Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Becoming Friends of the Immediate Things: the New Age Task

“’You shall become friends of the immediate things’ (said Nietzsche). And the immediate things are this earth, this life. For quite long enough our ancestors, and we ourselves, have been taught that this life is not the real thing, that it is provisional and we only live for Heaven. Our morality is based upon the negation of the flesh, and so our unconscious often tries to convince us of the importance of living here and now. In the course of the centuries man [sic] has repeatedly experienced the fact that the life that is not lived here, or the life lived provisionally, is utterly unsatisfactory. It leads to neurosis.” C.G. Jung, Interpretation of Visions

The next meeting of the Utica Temenos will focus on James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code. My intention here is to provide some context that might help our discussion. Sorry if much of what I say is “old information.” It is old information, but I am re-working it through my own chewing process and hope you - the Temenos group and beyond - find it useful

This reading, like everything we have read together in our Temenos gatherings, fits generally into the “New Age” category, which I understand as the literature of the re-emergence of the Divine Feminine, or the Great Mother archetype into western modern consciousness. That this emergence is happening is to me the most exciting occurrence of our age. The emergence had already been noted in the previous century in the work of mystics like W.B. Yeats, and of course prominently in Dr. Jung’s archetypal psychology. In the 1960’s the consciousness actually emerged in society in a big way, due in large part to the experimentation with psyche-altering drugs that was going on at that time.

Since the 60’s, we have been dealing with the counterattack to that emergence on the societal and political level, but also with a lot of work being done on many levels to further incorporate that consciousness, to understand its meaning and what it requires of us in terms of how we shall live on the planet.

For the Divine Feminine is also the expression of the earth and of Nature. She arises at this time due to the huge imbalance in consciousness that is the consequence of centuries of patriarchal dominance within a dualistic consciousness, and its particular manifestations in imperialism, industrial capitalism, rationalistic scientism, and so on. It is an entire and self-re-enforcing system that is anti-nature, anti-body, anti-feminine due to its need to survive as a system. That is, it is not driven by “bad people,” necessarily, but by people faithfully doing their part within the collective consciousness. The problem is, of course, that the collective consciousness is destroying the planet, cannot stop warring, violence, exploitation of poorer/weaker people, or using up the planet and its “resources.” What the imbalance has produced is a destructive, insatiable death culture.

The people we’ve been reading in Temenos have attuned themselves to this other wondrous and awesome thing that is happening; that is, the re-dress of the wrong being done by the lopsided materialist and rationalist system, and the emergence of the corrective consciousness, that is, Great Mother consciousness. This is the consciousness that returns the sacred, or spirit, the “invisibles” to nature and to the physical universe. Not that they ever left, but western consciousness lost its ability to know the Spirit nature of things. Western theology separated the Divine (perceived as a Father God) from Nature, and placed priests and scripture between human beings and the divine; this left the way clear for top-down system of domination and the using up the earth’s bounty as “dead matter.” Western consciousness, as opposed to indigenous consciousness, sees the world as dead matter and has essentially reduced human being to a kind of machinery, too.

The divine feminine, on the other hand, is an Immanence. The feminine aspect of the soul, or the soul itself, suggests the sacredness in land, sky, trees, rivers, etc., but this knowledge cannot be accessed via the rational mind. It can only be accessed by each individual her/himself coming into contact with her/his own inner divinity. Each individual, in order for the Great Mother to emerge into consciousness, has to make that journey into the Unconscious (Great Mother, Nature in us) for him or herself – that is the “hero’s journey.” It is also initiation, transformation, shamanic journeying, etc. It is the same process known to Jesus and the other great spiritual teachers – that is, it is the process whereby they became spiritual authorities. The religions that grew up in their names are a different matter – each worthy in its way, but partaking in the shortcomings of attempting to institutionalize an experience!

Our times ask of us that we each become a spiritual authority, that we each become divine knowers. Of course, the Eastern religions have been the great teachers in this mysticism because their religion is rooted in the transformational Divine Feminine. But wedding that transformational understanding to the western, more individualized and ego-developed mind is what we are about.

How do we know how to take on this mystical knowing, this mythic journeying into the Unconscious? Sounds scary. One look at Kali, or at the Baba Yaga, and you know we are talking scary. Hillman says that the soul or psyche, long buried in western consciousness, or the gods, speak to us through our symptoms – our illness. Pathology itself provides the door to the Unconscious, to the divinity within, to gnosis. As Marion Woodman attested, though her path has involved pain and suffering, she would not have had it otherwise; the rewards are incomparable. And remember she called the surrender to the Goddess a great humility. The hero’s journey calls for the right kind of grandiosity – one must surrender to one’s divine nature and calling, to one’s “extraordinariness.”

