Archive for the ‘secrecy’ Tag

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.

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