my response was “How right!”  A perfect being would be a bit of a pain, and might have forgotten (or never known) what it’s like, this human gig.  Jesus is never more useful and accessible than when he suffers humanly: when his friend Lazarus dies and he weeps, when he gets angry and physical at the money-changers for profaning the Temple, when the fig tree has no fruit because it’s not the season, and Jesus curses it anyway, when his friends ditch him to save themselves.  This human thing, he gets it.

Incidentally, I’ve never understood the Christian obsession with sin.  We’re all guilty and imperfect.  Check.  We’ve messed up.  Check.  But the point is that our pasts are our teachers.  They help us grow.  Our “sin” is what tempers and forges and perfects us in the end.  Yes, it’s a long end.  We’re all slow learners, those “special ed” kids, every one of us.  A sequence of lives to learn and experience and grow and love in makes sense for this reason alone.  For God or any Cosmic Cop to damn us to hell for “sin” cuts off the whole reason we’re here, from this perspective.  It’s like flunking everyone out of first grade because we haven’t mastered algebra yet.  We’re not ready.  Give us time.  Life’s tough enough to break every heart, several times if necessary — and to remake it bigger.  OK, here endeth the lesson.

==Final Season Spoiler Alert==

Except not quite.  The fourth and final season — Hulu doesn’t carry it — of “Being Erica” comes out this month on DVD, and Amazon.ca just sent email confirmation that it’s shipped.  My wife and I are looking forward to watching Erica become a therapist:  “Dr. Erica” in her own right.  Isn’t that part of our journey, too?  Out of our experience we grow, and then we can help others along the way, specifically because of who we are, and what we’ve learned.  Our imperfection and individuality are our great gifts, which we grow into ever more fully.  That’s an eternity to look for, if you’re in the market for one.

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*Even facts prove slippery, as any attorney, judge and gathering of eyewitnesses knows.   But sometimes it’s precisely a fact that makes all the difference.  Then it’s usually a fact that confirms or disproves a perspective, and so it throws us back to the centrality of perspectives and understandings once again.

Image:  Being Erica.

A Triad of Wisdom, Far Afield

Druid teaching, both historically and in contemporary versions, has often been expressed in triads — groups of three objects, perceptions or principles that share a link or common quality that brings them together.  An example  (with “check” meaning “stop” or “restrain”):  “There are three things not easy to check: a cataract in full spate, an arrow from a bow, and a rash tongue.”  Some of the best preserved are in Welsh, and have been collected in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Triads of the Island of Britain*, pronounced roughly tree-oyth un-iss pruh-dine).  The form makes them easier to remember, and memorization and mastery of triads were very likely part of Druidic training.  Composing new ones offers a kind of pleasure similar to writing haiku — capturing an insight in condensed form.  (One of my favorite haiku, since I’m on the subject:

Don’t worry, spiders —
I keep house
casually.

— Kobayashi Issa**, 1763-1827/translated by Robert Hass)

A great and often unrecognized triad appears in the Bible in Matthew 7:7 (an appropriately mystical-sounding number!).  The 2008 edition of the New International Version renders it like this:  “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you.”

Apart from the obvious exhortation to persevere, there is much of value here.  Are all three actions parallel or equivalent?  To my mind they differ in important ways.  Asking is a verbal and intellectual act.  It involves thought and language.  Searching, or seeking, may often be emotional — a longing for something missing, a lack or gap sensed in the soul.  Knocking is concrete, physical:  a hand strikes a door.  All three may be necessary to locate and uncover what we desire.  None of the three is raised above the other two in importance.  All of them matter; all of them may be required.

And what are we to make of this exhortation to keep trying?  Many cite scripture as if belief itself were sufficient, when verses like this one make it clear that’s not always true.  Spiritual achievement, like every other kind, demands effort.  Little is handed to us without diligence on our part.

And though the three modes of investigation or inquiry aren’t apparently ranked, it’s long seemed to me that asking is lowest.  If you’ve got nothing else, try a simple petition.  It calls to mind a child asking for a treat or permission, or a beggar on a street-corner.  The other two modes require more of us — actual labor, either of a quest, or of knocking on a door (and who knows how long it took to find?).

It’s possible to see the three as a progression, too — a guide to action.  First, ask in order to find out where to start, at least, if you lack other guidance.  With that hint, begin the quest, seeking and searching until you start “getting warm.”  Once you actually locate what you’re looking for — the finding after the seeking — it’s time to knock, to try out the quest physically, get the body involved in manifesting the result of the search.  Without this vital third component of the quest, the “find” may never actually make it into life where we live it every day.

Sometimes the knocking is initiated “from the other side”  In Revelations, the Galilean master says, “I stand at the door and knock.”  Here the key seems to be to pay attention and to open when you hear a response to all your seeking and searching. The universe isn’t deaf, though it answers in its own time, not ours.  The Wise have said that the door of soul opens inward.  No point in shoving up against it, or pushing and then waiting for it to give, if it doesn’t swing that way …

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*The standard edition of the Welsh triads for several decades is the one shown in the illustration by Rachel Bromwitch, now in its 3rd edition.  The earliest Welsh triads appearing in writing date from the 13th century.

**Issa (a pen name which means “cup of tea”) composed more than 20,000 haiku.  You can read many of them conveniently gathered here.

book cover; door image.

“Awake” (the TV series) and Awakening

I’ve been thinking over the last several weeks about the NBC midseason replacement series Awake.  Maybe you’ve seen it or at least heard about it.  (With the continually growing number of networks and choices, it’s become harder to find media experiences to talk about that most of us have in common.  Besides, each of us is busy enough as it is, pursuing our own reality show called Life.)

In its eighth episode as of this post, the drama stars Jason Isaacs as L.A. detective Michael Britten.  The premise is an intriguing one:  after a car accident involving Britten, his wife and son, his reality splits:  on alternating mornings he wakes to one life in which his wife Hannah survived the accident but not his son Rex, and in the other reality to a life in which Rex has survived, but not Hannah.

Britten is seeing two different therapists, one in each reality, each attempting to convince him that the current reality is the only “real” one.  Britten experiences some “bleed-through” of both similar and different details and situations from each reality to the other.  This naturally confuses him at times, but also gives him odd clues and insights into criminal cases he is working on, and into family dynamics that previously had too easily slid past him, until the accident forced him to pay more attention to the surviving family member in each alternate reality.

The series concept is a provocative one on several levels.  Who among us hasn’t wondered at least a little how things would be different if (fill in your own blank here)?  But more significant in Britten’s case is the immediate matter of his sanity.   Is this schizophrenia?  Can both of his realities be “real”?  Or is one destined to win out, forcing the detective to abandon what one of his therapists insists is an unhealthy clinging to an illusion that is preventing Britten from healing?  Which reality might prove “false” — one in which his wife Hannah is gradually coming to terms with their son’s death and planning a new life for them both, or the other, in which Britten is slowly learning to be a better father and to connect with the teenage Rex for the first time?  Who could ask a person to choose between these two?

Both realities are internally consistent, and as far as Britten can tell, neither offers any evidence of being “more real.”  Several spiritual traditions describe this consensus reality of ours as a kind of dream.  By itself, however, that’s never been a useful piece of information as far as I can see.  More helpful is guidance about how to live the dream fully and gracefully, and to shift in and out of this dream and other dreams.  Most of us try not to leave a trail of dead bodies or broken lives behind us, and we generally see this as a good and admirable thing — not something we’d worry about if this were “merely a dream.”