Joseph Campbell famously called on us as individuals to “follow our bliss.” This is another way of speaking about the same path to Divine Mother consciousness, which is an erotic path. If we follow the call to our bliss, to our genuine wanting, we will be likewise drawn into that mythic journey with its trial and its danger and its suffering. Estes calls us to the Wild Woman within. Same thing.

But there is a problem that is not addressed by following the wild woman within, from knowing one’s own greater being within. That is, how do you make sure that this changed consciousness, this attunement to mystical reality, actually gets manifest in the real world? How does it go from being wonderful and personal to bringing the individual back into this terribly flawed, terribly imperfect, frustrating and ungrateful world? Into Utica, we might say. For Utica represents as well as anything the unidealized world of our society. How do you make sure this consciousness does not remain a few inches above the earth, but actually touches down into the shit where, as Yeats wrote, “God has pitched His tent?” How do you get across the rather distasteful idea that the soul must grow down and it must “become friends with immediate things”?

I asked this question as if there were some mastermind at work planning and strategizing the change in consciousness. Of course there is not. And, in fact as Hillman points out, the necessity that the soul grow down was already an idea present in pre-Christian western mythology. The ancient mythology of the daimon, a mythology we can confidently claim as western, contains both the notion of following one’s bliss (i.e., the calling, the acorn) and the sense of a destiny realized in this life – the destiny of one’s character. According to this mythology, we are meant to become characters, that is, individuals as seen from the point of view of others. As you can see, this is a very earthy, this-world outcome. Like the pine tree or the owl or the barnyard chicken, we are meant to become that which we are in this-life terms, a goal that is as humble as all hell.

The suggestion is that by each of us becoming the character that is our in-born destiny, by growing down into that, we are fulfilling not only our individual destiny, but our meaning and purpose as “envisioned” by the Divine Feminine in her guise as Necessity. We become part of the diversity that the Divine Feminine is, which we can only become through this humble surrender to that inborn destiny, daimon, or “bliss.”

It is in this way that the soul of the world can be addressed, which absolutely depends upon the soul-making taken on by each individual. As Hillman writes: “We make soul with our behavior, for soul doesn’t come already made in heaven. It is only imagined there; an unfulfilled project trying to grow down.” (p. 260) Now, we can refuse our call, absolutely. Our consciousness gives us that freedom. And there are a thousand reasons not to take it on, and a thousand messages from the culture seducing us into “why bother?” On the bulletin board that hangs in my studio, several prompts toward this decision are posted, and have been there guiding me for more than 20 years. One is from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Another is from the author and Jungian psychoanalyst John Lee: ”Why are we afraid to go down into our pain? ‘I’ll go crazy, you think. No one will understand or tolerate me. It will destroy my family.’ Well, if you don’t go into your pain, every single one of those things will happen.

In a milder way, Hillman hints at the difficulty of choosing the path of the daimon: “Awakening to the original seed of one’s soul and hearing it speak may not be easy. How do we recognize its voice; what signals does it give? …it is hard to get it through our hard heads that there can be messages from elsewhere more important to the conduct of our lives than what comes through Centel or the Internet, meanings that don’t slide in fast, free and easy, but are encoded in the painful pathologized events that perhaps are the only ways the gods can wake us up.” (p. 278)

Hillman’s science, like Jung’s, partakes of the truth of myth and imagination as much as it does empirical science. That is precisely because he follows the great feminine in his work, and trusts in his own inspiration as being truth, the same as we are called to do! Not truth as orthodoxy, not necessarily true for all time, but the truth we each are called to express now, in the present we inhabit. He’s just doing his job in service to the Great Mother; we each can only do the same, in whatever capacity we are called to (“character is not what you do, it’s the way you do it.”) p. 252

This is exciting stuff – fully inspirational and fully revolutionary. I confess that I see Temenos not so much as space wherein we contest such ideas, but wherein we seek to understand what they have to say to us as we each seek to do our part in the re-emergence of the Divine Feminine. I am committed to doing everything in my power to help with the intelligibility of these ideas in the belief that ideas are part of the transformational process.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gods of War, the Gift of Anger, and the Ongoing Struggle for Peace

“Go over and over your beads, paint weird designs on your forehead, wear your hair matted, long and ostentatious, but when deep inside you there is a loaded gun, how can you find God?” Kabir

Reading both The Iliad, the oldest and greatest war epic of all time, and a book of local history called Bloody Mohawk, by Richard Berleth, concurrently a few weeks back, I cannot help but look violence, and our human propensity for it, in the face. Bloody Mohawk is a well-done history of pre-Revolution and Revolutionary war periods in our upstate New York area, a time when we were gloriously multi-cultural, in the truest sense, and when war was anything but an abstraction fought far off upon a distant land and people, using sophisticated weapons of killing that mediate the act. Like warfare in ancient Troy, the killing that brought us this land and our freedom from colonial rule was hand-to-hand, up close and personal, and frequently involved the slaughter of women and children and old people, white, red and even brown.

