Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category

Earth Mysteries — 5 of 7 — The Law of Cause and Effect   Leave a comment

[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   2 comments

[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”   3 comments

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   Leave a comment

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   Leave a comment

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   2 comments

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   Leave a comment

“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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