I remember going through a period in my twenties of perhaps six months of very violent dreams, featuring me both as victim and perpetrator, but the experience didn’t disturb my waking world.  No one arrested me as a serial killer, and the dream dismemberments, stabbings, shootings, beheadings and so on didn’t disturb my digestion or emotional life.  (They did give me useful material for contemplation and growth, but that’s a separate post.)  The whole time of the dreams I was both actor and disinterested spectator in that curious way dreams can have.  Obviously the quality of realities is different:  waking and dreaming matter as category distinctions.  If they didn’t, most of us would face radically different waking lives as a consequence of what we’ve dreamed!  Unless you’re seriously repressing, you’ve had at least some dreams that would probably garner an X film rating.  And if you don’t remember them, you’re missing out …

So if Britten is truly “awake” in both realities, he doesn’t need to choose, but simply to keep them straight.  If you’ve ever had a lucid dream, however, in which internal consistency and conscious awareness approach, equal or even surpass that of waking reality, the distinctions can become much harder to sustain.  Britten wears different colored wristbands to help him distinguish which reality he’s currently in.  (Curiously, we don’t hear about his dreams.  Perhaps “waking twice” consumes enough energy that he doesn’t need to — or can’t — dream.)

I have no idea how the writers of Awake intend to play this through.  But it seems to me that it would be an enormous and series-destroying mistake ever to call one reality “true” and the other “false.”  For better or worse, Britten logs parallel lives.

For most of us, both dream and waking are normally discontinuous.  Each has its own interval of duration, and each eventually ceases before the other resumes.  Under the influence of extreme fatigue, illness, or psychotropic substances, we can hallucinate and experience a “bleed-through” of dream-like perception into waking reality.  For most of us this is a temporary state of affairs, perhaps useful or insight-producing up to a point, but not something we desire to sustain permanently.  A good night’s sleep, a return to health, or the exit from an altered state of consciousness resets consciousness.  Generally this is a good thing!

Yet when life goes flat, when the “same-old” of our daily experience — which is almost always a symptom of our inattention and soul-sickness — threatens to bore us literally to death, we need those moments of “awake now!” that may arrive with an accident, death in the family, close escape, or other major transition.  Drama is punctuation to life — I don’t seek it habitually (unless I’m a bored teenage girl).  Regular spiritual practice, as I’ve learned from experience (positive and negative, in the doing and in the ignoring), can both defuse the sense of “same old” and deliver us to smaller and less life-upsetting moments of insight, inspiration and — yes — transformation.  We all dream of becoming more, better, greater, wiser, more loving, more fulfilled.  Now is the always and only time to awaken in that dream — to “live twice,” awake both times.*

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NBC series image

*Many of us “get” small bursts of at least the potential for transformation from art and music, or from sheer beauty on the playing field, or in a craft or manual skill.  The Chinese poet Li Po exchanged poems with his contemporary and friend Tu Fu, and on one occasion exclaimed, “Thank you for letting me read your new poems. It was like being alive twice.”

Drinking with the Ancestors

Some teachings run you through their rituals.
Find your own way – individuals
know what works beyond the shown way:
try out drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
such rites are chummy: do more than meet ’em.
(Spend your weekends with a mummy?)
But I like drinking with my Ancestors.

Another round of pints and glasses
will have us falling on our asses.
Leave off ritual when they’re calling —
you’ll be drinking with your Ancestors.

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice: if you lose focus
though you’re drinking with your Ancestors,

in the morning you’ll be uncertain
if you just dreamed or drew the curtain
on some world where it more than seemed
that you were drinking with your Ancestors.

Alcohol works its own magic,
and not all good – it’s downright tragic
if you’re just hung over from what could
have been you drinking with your Ancestors.

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises).
Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re fussing
over where our lives might go
or put on a ghostly show.
We’re the upshot, on the down low.
We’re the payoff, crown and fruit
(we got their genetic trash, and loot),
we’re their future – “build to suit.”
So start drinking with your ancestors.

*            *             *

Ancestor “worship” is sometimes a misnomer, though not always — some cultures do in fact pray to, propitiate and appease the spirits of the ancestral dead in ways indistinguishable from worship.  But others acknowledge what is simply fact — an awful lot (the simple fact that we’re here means our ancestors for the most part aren’t literally “an awful lot”) of people stand in line behind us.  Their lives lead directly to our own.  With the advent of photography it’s become possible to see images beyond the three- or four-generation remove that usually binds us to our immediate forebears.  I’m lucky to have a Civil War photo of my great-great grandfather, taken when he was about my age, in his early fifties.  In the way of generations past, he looks older than that, face seamed and thinned and worn.

The faces of our ancestral dead are often rightfully spooky.  We carry their genetics, of course, and often enough a distant echo of their family traditions, rhythms, expectations, and stories in our own lives — a composite of “stuff,” of excellences and limitations, that can qualify as karma in its most literal sense:  both the action and the results of doing.  But more than that, in the peculiar way of images, the light frozen there on the photograph in patches of bright and dark is some of the purest magic we have.  My great-great-grandfather James looks out toward some indeterminate distance — and in the moment of the photo, time — and that moment is now oddly immortal.  Who knows if it was one of his better days?  He posed for a photo, and no doubt had other things on his mind at the time, as we all do.  We are rarely completely present for whatever we’re doing, instead always on to the next thing, or caught up in the past, wondering why that dog keeps barking somewhere in the background, wondering what’s for dinner, what tomorrow will bring, whether any of our hopes and ambitions and worries justify the energy we pour into them so recklessly.

And I sit here gazing at that photo, or summoning his image from what is now visual memory of the photo, as if I met him, which in some way I now have.  Time stamps our lives onto our faces and here is his face.  No Botox for him.  Every line and crease is his from simply living.  And around him in my imagination I can pose him with his spouse and children (among them my great-grandfather William) and parents, and so on, back as far — almost unimaginably far — as we are human.  Fifty thousand years?  Two hundred thousand?  A million?  Yes, by the time that strain reaches me it’s a ridiculously thin trickle.  But then, if we look back far enough for the connection, it’s the same trickle, so we’re told, that flows in the veins of millions of others around us.  If we can trust the work of evolutionary biologists and geneticists, a very large number of people alive on the planet today descend from a relative handful of ultimate ancestors.  Which seems at first glance to fly in the face of our instinct and of simple mathematics, for that spreading tree of ancestors which, by the time it reaches my great-great-grandfather’s generation, includes thirty people  directly responsible for my existence (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great grandparents).  Someone called evolution the “ultimate game of survivor.” And now I break off one line, stalling forever this one particular evolutionary parade, because my wife and I have no children.

The poem of mine that opened this entry, “Drinking with the Ancestors,” suggests we can indeed meet and take counsel with members of this immense throng through the exercise of inhibition-lowering and imagination-freeing imbibing of alcohol.  Of course there are also visualization exercises and still other techniques that are suitably alcohol-free — more decorous and tame.  Depending on who you want to talk to among your clan, you can have an experience as real as most face-to-face talks with people who have skin on.  The difference between us in-carnate and ex-carnate folks is indeed the carne.  No sudden dispensation of wisdom automatically accrues to us just because we croak.  A living idiot becomes a dead idiot.  Likewise a wise soul is wise, in or out of flesh.

It seems fitting to end with an experience of the ancestors.  Not mine, this time — I keep such things close, because often when we experience them, they are for us alone, and retain their significance and power only if we do not diminish them by laying them out for others who may know nothing of our circumstances and experiences.  Wisdom is not a majority vote.  Even my wife and I may not share certain inner discoveries.  We’ve both learned the hard way that some experiences are for ourselves alone.  But it’s a judgment call.  Some things I share.

So in my place I give you Mary Stewart’s Merlin, in her novel The Hollow Hills*, recounting his quest for Excalibur, and an ancestor dream-vision that slides into waking.  The flavor of it captures one way such an ancestral encounter can go, the opposite end of the easy beery camaraderie that can issue from making the libations that welcome ancestral spirits to a festival or party, as in my poem.  Note the transition to daytime consciousness, the thin edge of difference between dream and waking.