In the case of Bloody Mohawk, and the history of this region and of America, I believe it is important we all know these facts, and even more of them; The history of our country is soaked in blood, but generation after generation remains ignorant/innocent of the fact, which jibes so unpleasantly with images of sparkling beaches and happy clusters of healthy, Coca-Cola drinking young people. We are shocked by the level of bloodshed in a book like Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, but in truth the book could have been written around the colorful life of our own Sir William Johnson, who frequently and effectively led his Mohawk friends on the warpath against the French and their Indian allies, using techniques of forest warfare that were all on the Indians’ terms. This included scalp-taking and the use of elaborate and unimaginably cruel torture.

I think that we should all wonder, where did all of that viciousness and aggression go? Did it just simply wither away as the Indians diminished in number and became pragmatically pacified, and the land from sea to shining sea belonged fully to the invaders? What happens to these primitive, instinctual capacities for, well, for killing?

I want to talk about anger here in this piece, even though I realize that anger and war are not the same thing, and that violence and killing do not require having anger to drive them. Still, what other emotion leads to fantasies of killing, in our modern, well-behaved, suburbanized minds? And what emotion does one need, actually, to go to war against injustice or aggression, assuming one has a choice? And, prominently in my mind is the question what difference it makes if our anger, which is innate in all of us, is unconscious rather than conscious? I am sure that the settlers and Indians in colonial times along the Mohawk, which was the frontier of that time, did not worry over much about their capacity for anger. They felt it frequently, as each side suffered insult or injury, and acted on it. Anger and its lethal consequences were, in the frontier context, justified.

In contrast, modern commentators often point out the lack of public anger we see today in the face of acts of blatant wrongdoing on the part of ruling government and corporations. In fact, in the film we watched Tuesday night in our Temenos group, Dancing in the Flames, about psychoanalyst and writer Marion Woodman, we heard Andrew Harvey, her interviewer, make exactly that comment. And later on in the film, Marion mentioned the tremendous anger she feels at what is happening to the planet. Clearly, this woman dedicated to the work of spiritual transformation does not feel anger to be antithetical to higher consciousness.

Where, I wonder, is peoples’ anger located these days? A lot of it, by all appearances, is directed at each other. Having lost the collective enemy of Communist Russia and the Iron curtain, and the new enemy of terrorism being so much less ideological and definable, anger has become rather inchoate. At a Christmas party a few days ago, I listened to a teacher in our inner city high school, named John, express legitimate anger at state officials coming into the school, deeming it seriously deficient (I forget the designation they gave it) and making only one comment before they left the district 3 days later: their comment was that the classroom seating was still in old-fashioned rows. This, to a school whose teachers struggle with 47 languages in the student body, with many under-socialized children from poor homes, inadequate basic supplies, and so on.

I appreciated John’s candidness and his indignation, but as he sputtered on, he inevitably (it seems) placed his anger ultimately – after that directed at the well-paid layer of do-nothing school administrators, then at the teachers’ union and third, at guidance counselors - at the door of the social welfare system. He appeared incapable of a John Taylor Gatto reach with his anger, which would cut right past administrators, teachers, parents, and social welfare to the systemic nature of the problem, and to those whose interest this “dysfunctional system” serves – and actually serves quite functionally. (John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing Us Down, Weapons of Mass Instruction and other books powerfully indicting of our public education system came to Utica this fall and spoke at The Other Side)

So, one way we deal with that layer of unconscious, inappropriate anger is to direct it at the poor, and at the welfare system that, simplistically speaking, perpetuates their poverty. ( Not that this isn’t a genuine problem, mind you, but if you compare defense spending to welfare spending, its clear that helping the poor hardly compares to the non-constructive drain on our economy that war is) Another way that is increasingly prevalent and influential in today’s politics is “red state-blue state” anger, continuously whipped into a frenzy by Glenn Beck types and tea party activists.

As far as I am concerned, however, these anger targets are distractions. They work admirably to keep us away from both more intimate angers, and from our legitimate anger at the people actually in charge of the society and the economic order who benefit from war, from oil drilling that leads to catastrophic oil spills, from factory food that makes us and the planet sick and abuses animals, from seed patents and the rest.

It’s the intimate anger I want to look at first, because this anger is the key to the kind of spiritual transformation that Woodman speaks about and works for. Speaking for myself, it is terribly easy for me to walk around carrying a load of anger that is completely unnoticeable to myself (meaning, its unconscious). Even though this load of unconscious anger cuts me off from feeling real joy and well-being, I can function under it, and I am used to it. Buried anger was something I carried with me as a girl brought up to be above all nice, through my childhood, teen years, and right on through until I faced it, when I was in my early 40’s. By then it had reached lethal levels, as one can imagine, and it took quite a long and painful process to identify it and to transform it. But that is another story, one I have told in other settings.

Through therapy, I came to understand the anger as having originated in very early childhood trauma, the consequence of my parents’ 1000 ways of mis-recognizing me, and failing to love me as I wanted to be loved. The anger had made me ill, not because the anger was wrong, but because of the forbiddenness of the anger. Recovery of my legitimate anger through therapy was one important step in the recovery of my soul. The discovery of my innerness, my soul dimension, was the most important discovery of my life, bar none. Because of the discovery of this priceless pearl, my legitimate anger, no longer directed at my parents, is saved for that which destroys soul – the body-nature-feminine-hating culture that forced my parents’ adaptation, and forces all peoples’ adaptation who have lost their spiritual base, to its supreme authority.

The danger with anger is that, living in this culture that denies the sacred dimension, it goes unconscious and slips back into finding easier targets. Thus it comes to pass that the only means I have for recognizing my unconscious anger is being aware of it in relation to my husband. I cannot exaggerate how comfortably my anger comes to rest at his feet, for all the ways in which he doesn’t suit me, doesn’t see me, doesn’t listen to me, takes me for granted, etc. To the extent that I am aware of the anger, it appears completely justified. “I could have done better,” as Marion Woodman said at one point in relation to her husband. If I am to discern this anger that is hardening my heart toward the one I am – in a completely factual way - closest to in the world, certain conditions must be met

First of all, if I am to recognize this hardened layer in my being I cannot be strenuously busy. In fact, if I wanted to remain thoroughly unconscious of this anger, all I’d have to do is remain busy in the modern, multi-tasking, hurried-up sense. Given my husband’s ancient pattern of accommodating to angry, unhappy parents, with which he is utterly familiar, if we are both sufficiently busy it could take months before the pattern is discerned

Second condition that has to be met is letting go of certainty, allowing in doubt. The crack in the surface is there, but I don’t want to look. I am wielding anger at him, and I know from past experience that I must look at whether or not it is legitimate. Here is the moment at which a huge unwillingness to admit wrong appears, a stiff resistance to humility. Again, based upon past experience, having “been here” before, and knowing how I should proceed against my nature at this moment - which is bidding me to stay angry – I suggest we need to talk, or make some other grudging acknowledgment that I want something else to exist between us. Stubborn as the old unconscious anger is, I can’t even acknowledge this at first - can’t bear the thought of conceding the righteous position to him.

These are the necessary steps leading to reconciliation, an act taken so seriously in Roman Catholic tradition that it is a sacrament. (formerly known as the sacrament of Confession) It has its versions in the other major traditions as well, and is essential as the means whereby the community heals its wounds. The consequences of making this reconciliation, vs. not making it, are enormous. A huge consequence for me of staying in my anger is that, stockaded against Orin, fully armed with my projection on him, and unwilling to acknowledge his human side, my own genuine masculine, initiatory, decisive energy is unavailable to me. I am stuck in the mud of the negative feminine. All progress I have made toward being a woman who makes her own original contributions to the world, are a consequence of this process of taking back my angry projections upon my husband.

So, I wonder, what happens to people who do not have this intimate enemy with whom they must either make peace or remain at war? How do they, if they are women, manage to unlock that ready anger at the Father, at the masculine gods, that we were all steeped in for so long as children in a patriarchal, rigidly sexist order? Who would put herself through such a difficult, humiliating and unpleasant ordeal if some other did not call her to a greater honesty even than she feels capable of? And the “other” I refer to is not the husband per se, but the marriage itself, the quality of the invisible bond between us, so real and so easily severable?

In a culture that is trained not to see such invisible (spiritual) bonds there is no reason to keep them when those points of “irreconcilable difference” are reached. Far be it from me to say whether or not truly irreconcilable differences exist, but given a 50% divorce rate, there are a fair number of couples abandoning the marriage bond because they can, not because it was demanded by the situation, however much a crisis that situation is. My answer to this would be not to toughen divorce laws, but to teach more accurately what marriage is, which is an opportunity to transform spiritually, alchemically, like no other offered to us in modern society. Marriage is, properly understood, a door into the spirit world, a passage not made except inasmuch, by serious pain, we are forced.