I said “Father?  Sir?” but, as sometimes happens in dreams, I could make no sound.  But he looked up. There were no eyes under the peak of the helmet.  The hands that held the sword were the hands of a skeleton …  He held the sword out to me.  A voice that was not my father’s said, “Take it.”  It was not a ghost’s voice, or the voice of bidding that comes with vision.  I have heard these, and there is no blood in them; it is as if the wind breathed through an empty horn.  This was a man’s voice, deep and abrupt and accustomed to command, with a rough edge to it, such as comes from anger, or sometimes from drunkenness; or sometimes, as now, from fatigue.

I tried to move, but I could not, any more than I could speak.    I have never feared a spirit, but I feared this man.  From the blank of shadow below the helmet came the voice again, grim, and with a faint amusement, that crept along my skin like the brush of a wolf’s pelt felt in the dark.  My breath stopped and my skin shivered.  He said, and I now clearly heard the weariness in the voice:  “You need not fear me.  Nor should you fear the sword.  I am not your father, but you are my seed.  Take it, Merlinus Ambrosius.  You will find no rest until you do.”

I approached him.  The fire had dwindled, and it was almost dark.  I put my hands out for the sword and he reached to lay it across them … As the sword left his grip it fell, through his hands and through mine, and between us to the ground.  I knelt, groping in the darkness, but my hand met nothing.  I could feel his breath above me, warm as a living man’s, and his cloak brushed my cheek.  I heard him say:  “Find it.  There is no one else who can find it.”  Then my eyes were open and it was full noon, and the strawberry mare was nuzzling at me where I lay, with her mane brushing my face (226-7).

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*Stewart, Mary.  The Hollow Hills.  New York:  Fawcett Crest Books, 1974.

Aboutness

“I heard you saw the movie yesterday.  So what’s it about?”  “Jean and Bill are arguing again.  What’s that about?”  “OK, he tried to explain and it still doesn’t make sense to me.  But you understand those kinds of things, so tell me about it.”  And there’s the old-time newspaper seller’s cry:  “Extra, extra!   Read all about it!!”

This elusive quality of aboutness is core to so many of our ways and days.  We spend years in education (and life) dividing things up into their parts and labeling them, and then at least as much time putting them back together, searching for the links and connections between them, so that we can “grasp” them, “get” them, understand them.  Re-assemble and it might resemble what it used to be.  We crave community, fellowship and friends along the way at least as much as we prize our American individualism and independence and self-reliance.  We long for aboutness.

About is near, close, approximately, almost — good enough for daily reckoning, for horseshoes and hand-grenades. It’s about five miles.  We’re about out of time.  About is sometimes the guts, the innards, the details, all the juicy pieces.  About is also the whole, the overview, the heart of the matter.  If you know about cars or cooking, you don’t need to know every specific model or recipe to “know your way around them.”  What you don’t know you can usually pick up quickly because of family similarities they share.  If you under-stand, you know the sub-stance.  Position yourself in the right place and time (apparently beneath what you desire to comprehend, according to the peculiar English idiom), and you’ll get the gist.

Layers, strata.  This onion-like reality keeps messing us up with its levels.  Its aboutness won’t stay put as just one thing, but consists of stuff piled on other stuff below it.  Often you gotta dig down through the fossil layer to reach the starting point.  Peel it all away, though, and sometimes all you have is peel.  You may know the simple and lovely blessing — there are several versions extant:

Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,
back of the flour is the mill;
back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,
the sun and the Maker’s will.

Sometimes if you pay attention you can catch it like a melody on the wind, something that lingers behind the sunlight.  We know more than we know we know.  This is the natural mysticism that comes with living, however hard we may try to ignore it.  This is the  aboutness that underlies our lives and our days, while we scurry from one thing to another, in pursuit of happiness.  So it follows us, shaking its head at our antics.  It could catch up to us if we stopped, looked and listened, if we made space for it to live with us, rather than renting out a room next door, trying vainly to catch our attention.

Robert Frost is one of my go-to guys for insight, as readers of this blog discover.  In “Directive” he begins with that sense of constriction, and our partial memory of a past that shines brighter because of what we’ve forgotten about its difficulties.  Yes, the poem’s “about” dying New England towns and abandoned houses, but also about us:

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather …

If there’s a place and home for us, he goes on to say, it’s reachable only by misdirection.  “You can’t get there from here,” because the “here” has no more substance than anything else.  It won’t serve as a starting point.  Time has wrenched it free of its moorings.  Things drift.

The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it …

Yes, there’s a story, maybe several stories, a hint or two that maybe somewhere else, or someone else, will do it for it us, will finally deliver to us what we’ve been seeking.  The stories of art, of music, of the great myths we want to believe even when we can’t.  Sometimes the hints are maddening, sometimes the only comfort we can lay hands on in our seeking.

Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

Aren’t we almost there?  Or is it merely illusion?  Is this a path anyone else has traveled and succeeded in the end, or our own unique interstate roaring straight toward disaster?  What lies are we telling ourselves today?  And are we waking up to them at last?  You gotta get in to get out, go the Genesis lyrics (the band, not the Bible).  You have to get lost in order to be found.  That experience is necessary, though painful.  Not one of us is the son who stays at home.  We’re all prodigals.

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home.

Might as well get comfortable being lost, because it’s gonna last a while.  Though we never can be wholly comfortable in illusions.  No end in sight.  The problem is that we don’t know this until the end actually IS in sight. What illusions do we need that will actually bring comfort for a time, at least?  They’re not illusions until we outgrow them, live through and past them.  In fact we need truths now that only later become illusions precisely because they will be too small for us anymore.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

Our house in earnest, playhouse in our childhood, has collapsed, or will.  Our old selves won’t do.  They don’t fit.  We shuffle them off like snake-skins that bear the imprint of what lived in them, down to scar and scale, and we mourn and mistake them for ourselves, another illusion, standing there in the mirror that consciousness provides.

Who then can show us the way?  From this perspective, we need, not salvation, but someone to show us where we can walk on our own two feet.  Not out of vanity or stiff-necked pride, but because we have to make our way ourselves.  Otherwise it doesn’t stick.  It vanishes like a dream on waking.  Yes, others have carried us there briefly, by art or alcohol or sex or those moments of ecstasy that come on us unannounced and unsought, glimpses of home through the fog.

Tolkien has Gandalf and Pippin touch on it briefly in The Lord of the Rings:

Gandalf:  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it.

Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?

Gandalf:  White shores … and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Frost continues, wise old poet-guru.  (Sigmund Freud once remarked, “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.”)

Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.

We keep flowing — we’re not meant to stay put.  Heaven as stasis, as a static destination, an endpoint, a final arrival, nothing beyond, is a false heaven.  Enchantments of different kinds surround us. Some deceive, and some actively conceal what we know we must have in order to live at all.  Yet what we seek also and paradoxically lies hidden in plain sight. The water was “the water of the house.”  It’s right here.  What can we use to gather it up?

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Be whole again.  What was lost is now found.  Restoration.  Return to what is native to you — your watering place.  This is the command that drives us onward, the quest buried in our blood and bones.  Reach for it. Whole again beyond confusion.

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Secrets, Part Three

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.

Secrets, Part Two

Secrecy often emerges as a national issue in times of crisis. Recall the debate over the Patriot Act enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, and the kinds of broad governmental powers the Act authorized, including significant reductions of citizen privacy.  Secrecy can become central to state security, and exists in uneasy tension with the “need to know.”

President Kennedy declared in an April 27, 1961 speech that unjustifiable secrecy is repellent,  dangerous, and virtually un-American:

The very word “secrecy” is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.*

Of course, he was addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association, and also standing implicitly against the Communist bloc and its perceived threat to the West.  (You can listen to a portion of Kennedy’s speech on Youtube here.)  Nevertheless his points are well-made, and still almost painfully applicable today, in the wake of Wikileaks and similar events.

Yet secret societies, in spite of Kennedy’s assertions, do have a long and well-established place in the history of America, and many still thrive today.  They flourish at many colleges like Yale, with its Skull and Bones the most famous — or notorious — of several societies for college seniors.  Another similar and infamous example, though not affiliated with a school, is the Bohemian Grove.  Both have generated entertaining conspiracy theories, books, films, and news articles, all of which occasionally offer pieces of the truth.  Both exist, and both count among their membership some of the most powerful and influential people in the world.  Bohemian Grove counts among its members George H. W. Bush, Clint Eastwood and the late Walter Cronkite, according to a Univ. of California Santa Cruz website.**  Should we be worried?!

Opening Night at Bohemian Grove

Many sororities and fraternities also share elements of secret societies, depending on their charters and missions.  Still other similar organizations enjoy spotless reputations, such as the PEO Sisterhood, mostly public in its support for education, but still retaining some secret aspects.

Secret organizations are in fact particularly American, or were in the past.  At the nation’s founding, all but two of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were by some accounts members of the Masons or other society.  In the late 1800s, roughly 40% of the U.S. population belonged to the Freemasons, Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, the Grange, Knights of Columbus, Order of the Eastern Star, or other secret, service, fraternal or social organizations.  The 19th century was in many ways the heyday of such groups, which have declined since, even as Americans began to lament the loss of community cohesiveness and devotion to public service, unaware of the irony.

To step even further back in time, secrecy was after all crucial to the survival of Christianity, which took form as a sect within Judaism, and within a generation was perceived as a threat to Rome.  Suspected Christians were arrested, forced to worship the reigning Roman emperor (who in some cases claimed divinity) and recant their faith, or face execution in various bloody forms, including by wild animals, in the Circus Maximus, Colosseum or Amphitheater.  Until the emperor Constantine in the 300s made the religion a recognized faith of the Empire, Christianity was often an underground practice, with the ichthys (sometimes called the “Jesus fish”) as one of its secret signs, by which fellow believers might recognize each other.

The range of contexts in which secrecy manifests can be surprisingly wide.  The discipline of keeping a secret sometimes serves as a test for membership in a group.  If you can keep a secret about something insignificant, then you may earn the right to gain access to the greater secrets of the group, because you’ve demonstrated your integrity.  Shared secrets are a key element to defining in-groups and out-groups.  In the Middle Ages, much knowledge was automatically assumed to be secret.  If it was disseminated at all, it appeared in a learned language like Latin or Greek which only literate persons could read and access, and as often it was a zealously-guarded guild or trade secret which only guild members knew.  Significantly, the Old French word gramaire meant both “grammar” and “magic book,”  and is considered the most likely source of the word grimoire, also meaning a magic book.  Inaccessible or secret language and hidden or secret knowledge were the same thing, and occult meant simply “hidden.”

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” — you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance  German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.  Note how these are often connected with the experience of initiation, discussed in a previous post.

It’s vital here to note that it is not secrecy itself but the nature of the secret that is crucial in assessing its significance accurately and dispassionately.  I continue to cite J.M. Greer for his lucid and keen observations about the importance and potentials of secrets and secrecy, and the influence of his thinking pervades this series of posts.  I mentioned in Part One that though we all take part in the web of communication, there are ways to see it from the outside and more objectively.   We can occasionally and briefly free ourselves of its more negative effects and minimize its compulsions, then return to it for its positive benefits of human solidarity and companionship. As I’ve mentioned, solitude can temporarily ease its influence, and grant us a clearer space for reflection.  Another group which experiences a consciousness apart from the web are sufferers of mental illness, who are sometimes involuntarily forced outside it.  There they may perceive the arbitrary nature of cultural assumptions and behaviors, the “blind spots” inherent in every culture  and human institution, and the hollowness of social convention.  Their unwitting shift away from the web can make their perceptions, words and actions bizarre, frightening and difficult to manage.  Clearly there is danger in breaking the web, or leaving its patterns of coherence that allow us to make sense of the world.

Greer observes:

To have a secret is to keep some item of information outside the web, so that it does not become a part of the map of the world shared by the rest of society. A gap is opened in the web, defined by the secret, and as long as the secret is kept the gap remains. If the secret in question is something painful or destructive, and if secrecy is imposed by force rather than freely chosen, this kind of breach in the web can be just as damaging as the kind opened by madness.  If secrecy is freely chosen and freely kept, on the other hand, it becomes a tool for reshaping awareness, one with remarkable powers and a range of constructive uses.**

An examination in the next post of the conscious use of secrecy for positive ends will conclude this series.

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*A transcript of Kennedy’s entire speech is available at the JFK Library here.  (The quoted portion above begins in section 1, after the prefatory remarks.)

Bohemian Grove dinner image and article.

Grimoire image.

**Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge.  p. 116.

Secrets, Part One

If you believe that everything should be “out in the open,” you’ll probably admit to a certain impatience with concealment and secrecy. We’ve heard the old saw: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” and up to a point we believe it.  Particularly in the U.S., we equate openness with being “aboveboard” and honest.  “Don’t beat around the bush.”  “Say what you mean.”  “Be upfront about it.”  We admire “straight talk.”

The Freedom of Information Act helped make at least some government activities more transparent, and we often welcome “full disclosure” in a variety of situations.  We still think of ours as an “Open Society,” and the current practice of large and anonymous campaign contributions from corporate sponsors has some American citizens up in arms. We’re wary of the con, and we tend to suspect anyone who doesn’t “tell it like it is.”  We’ve got talk shows where people “spill it all,” and public figures starting at least with Jimmy Carter who began a confessional politics by admitting he had “lust in his heart.”  But not all secrets are sinister.  They do not automatically concern information anyone else needs to know.  Each of us has some things that are innocently private.  And in fact, well beyond this concession, secrecy can serve remarkable purposes that conspiracy theorists and even regular citizens rarely acknowledge.

Some secrets, of course, appear to be built into the stuff of the Cosmos.  Robert Frost captures this in a brief two-line poem, “The Secret Sits”:

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

We circle the thing we’re after, all the while convinced it’s there, that something will answer to our seeking, but somehow we still persist in missing it.  In spite of a couple of hundred years of scientific exploration, and prior to that, millennia of religious and spiritual investigation, existence and meaning and purpose often remain mysterious and not easily accessible.  What matters most to us springs from sources and energies we can’t simply subject to laboratory scrutiny and then write up in learned journals and magazines.  As some of the Wise have put it, “the eye sees, but cannot see itself” (at least not without a mirror).  Something about the nature of consciousness blocks us from easily comprehending it.

In our search, we reduce matter to atoms (literally, “unsplittables”) and think we’ve arrived at the true building blocks of the universe, only to learn that atoms can indeed split, and that they’re composed of subatomic particles.  Quantum physics further reveals that these particles are probabilities and exist only with the help of an observer.  Space-time itself is generated by consciousness.  We live in a “nesting doll” universe, worlds inside other worlds, an onion-like cosmos of endless layers.  True secrets, it appears, can’t be told.  They’re simply not part of the world of words.  As the Tao Te Ching wryly has it, “The Way that can be talked about isn’t the real Way.”  If that doesn’t have you pulling your hair out, it can at least cast you down into a terminal funk.  Where can a person get a clear answer?