Fortunate indeed are we whose pain forces us to find that third way, that door hidden from our ordinary consciousness and sight. Living intimately with another person, committed in the vow of marriage, places one’s ego in real jeopardy. Placed in close confines to real difference, the ego must adjust, that is yield, or continue to demand having its own way. Given the many distractions of modern life, from extreme busyness, to TV’s in every room, to shopping, texting, and the like, not to mention chemical substances, the confrontation is postponable, but at some point, after sufficient postponement, the marriage is completely void. If, on the other hand, one takes on the reality of the difference between man and woman, masculine and feminine, as Marion and her husband Ross did, then one sees that marriage is exactly a vessel for transformation of consciousness. One can take it as that or not, but the difference in “the road taken” is real.

What I want to suggest further is the consequence to our society that by and large we refuse the cup of transformation. We refuse that death Marion spoke about, and thus we refuse that renewed life as well. We refuse the confined space of marriage as “optional misery” we refuse the confine of age, protesting, “I’m not old!”. We refuse the limitations of children by hiring nannies, sending them to day care, and by offering them up to television and the public schools that make them into the kind of people our consumer society wants and needs them to be.

One consequence is that our native anger does not reach its proper outlet, which is revolution. It is revolution because the system we are in, which denies the reality of, and profits from, the extinction of souls, must be replaced. Not by “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” but by utterly new life, the kind attainable by means of spiritual transformation only, which is transformation of imagination.

The anger that we legitimately have, for what has been done to our society, to community, to vulnerable peoples and to the planet, must find its partner love, so that the ancient practice of war can be transformed into, not war against them, but war on behalf of that which cannot speak for itself. This may not be a war of literal killing as much as of voluntary dying so the new life can be born and be. I can find no apter prototype for this kind of transformation of war than the battleground of the genders, and the archetypal masculine and feminine aspects of the soul, in marriage.

Like Marion Woodman, I want to encourage the young not to abandon marriage. I want to ask of “the aging population,” of which I am a member, that we see through the trap of our own liberal smugness, which is as big an obstacle to planetary transformation as right-wing fundamentalist blame-throwing. The fact that alchemical, initiatory containers, such as marriage and religion, resemble the tyrannies and dogmas from which we have historically freed ourselves through enlightenment and technological progress, does not make them optional. And if we do not consciously make our way into these containers to learn the humbling process of dying and being reborn, we will keep the knife at the throat of the one in us who does not deserve to die. The story we tell ourselves may be anti-war, but the killing will continue.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

As the Far Right Gets Edgier, Should Not We? A Post-Election Reflection

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be praise, think of these things. Philippians 4:8, American Standard Version

“Edgy” might be the word to apply to Glenn Beck’s promotion of the writings and ideas of a man named W. Cleon Skousen, an avowed John Bircher who “was too extreme even for the conservative activists of the Goldwater era,” according to a piece I read on Salon.com. I see it as a natural enough effort to connect with a tradition that justifies and supports the scoundrel’s impulse to hunt witches. In another liberal journal’s account of Beck’s reinvigoration of Skousen’s ideas, Skousen was referred to as a “nut job.” So apparently we can be plainspoken about how we think of edginess at the extreme right of the political spectrum.

How, I wonder, do we perceive edginess at the other, so-called “progressive” end of the spectrum? What does a progressive have to say to be labeled so decisively a “nut job” by the mainstream press? As Glenn Beck reaches for a fringe tradition that can rally the folks on the Right, is not there another “fringe” tradition that could work for those who can’t get worked up about the Communists or gay people or whether or not Obama is a Muslim? Hey! I’ve got it! What if people began putting out there some concrete ideas about forming a just, compassionate, peace-loving and earth-respecting society? There’s plenty of tradition behind those ideas, including the Judeo-Christian one!

First of all, it must be said that someone is already doing this on the national level – Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, in his call to Democrats for a “bottom line of compassion” as a basis for an economy and a political order in our nation, and a “Marshall Plan” of generosity towards other less affluent countries, has been developing and putting forth these “fringy,” edgy ideas for many years. And what is it that keeps such excellent ideas on the fringe, seemingly as outlandish to the mainstream as the extremism of the John Birch Society?

While Republican voters going into the recent election were enjoined to help take our government back, return to smaller government and lower taxes, while maintaining a “robust and unapologetic national defense,” no Democrat did or will ever put forth an agenda based upon the quest for peace, for planetary health, or for justice for all people. That is because ideas based in simple human values, of peace, well-being, harmony with the earth and between peoples is off the table. In effect, they do not exist, except as wacko-fringy ideas of left wing nut jobs.