Serious seekers in every generation come to experiment with some form of solitude, and if they persist, they may discover some very good reasons that underlie the practice of removing themselves even briefly from consensus reality and the web of communication we’re all born into.  This web helps us live with each other by building enough common ground that we can understand each other and cooperate in achieving common goals.  But it also builds our entire world of consciousness in ways we may not always want to assent to.  However, solitude by itself isn’t reasonable for most people as a lifestyle.  As my mother liked to remind me, “You have to live in the real world.”

But this “real world” runs surpassingly deep and wide in its influence.  Author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes,

The small talk that fills up time at social gatherings is an obvious example. There might seem to be little point in chatting about the weather, say, or the less controversial aspects of politics, business, and daily life, but this sort of talk communicates something crucial.  It says, in essence, “I live in the same world you do,” and the world in question is one defined by a particular map of reality, a particular way of looking at the universe of human experience.*

We need maps – there’s a reason we developed them.  But they limit as much as they guide.  We could even say that this is their genius and power – they guide by limiting, by reducing the “blooming buzzing confusion” of life to something more manageable.  Advertizing does this by simplifying our desire for meaning and connection and significance into a desire for an object that will grant us these things.  Trade one symbol – money or credit cards, paper or plastic – for another symbol, a status symbol, an object sold to us with a money-back promise to grant wishes like a genie’s lamp or the cintamani, the “wish-fulfilling” gem of the East. (If that’s not magic, and a questionable kind at best, I don’t know what is.  How much more wonderful it would be – how much closer it would come to “true magic” — if it actually succeeded in quenching that original desire, which is merely sidetracked for a time, and will re-emerge, only to be distracted again, by another “new and improved”** model, spouse, diet, house, product or lifestyle.  We need a remarkably small minimum of things to flourish and be happy.  In a territory far beyond the blessed realm of that minimum, the market survives, yes, while the heart slowly dies.***)

Greer continues,

We thus live in an extraordinarily complex web of communication, one that expresses and reinforces specific ways of thinking about the world.  This is not necessarily a problem, but it can easily become one whenever the presence and effects of the web are unnoticed.  To absorb the web’s promptings without noticing them, after all, is also to absorb the web’s implied world-view without being aware of the process – and what we do not notice we usually cannot counteract.

The very common habit of passivity toward our own inner lives, a habit that is responsible for a very large portion of human misery, shows itself clearly here.  It’s one thing to accept a map of the world as a useful convenience, one that can be replaced when it’s no longer useful, and quite another to accept it unthinkingly as the only map there is—or worse, to mistake the map for the world itself.*

A secret breaks the web.  It remains something apart, the fragment that doesn’t fit.  It’s the puzzle piece left over that doesn’t match the gap in the nearly-finished picture staring up at you, that one annoying bolt or washer or other component remaining after you’ve put together the “easy to assemble” appliance or device.  It’s the hangnail, the sore thumb, the mosquito bite of awareness that something’s off-kilter, out of whack, out of step, no longer in synch.  We have words for these things — we can name them, at least — because they happen to us frequently enough to break into the web.  And we struggle to fix them as soon as we can, or barring that, ignore them as much as possible, that uncomfortable fact, that inconvenient discovery. As Churchill quipped, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

I’ll continue this topic in Part Two.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, pp. 114-115.  I reread this book about once a year, and its lucid style makes this pleasurable apart from its subject matter. In addition to being a “guided tour” of the workings of lodge dynamics (fraternal, magical and social) and group magical practice (with an example magical lodge that Greer examines in considerable detail), the book is a clear, demystifying meditation on group consciousness, secrecy, and the magical egregore or “group mind” at work in all human organizations, institutions and collectives, including families, churches, political parties, companies, clubs, sports teams — the scope is immense.

**As comedian Chris Rock says, “Which is it, new or improved?!”

***As a teacher at an expensive private school for students whose parents expect them to gain admission to the top colleges and universities in the country, I here acknowledge that I myself participate in another kind of wish-fulfilling enterprise marketed to a considerable degree to that now widely suspect 1%.  In defense of the school, however, if not of myself, every year scholarship students are admitted solely on merit.  They succeed out of all proportion to their numbers in earning top class rankings and coveted admission letters to the best schools.

Ten Thousand Things

One of the more useful skills I’m practicing with Druidry (we all learn our lessons from many sources, in different guises and from different teachers, throughout our lives) concerns binary thinking.  It’s easier to recognize when we’re not practicing it ourselves.  You’re with us or you’re against us.  It’s good or it’s bad.  You’re young or you’re old.  Hot or cold.  1% or 99%.  And so on.  Next door in New Hampshire, the state license plates famously read “Live free or die.”

We can get distinctly uncomfortable around ambiguity that doesn’t fall into one or the other of two neat categories. Advertisers after all market to categories, and spend time labeling both products and consumers so they can target their products.  WordPress asks for tags and categories.  If you have something to sell that doesn’t fit under a label, you can have a devil of a time getting it on the shelves or in front of people’s noses.  Likewise, if you want to locate something that doesn’t fit a category, it can sometimes be a long challenge to track it down.

Of course, we can see plenty of this dualistic patterning in action now on a large scale in the States, and without needing to look any further than our presidential primaries.  Just tune in, and you’re sure to hear some variant of the following, especially across party lines:  one candidate’s or party’s ideas and proposals constitute all Goodness and Light and Upright Living, while the other threatens our very way of life.  Filled with greed, selfishness, and all signs of true evil, that Evil Other will — if we make the mistake of listening to/believing in/voting for them,  deliver us individually and as a nation into the hands of utter darkness, despair and destruction.

  Of course the drift into binary or polar thinking doesn’t originate or end with politics.  As author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes, “Binaries exert a curious magnetism on the human mind.  Once we get caught up in thoughts of yes or no, right or wrong, love or hate, truth or falsehood, or any other binary, it can be hard to realize that the two poles of the binary don’t contain all of reality … Druid philosophy offers a useful tactic in situations of this kind.  When you encounter a binary, you simply look for a third factor that is not simply a midpoint between the two poles.  Find the third factor and you convert the binary into a ternary, a balanced threefold relationship that allows freedom and flexibility.”*

We all know numerous proverbs and images of three-ness.  “Third time’s the charm”; the three parts of a syllogism (thesis, antithesis and synthesis); beginning, middle and end;  the Three Blind Mice; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the examples are nearly endless.  What they amount to is a widespread recognition of the liberating and creative power of Three.  As the Tao Te Ching says (Ch. 42), “From the One comes Two, from the Two Three, and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things” of existence in this world.  The key is not to stop at two if we want to create.  Move on to three.

Greer amplifies the discussion of binary thinking in a post on his weekly blog.  He notes that

… the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire … or fear … Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

Binary thinking is evolutionarily useful, Greer notes, because it allows us to make snap judgments that can save our lives in crises.  But in situations where more careful thinking is not only possible but necessary, our ancient wiring and programming can leave us stranded at one pole or another, in stalemate, with no sense of the way forward.

Greer continues, observing that (in various kinds of Druid and magical training) “Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.”  This bit of training can offer a salutary unlocking and rebalancing of the debates of the day — or of any complex problem handicapped and hampered by sharply polarized thinking.

This useful little exercise [of identifying and expanding binaries] has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume.

Ternary thinking isn’t just a liberating technique for the person who practices it.  It carries with it a desirable ripple effect, for

… when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

Given how shrill our political dialog has become, and how intransigent and loath to compromise the principal players remain, we could use a healthy dose of such thinking.  As one of the Wise has said, “God is what opposites have in common.” For me that means that the “truth” of a matter is less than likely to lie at either extreme of a binary, but somewhere else — not “in the middle” necessarily, as though God were a moderate or centrist deity.  The Tao Te Ching also notes (somewhat wryly, I’ve often felt) that “Extremes do not last long.”

But beyond the political sphere, the ternary in other settings leads us directly to the Ten Thousand Things, the world of possibility and options and freedom.  To give just one personal example, after my cancer surgery and the follow-up radiation  months later, I was weak and suffering from uncomfortable and chronic internal radiation burns in the lower colon.  “I’ve got to get better or I’ll have to quit my job,” I thought.  “I can’t work like this,” when almost every bathroom visit brought blood and pain.  Binary alert!  I was able to arrange a medical leave, during which a change of diet, specific exercise, rest, an inspiring class I audited, and several new activities and spiritual practices have helped with healing.

One of the latter is the subtly powerful principle of “both-and.”  Rather than stalling in a binary, embrace the whole.  So often I hear people saying, “I’m so upset!” or “I can’t believe it!” or some other incantation.  The more often they repeat it, the more forceful their mental and emotional state seems to become for them.  (Our most common targets of “black magic” are typically ourselves.)

“Both-and” works like this.  “I’m upset and I can also be calm.” Both are true.  Rather than denying what may be a very real state or situation, include it and move outward to include more.  This avoids the resistance or denial that often plagues affirmations or stubbornness or exertions of the will, as if we could force the universe to do what we’re simultaneously insisting it must not to!  (I want to be calm, but “I’m so upset!”)

Whitman, our old American proto-Druid, gets it.  “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Both-and, alive and well.  And as he also and famously said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Ten Thousand Things all are moving about on their many and beautiful ways.  Come walk with me, and with them.

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*J. M. Greer, The Druid Magic Handbook, 19.

Images: NH license; Obama; Gingrich; Whitman.

Resolutions — New Year’s and Others

It’s no accident that this time of year turns us toward thoughts of resolutions.  After the family gatherings and excess of the holidays — and let’s be honest, some excess and abandon can be fun, or would be, if our Puritan strain didn’t kick in, and kick us — we can feel slack and listless.  We’ve crested the peak of seemingly endless sugar and fat in our holiday diet — unless New Year’s Eve is the bigger holiday for you, in which case you’re just getting in training.  In the shadow of the sugar low, just combine these things with cloudy days, at least here in the northeast U.S., and you face a perfect storm of sloth and dejection and mild to severe loathing.  At some point our usually inevitable American self-improvement gene then steps forward, and it’s off to fix ourselves.

Whenever we push happiness or improvement into the future, we can be in trouble.  If it’s in the form of satisfaction with ourselves, twice the trouble.  How many times have we started and quit some scheme of fix-up?  Lose weight, get in shape, hold your temper with the left- or right-wing relative who always gets under your skin, forgive your neighbor, keep a diary, save more money each month, clean the basement or garage — paper for all the lists of vows and resolutions could keep Staples in business all by itself.  And if you truly enjoy flogging yourself, you key in your list to your favorite electronic device, so you can torture yourself with it several times a day.

You should know I tend not to make many resolutions.  Partly, my personal standards are lower, I’ll admit — and that makes things easier.  I confess to a startling capacity for indolence.  Both my wife and I have had years where we’re either flat out — busy, or flat out — in sloth.  Partly as a result of that, I’m a pragmatist.  No use flailing and contorting to begin something I won’t finish.  Shorten the list, I tell myself.  Throw it out altogether.  Delete the to-do’s accumulating on your virtual or actual desktop.  Be realistic.  You’ll be happier not making yourself miserable with what you fail to accomplish.  Or just keep it off the list in the first place.  Guilt may be a Catholic specialty, but most Americans, regardless of religious ancestry or affiliation, have managed to add it to their personal repertoire of masochism and psychological waterboarding.  Thus do I lower expectations.  And I’m only exaggerating slightly.  Low expectations let me rejoice in walking down a hallway and back — once — after my cancer surgery. Then twice.  And so on.  In three months I was jogging three miles a day.  Which was not my intention, and would have seemed daunting at the outset.  I just increased my distance a little each day.  The gifts of fresh air and daily sunrise were more than half of my success.

Which brings me to magic.

Not a transition you saw coming, I imagine.  Enough for at least a couple of readers to stop in disgust.  We’ll ignore the fact that what gets called “magical thinking” is exactly what propels many of our resolutions to change.  Such thinking is indeed unrealistic, because — to use the physical metaphor — we try to do the equivalent of the Boston Marathon without first taking up merely a short daily walk.  Too often we simply crash and burn.

So let’s define magic as most actual practitioners do:  the art of creating changes in consciousness in conformity with the will.

This isn’t the “will” of willpower, as if we could compel the universe to do anything it isn’t already inclined to do.  That kind of will is the popular image of the witch or magician, however, muttering arcane mantras and spells, and perhaps waving a wand.  It’s Harry Potter magic, which is why many practicing magicians found the Evangelical Christian hysteria (here’s a more balanced overview) over the book series and its supposed promotion of “Satanism” and “witchcraft” to be hysterical, as in funny.  See how far you get waving a wand and shouting “Expelliarmus” or “Avada Kedavra.”  (“Expecto Patronum”* might get you incrementally closer to achieving something, if only because it may lead you to focus on a positive.)

Actual — as opposed to Hollywood or popular — magic is a matter of discerning the patterns and tendencies of the natural world and its powers and forces, and then aligning oneself with them.  Quite simply, any other approach is highly unlikely to succeed.  As Druid and occult author J. M. Greer observes, if it “ignores the momentum and flow of natural patterns, it’s clumsy and wasteful of energy.  It’s much like trying to cross a lake on a rowboat without paying attention to the winds and the currents.  If you ignore these, you can put plenty of effort into rowing and make very little headway, or even end up further away from your goal than you started” (The Druid Magic Handbook, 18).  Blindly asserting the will is rowing while oblivious to movements and energies of the larger world.  Far from being supernatural, magic is thus deeply involved with the natural world.

The will involved in magic is much better identified as intentionality, and it’s intentionality that helps our New Year’s resolutions actually succeed.  Greer continues:  “Real will is effortless.  It corresponds, not to struggle and strain, but to what philosophers call ‘intentionality,’ the orientation of the mind that locates meaning in objects of experience” (20).  He gives the example of choosing to look at a window, or through a window at something on the other side.  The well-known image of faces or a vase offers a similar instance.  It’s by intention that we shift our perception.  Strain has nothing to do with it.  You perceive the two dark faces in profile looking at each other, or you perceive a white vase on a black background.   It’s hard to see both simultaneously.  But intentionality lets you shift between them.  It’s a choice.

One technique, therefore, for training the will or the intentionality, is to do something simple and comparatively effortless.  Set yourself a ridiculously easy task, follow through on it, and record your results.  The purpose of this training is to reveal and separate all our defeatist and negative self-sabotaging attitudes from an actual act of intentionality.  For instance, five times during the day, stand up, turn three times in a circle and sit back down again.  Record the date and time on each instance that you do this.

Now presumably nothing interfered with your success, except perhaps a mild feeling of embarrassment.  But you set up an intention, and manifested it without strain.  You simply did it.  Yoda’s words are apropos here:  “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  The “trying” is the strain, the effort of will to do something you actually don’t want to do.  Intentionality bypasses that.  You simply do it because you decided to.  This is a form of preliminary magical training:  doing small, effortless, things you know you can achieve without strain, in order to gain confidence in intention.

Because intentionality is a choice, not a struggle, many aspects of our lives can come under its influence.  Greer continues,

If you face a challenge with confidence, for example, you chances of success are much better than if you face the same challenge full of doubts and worries.  Intentionality is the reason why.  What the confident person sees as potential opportunities, the worried person sees as potential obstacles, and they are both right, because whether something is an opportunity or an obstacle usually depends on how you choose to approach it (Greer, 21)

— that is, on your intentionality.