On a recent Saturday, a man came into the Café, bought his cup of coffee, sat down with it in the upper back room and proceeded to work at his laptop. In the brief exchange I overheard Orin having with him I learned he was from northern Vermont and, despite his fair, youthful looks, was in town for parents’ weekend at Hamilton College. At a table near to the coffee bar, a few customers were talking over the morning’s headlines about the man arrested at former President Bill Clinton’s talk at the Stanley the previous evening. The man was arrested for shouting at Bill, calling him a “war criminal.” Although the locals seemed not to be deeply offended at the man’s effrontery, the consensus at the table betrayed no awareness of any justifiable reasons for the protester’s position for which he had been willing to risk arrest. From behind the coffee counter, Orin added helpfully, “Every President since Truman could be called a war criminal.” Whereupon, the man from Vermont, who had been silently working upstairs, stood up to interject that every President for the last 100 years could justifiably be called a war criminal!

What was significant for me in this vignette was not whether or not the Vermonter knew his facts, but that he brought his opinion into a local (Utica) discussion of the type which in my experience usually (trust me) extends all the way from point A to point B. Such a “radical” claim, even Orin’s slightly less outlandish claim, (though it’s a fact I read recently that our government has bombed more civilians – other than its own citizens – than all other nations combined) can be disputed of course. That is what we have discussion for – to hear different perspectives, ideas and claims and talk them through. But if we do not hear ideas C through Z, if they are not put forth for public discussion, then they cannot be talked through. Right now we can hear edgy, Z-range ideas from the right wing, if we tune into Glenn Beck et al. But who is speaking and where do we go to hear the edgy ideas, not so much from the “left wing,” (or from Comedy Central) as from the compassionate heart of our society? What is the heart’s tradition, and who is attempting to win hearts and minds with reference to it?

Just recently I have been saying to my husband and to some of our board members that I felt The Other Side needed to be “edgier.” Funny I would be saying that in a season when we have brought to our space the leading proponent of ending mass public (government) schooling, John Taylor Gatto (9/22), and the beatnik poetry and out-there jazz of longtime pot decriminalization advocate John Sinclair (10/23). Plus, this summer, The Other Side (and Café Domenico) co-sponsored Ralph Nader’s appearance at MVCC. Still, though, I am greedy and I want more. I want documentary films bringing us perspectives from the “fringe” not represented in the mainstream, I want Alternative Radio bringing us the voices of Raj Patel, Noam Chomsky, the late Howard Zinn, Vandana Shiva and many others. I would love to host edgier theater productions, and informed guest speakers who could challenge the passionless status quo. I would love to be able to step out any night of the week and run into energized conversations about movies, books, politics, religion, that were engaging and meaningful, like the ones I fantasize wistfully the man from Vermont engaging in back home.

This passion for conversation is, in fact, what led me to establish The Other Side in the first place. A long time ago, I decided that the conversation held between people face-to-face, engendered by topics (as in salons), or the art or the lecture or the event, was as important as the art or the event itself. My faith in the power of conversation and ideas remains as strong as ever, even when I see the overwhelming preference of the majority of people for those substitutes for face-to-face conversation and relationships: cell phones, iPods and the Internet; evenings at home cuddled in front of Netflix; participation in mass, commodified politics, or socializing, often with the aid of alcohol, that contains little real conversation – that is, no C-Z of perspectives - at all.

The revolutionary space is the space between people in the same room. It is in these spaces where the great latent power of people in democratic society resides. Insert a TV into that space, a cell phone, an Internet, a rigidified schooling structure, and the human need for connection is displaced, and replaced with a medium. At the interpersonal level many of us have become tongue-tied, reluctant to speak our truths, anxious to keep conversations within “respectable” (translation: boring) bounds. Or we seek out little pockets of subversion where we can yelp out our unorthodox opinions, where they’ll be accepted, but where, in the absence of an “application” strategy, the ideas lose their energy to change anything. The ideas must be risked with an audience that might disagree, might be hurt or offended, or they amount to nothing more than private mumblings. For many reasons, but primarily because we are so uncertain of the solidity of our connectedness, these are risks we are less and less willing to take. But paradoxically, as we become more reluctant to risk our expression for fear of losing connection, the bonds of community weaken.