We use a form of magic whenever we make a resolution — in this sense, we’re all magicians at work.

The difference between intentionality and ordinary ideas of willpower explains many of the failures that bedevil beginners.  When you try to use magic to will the world into obedience [in the case of a resolution, you will yourself to change your own behaviors and habits — ADW],  you set up an intentionality of conflict between yourself and the world … The harder you try to make the world obey, the more it fights back, because all your efforts reinforce the intentionality and amplify the conflict.  Change your intentionality to one of moving in harmony with the world, and the conflict disappears (Greer, 21).

This is not unfamiliar territory to Christians, either, or shouldn’t be.  Jesus says, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him.”  “Turn the other cheek,” and so on.  In other words, don’t make additional and entirely unnecessary trouble for yourself.  Don’t stand in your own way.

Because we often practice “black magic” on ourselves, sabotaging and short-circuiting our own best intentions with negative thinking and self-limiting behavior, and setting up conflicting, opposing intentionalities, we waste time and energy “rowing against the current.”  Many beginning magicians

try to use magic to achieve financial prosperity, and it’s common for their efforts to backfire and leave them poorer than they started.  Why?  In many cases, their magic focuses on wanting what they don’t have.  This sets up an intentionality of wanting and not having, and so they end up wanting money and not having it.  As with so many things in life, the more energy they put into chasing something, the faster it runs away (Greer, 22).

Because Greer has such insightful and useful things to say about intentionality — and thus resolutions — I want to let him have (almost) the final word:

If you want to use magic to become prosperous, your intentionality has to focus on being prosperous, not on wanting to be prosperous.  One effective approach starts with noticing the prosperity already in your life — if you have a roof over your head, three meals a day, and the leisure to read this book, after all, you have more prosperity than half the people on this planet — and letting the change in focus from wanting to having gently redefine your intentionality toward wealth.  Another useful strategy focuses on seeing opportunities for abundance around you.  This redefines your surroundings as a source of opportunity, and as [our life energy] follows intentionality, and shapes experience, opportunities appear (Greer, 22).

So to sum up, practice intentionality with actions that don’t haul negative habits of thinking along with them.  Focus on having and being, rather than on wanting and lacking.  Experiment.  Use the power of choice to shift consciousness — to see the vase, the faces, or whatever your intentionality is.  Repeat as needed.

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Images: resolutions and faces/vase

Postscript: when I was searching for the first image, a list of resolutions, I came across pictures of computer screens, too — another meaning of resolution — the pixel resolution or clarity of image that a screen possesses.  Likewise, my clarity in visualizing the goal — of having or being what I desire — is key to “keeping” my resolutions.  Imagining what it is like being and having what I desire is halfway to my manifesting it.  I already know something of what it feels like to succeed. (I’m using this strategy as I revise my nanowrimo draft.)

*”Expecto patronum” — (Latin, literally, “I await a patron/protector”) summons a familiar or symbolic representation of the self to protect one against negative energies, such as Dementors in the HP series.  Harry’s patronus is a stag, as was his father’s.  Of the three spells I cite above, this one is good defensive magic and actually works well against nightmares. The following is part of the entry from the Harry Potter wiki on the Patronum spell:

A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up… lose yourself in it… then speak the incantation “Expecto Patronum”.

Remus Lupin teaching Harry Potter the Patronus Charm

A Religious Operating System: ROS beta (Part 1)

“Whenever I get bored or depressed, I do laundry,” said an acquaintance.  “Afterwards I may still be bored or depressed, but at least I’ve done something that needed doing.  And often enough I feel better.”  As a treatment, the success rate of this strategy may or may not equal that of therapy or medication, but as far as clean clothes production goes, it’s got the other two beat hands down.  At least I can be depressed and dressed.

How different the quiet of depression and the quiet of peace! (I’m writing about peace and using exclamation points.  Hm.)  One deadens and stifles, the other ripples outward and invites attention, a kind of relaxed wakefulness.  We say we want peace, and the holiday season bombards us with prayers and songs and sermons and wishes for it.  There are prayers for peace in the ceremonies of many religious teachings and spiritual practices, Druidry included.  But rather than asking somebody else for it, I can begin differently.  Peace starts in the center, and that’s where I am — or where I can put myself, with the help of recollection and intent.  “Come back to yourself,” my life keeps saying, “and remember who you are and what it is you want.”  If I start peace (or anything else) within myself, however small, however tentative, it spreads from there outward.  After all, it works for every other state I create, whether positive or negative — and I know this from sometimes painful experience!  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is still some of the best advice ever given.  If I want change, who else do I expect to bring it about?  And if someone else did, how in the world would such changes be right for me?  Gandhi knew the secret lies in the approach.

In my early twenties, Lou Gramm and Foreigner were singing “I want to know what love is.  I want you to show me.”  It’s a lovely ballad — I’ve got it playing on Youtube the second time through as I write this paragraph, nostalgia back in full force — but it’s precisely backward in the end.  As loveless as I can sometimes feel, if I start the flow, jumpstart it if necessary, I prime the pump, and it will launch within me from that point.  Do that, and I become more loveable in a human sense, because in the divine sense I’ve made myself another center for love to happen in, and from which it can spread.

But neither love nor peace are things I can hold on to as things.  “We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate,” says the German poet Rilke in his poem “To Holderin” (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)  “From images that are full, the spirit plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled; there are no lakes till eternity.  Here, falling is best.  To fall from the mastered emotion into the guessed-at, and onward.”  Whatever I long for in a world of time and space needs to be re-won every day, though in that process of re-winning, not always successful, it begins to gather around me like a fragrance, a habit.  Both the customary behavior, and the clothing a monk or nun wears, have the same name.  The connection’s not accidental.

The American “farmer-poet” Wendell Berry captures it in these lines:

Geese appear high over us
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith:  what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for a new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear.  What we need is here.

So if we’re looking for a “religious operating system,” a ROS, we’ve got some design parameters that poets and others tell us are already in place.  “What we need is here.”  But try telling that to an unemployed person, or someone dying of a particularly nasty disease.  And of course, if I tell someone else these things, I’ve missed the point.  What they need is indeed here, but my  work is to find out this truth for myself.  I can’t do others’ work for them, and it wouldn’t be a good world if I could (though that doesn’t stop me sometimes from trying).  I don’t know how their discoveries will change their lives.  I only know, after I do the work, how my discoveries will change mine.

A recent article in the New York Times about the rise of the Nones, people who aren’t affiliated with any religion, but who aren’t necessarily atheists, offers this observation, from which I drew the title for this blog entry:

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system…

I’ll be examining this further in upcoming posts.

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Laundry, Foreigner album cover, and Rilke.

What’s Freedom For? (Part II)

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

B F Skinner

Years ago now, I remember furiously reading behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity on a plane.  I was making lots of notes and highlighting the text and writing exclamation points in the margins — at one point my seat-mate, who hadn’t spoken to me otherwise, asked  if I was prepping for a class.  I still have that copy, a cheap paperback, yellowing on my shelf.

But I wasn’t reading to complete an assignment.  I loathed Skinner’s conclusions, and I was gathering ammunition against them — all the false premises and counter-points and fallacies and over-generalizations I could muster. The most egregious of Skinner’s conclusions were that since — apart from genetics — we are machines controlled by our environment, there was no need to sustain delusional beliefs in freedom and dignity.  There is no such thing as an “autonomous” person who thinks and decides and chooses.  Any talk of political rights, a “soul,” consciousness, or freedom or any of a large number of other psychological states, was pointless, unfounded — an obstacle, in fact, to human progress.  We’re formed and motivated by reward and punishment, by reinforcement, Skinner claimed. And he asserted that a “science of human behavior” made designing any human culture we wished both a possibility and a demonstration of his conclusions.

A few years later I found out that linguist and critic Noam Chomsky had already done the job of demolition years before — 40 years ago, now — in a 1971 article in the New York Review of Books.  Chomsky takes Skinner down quite unapologetically:

Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.

I mention my personal story here because at the time I didn’t feel “free” to ignore Skinner — another way of saying I didn’t want to.  My freedom in this case was a choice, though one strongly influenced by emotion.

Here’s why I didn’t feel free — why I “had to” critique Skinner — again in Chomsky’s words:

Noam Chomsky

There is, of course, no doubt that behavior can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. This much is not at issue, and the conclusion is consistent with a belief in “autonomous man.” If a tyrant has the power to require certain acts, whether by threat of punishment or by allowing only those who perform these acts to escape from deprivation (e.g., by restricting employment to such people), his subjects may choose to obey — though some may have the dignity to refuse. They will understand the difference between this compulsion and the laws that govern falling bodies.

Of course, they are not free. Sanctions backed by force restrict freedom, as does differential reward. An increase in wages, in Marx’s phrase, “would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth.” But it would be absurd to conclude merely from the fact that freedom is limited, that “autonomous man” is an illusion, or to overlook the distinction between a person who chooses to conform, in the face of threat or force or deprivation, and a person who “chooses” to obey Newtonian principles as he falls from a high tower.

The inference remains absurd even where we can predict the course of action that most “autonomous men” would select, under conditions of extreme duress and limited opportunity for survival. The absurdity merely becomes more obvious when we consider the real social world, in which determinable “probabilities of response” are so slight as to have virtually no predictive value. And it would be not absurd but grotesque to argue that since circumstances can be arranged under which behavior is quite predictable — as in a prison, for example, or the concentration camp society “designed” above — therefore there need be no concern for the freedom and dignity of “autonomous man.” When such conclusions are taken to be the result of a “scientific analysis,” one can only be amazed at human gullibility.

OK, there we have the arguments of two white Euro males.  We’re equally gullible, of course, when we think freedom is some absolute thing, so that if we “have” it, it can’t be “taken” from us  except by violating our “rights.”  Societies organize and provide some things at the cost of others.  It’s always a trade-off.  Security in exchange for loss of freedom of movement has been a hot-button issue for some time now, with gated communities, and recent talk of a fence across the southern U.S. border, with the Dept. of Homeland Security scanning us every time we want to fly on a plane, opening our luggage, and fondling our pill bottles and mini-toothpaste tubes.  Have I tried to take away your freedom by slanting my comments here, to influence you and nudge you in the direction I want, so I can manipulate you later on?  Do you have the freedom to stop reading right now, or send me a nasty message?  You know the answers.  But how valuable is that freedom?

Changing gears, we have the pop version of freedom in Kris Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee.”  Here’s the chorus:

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, no no
Yeah feeling good was easy Lord when he sang the blues
You know feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

Is freedom “feeling good”?  To repeat, if we feel good, are we “free”?  After a medical misdiagnosis of mental illness, electroshock therapy cured my mother of some “delusions” that were actually caused by the onset of dementia, but I can’t ever say she was more free as a result.  Something in her shifted after that treatment.  It certainly sharpened the decline already under way.  It didn’t matter if she “felt good,” though of course I didn’t want to deprive her of whatever positives we could salvage from the situation.  In the other sense the song mentions, she was nearly “free.”  She had (almost) “nothing left to lose.”

But the song doesn’t exactly say that.  The lyrics assert, “Feeling good was easy when he sang the blues.”  In other words, if I have an antidote for my pain, or an outlet or expression for it like the Blues, it’s at least somewhat easier for me to feel good.  But actual freedom is a wash in this case, when I’m suffering.  Take away the suffering, and then I can begin to consider whether or not I’m “free.”  Until then, I got “nothing.”

The radically down and out, the homeless, the street crazies, the druggies — they’re free in many senses that I’m not.  Far fewer obligations, responsibilities, commitments, possessions.  Little of the self-building we do by putting on the right clothes, driving the right car, working at the right job, eating lunch with the right colleagues, and so on.  (I can see it start early, in school, with the cliques and claques and in-out groups.)

But I’m in no hurry for that kind of freedom, at least at the cost the homeless pay.

I’ve allowed myself to ramble a bit in this post, rather than arguing closely toward a conclusion. Is that freedom?

More to come in Part III.

Spiral

A spiral differs from a circle.  There’s motion in it, and change.  The track or trail of movement is itself motionless. (Well, comparatively:  the boat’s wake dissolves in ripples, the jet trail fades, but some time after, at least; the jet’s long gone.)  It records the journey.  But journey in a spiral is not repetition.  It’s recognition, re-encounter from a fresh perspective.  History, planetary or personal, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often spiral.

[Originally when I took the photo I was simply looking for a background that would contrast with the bowl.  Only later after I’d uploaded the photo did I realize that the grain of the wood holds at least as much interest as the spiral design of the bowl.  Talk about not seeing the obvious.]

You may remember the chorus in Joni Mitchell’s lovely song “The Circle Game”:

And the seasons they go round and round
and the painted ponies goes up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
from where we came
and go round and round and round
in the circle game.

Joni, it’s lovely, and it’s easy to be seduced by the beauty of your song, but you’re wrong.  Or at least, you’re right only about one choice among many.  It’s a game, and therefore we’re no more captive than any player is who agrees to the rules in order to play at all.

We can choose to play the game this way and be participants in time.  That’s the only way to live in a material world anyway, from what I’ve seen:  in time.  Once we release the drive to “get ahead” or “win the race,” we can begin to jump through time, from moment to moment, recognizing “infinity in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour,” as William Blake has it.  Time is illusion, yes — but in the sense of play (Latin ludere, lusus, illusio = in+ lusio — “in the game”):  a set of rules to make sense or pattern out of the flow of experience, which is e-lusive. We need “before” and “after” in order to begin (or return) to experience “now.”  The moment of illusion, of play, then broadens and deepens.

“Time is the stream I go fishing in,” says Thoreau.  I use this as a mantra when I get stressed about deadlines, minutes ticking, the illusion gaining hold in a way that’s no longer a game, no longer pleasant to be playing. There’s nothing wrong or cruel about time, once we let go the fear that comes with clinging to any particular moment — of resisting the play because life is supposedly such a serious thing.  “Eternity is in love with the productions of time,” Blake says in another poem.

These “long lessons” are ones I keep learning.  Most of us do — most of us are slow learners — earth’s a place for those with “special needs.”

To live any other way is to suffer needlessly — never my favorite thing to do, anyway — and to be trapped in regret and loss.  We’ll all have a taste of these if we live long enough, as part of the balance that comes with fullness of life — why seek out more, and worse, elevate them to a kind of icon of authenticity?  “I’m not human unless I make a fetish of my suffering,” some people seem to say.  “I AM my suffering,” say others.

The Circle Game goes best when we treat it as a game, as a shape of experience.  But it’s not the ONLY one.  We hear of people being “lost in the past.” How about seeing what it’s like to lose yourself in the present?   Nowhere is now here, to make a linguistic jest with wisdom at its core.

Robert Frost was on to it in “Birches.”

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.  Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If I don’t experience it on this curve of the spiral, it won’t be there for me the next time to “come to and begin over” in that “can-be-delightful” encounter of the “familiar-new” that often flavors our experiences. I cheat myself of so much joy, thinking there’s someplace “where it’s likely to go better.” Now, here, is when and where it’s at.

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