The crisis our planet is in tells us this: the future for human beings and the planet has now to be imagined; we have reached the end of the old paradigm; it is passing away. It is a time like no other for being awake. It is a time for paring down to essentials, like those expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, or by our own outlandish American prophet, Henry David Thoreau. The Other Side, as a call to immediacy and to presence, asks me to resist the manifest temptations to enter the proto-cyborgian existence - before we have (re) learned to be fully human. I’m unsure that good can come of increasingly allowing the spaces between people, as well as those within, to be filled and replaced by media input when we have not yet made up our minds whether or not human beings, and human community, are worth saving.

Referring back to that quest for a tradition, there’s no older one than the tradition of community, and all the customs and rituals, cooperation and communication, art and industry, roles and relationships that make it up. Seems like a good time to risk being edgy in the very old-fashioned way I am suggesting: by returning to the people, the place, the most necessary activities and conversations close at hand, and in so doing, be able to put forth our own fringy nut job ideas with conviction.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Be Like Noah

“Ignorance in English law is no excuse for breaches of law. In the collective unconscious, ignorance, unawareness, is not only inexcusable but the greatest offence with the most dire consequences. That is why in Greek myth, legend and art, the villain is always the ignorance that serves as an image of unawareness, it is always the “not-knowing,” the non-recognition of man’s own inner eventfulness which is the real crime…How great therefore the culpability of a consciousness like our own that knows and will not face up to the responsibility of what it knows! For no one since Freud, and above all since Jung, can any longer plead ignorance of where our failure starts.” Laurens van der Post, Jung & the Story of Our Time

My own reading of Carl Jung, and of many of the writers, psychoanalysts, poets and others influenced by his work, has convinced me of his motivation to provide modern men and women a way out of the systemic failure of our civilization. He and his “disciples” open the way to the interior, to the feminine area of consciousness, to the transformative spiritual potential in human beings, heretofore largely ignored by “western” religion. This is an absolutely huge and momentous feat, and the efforts of the one man, Jung, to accomplish it, has to be acknowledged by each of us who has benefited so much from his brilliance, his courage and his love for human kind. Reading the van der Post book about Jung quoted above is especially pleasurable because van der Post does not stint in his praise for his friend Carl Jung; even though it is unfashionable to show such “biased” passion for a great man. He admires Dr. Jung for his unmatched gifts to our civilization, for giving us the chance to turn around the “blood-dimmed tide,” but he loves him for the gift he gave to himself, that is, the gift to make it possible to contact and to guide one’s life by the Divine energies within.

And that is why Dr. Jung has my undying gratitude, and my love as well. Adrift for half my life with only this culture to cling to for any idea of meaning or purpose, I found his raft – by now quite large, but still far from the mainstream of what passes for information and ideas in our culture – and climbed on. Once on this raft one finds oneself dedicated also to the work of transmitting to others the great soul-saving insights, not only to inspire and give hope to individuals, but to address the alarming crisis we are in in the only way that can make a true difference! Surely there are outer reforms and changes to take on, such as the rebuilding of local economies and cultures, but individuals who have not taken on the honest search for self-knowledge, knowledge that is deep and transformative, will in the end only build what they know, and the anti-nature, anti-passional, anti-Feminine bias of this culture will be transmitted once again.

This more imperative aspect of transformational change is the religious aspect. Through a process of secularization and rationalization appealing to our desired sense of being “moderns” and “better off” than any people before us on the planet, we have thrown out the baby of religion with the bathwater of dogma and dead mythology, and deem ourselves better off for it. Countless times I have heard the distinction made between “spiritual” and “religious,” as a way of distinguishing oneself and one’s own spirituality from the benighted mistakes of unthinking orthodoxy, conformity and dogma .

It is time that we understood what we are doing as we make this pet distinction, which is equivocating - it is bargaining with God and the gods - and realize that if something is not our religion, that is, if something does not confront us with the task of answering to and acting upon life’s ultimate meaning and purpose during this brief mortal space, then we are, as van der Post says it, “culpable of not facing up to the responsibility of (what) we know.” The problem is that for many of us there is a great difficulty in re-imagining religion. We understand it only in the dualistic, literalistic terms of our culture’s stunted kind of “thinking,” which can conceive of it only as an evolutionary step backward, a relinquishing of prized freedom, a return to unenlightened, blind ideology, etc. Like Jung, I know that “only religion can replace religion,” and without it, we are always “subjects” (as in “subjected”) in someone else’s religion – in our case, this would be the religion of obeisance to the interlocked, and mostly invisible powers of corporations, the military and the state, and a culture debased to the point that it no longer reflects the needs and longings, beauty and strength of real human beings. Unless we have an alternate religion, and religious passion, we can do no more than play our part in theirs.

In our Temenos gathering two Tuesdays ago, beginning our discussion of James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, we touched into the idea of “calling.” The term, clearly, is central to Hillman’s thesis, and, somewhat troublesomely, is surely a religious term. The very next night in the Imagining America lecture at The Other Side, the speaker, talking about what was needed if Americans are to act collectively to save the earth (or “the environment,” as he referred to it) from destruction, used the term “sacrifice.” He said that Americans would need to learn again to view sacrifice as something that has its real reward, though not a material one. It was pointed out by an audience member, Carl Rubino (former Jesuit), that “sacrifice” is a word also associated with religion.

Over and over I see contemporary writers and thinkers, groping toward the language that is adequate to the challenge we face, coming back to the language of religion. Not said, by either of the two Hamilton College professors, was what are we going to do, in this post-Christian, dominantly secular age, if we need religion - if we need to be religious - to let go of this one way ticket to disaster we are currently holding.

Wednesday night (9/22) in his talk at The Other Side, writer and activist educator John Taylor Gatto named the 3 traditional purposes of education: to make good people, to make good citizens, and to make each individual his/her personal best. The first, he pointed out, is a moral goal, and historically has depended upon a person’s having a connection to a transcendent meaning – to the Divine, or to God. He suggests, and I paraphrase, that it is no accident that society – and schooling in particular – has thrown out education in the Divine, for people whose meaning is based in spiritual reality are not as controllable as those lacking that base.

The popular “anti-religious” perspective sees religion as an instrument of social and political control, the opiate of the masses, etc. And of course as institutional religion allied itself to power, this view is understandable. But it is not accurate, for what religion actually does is oppose the good of the common good against the only other big game in town, which is the “good” of corporate “good,” profit, power and the continued hegemony by the few over the many. What we really hate is their religion; what we must be careful of is not allowing our hate to interfere with our religion.

It’s clear to me that those who do not find religion for themselves – that is, ultimate meaning, ultimate purpose - are doomed to repeat the old one. The old one, in its more imperialistic permutations upheld the view, propagated (as Gatto showed us) in a line of progression from Plato on through to Darwin, that the problem for those with the good life of wealth and power was to keep that way of life from being threatened by the vast majority of people, the “masses.” Thus such religion has always allowed a measure of justification for inequality, even as some of its members, interpreting the gospels differently, took action against social injustice. The social gospel interpretation of Christianity actually became the prominent voice of religion in the 1960’s and 70’s. For the most part, however, society and its religions as a whole, both left and right, do not challenge the basic assumptions of the materialist, rationalist, anti-Nature, anti Feminine culture which, let’s face it, as a whole upholds the old power arrangements very well. In this way, even self-proclaimed atheists uphold the old religion they hate.

But another turn of the historical screw has occurred since the 60’s and 70’s. We no longer hear the social gospel being proclaimed, nor activists on its behalf publicly debating the inequalities and injustices and war-making propensities of our capitalist system. At the same time, we are aware that the problems are much vaster, in a sense, than the way we treat each other, significant as those are. Now we face the fact that our way of life is destroying our very habitat. The way we treat others is at last turning visibly and palpably into the way we treat ourselves; we have failed to love our neighbor, and we have failed in loving ourselves. And the only consistent voice to which we can turn to show us how to behave toward this terrifying threat is one based in religion. I have in mind here the indigenous cultural voice, rooted in the religious perspective of the sacredness of all of life: the community, the land, the individual, the plants, animals and water and air. Only there can we find the religious attitude sufficiently whole to address the crisis we face, that does not separate religious from secular, that, imagination intact, knows the earth as sacred and as Mother.

It is because of the “dumbing down” of our culture, as Gatto calls it, which means so much more than lower SAT scores! - that we hear the word “calling” as if the call were away from our bliss and toward a duty of some kind. Oh, bother, I guess I should be involved in some kind of protest activity or writing my Congressman or hugging a leper. But I don’t want to – Does that make me wrong? Who said the calling was to something you don’t really want to do, feel inadequate for, have no experience in, etc?? The answer is quite simple: nobody said that. It is the consequence of a culturally learned limitation imposed on your imagination. The reactive fear that if we treat something as a call, it must be something taking us away from what we want - from our “freedom” and our true “bliss,” - is the opposite of the truth. The calling exactly means that one’s bliss and one’s freedom to choose to follow that bliss is the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives – is God’s purpose for us, and has to be taken up – or refused – as such. But why would one refuse one’s bliss? Why would one refuse the opportunity to use one’s freedom to fulfill its ultimate meaning – that is, to be for the good, the common good, the whole good? Would you refuse just because you are really really mad at God? So very mad that you categorically refuse even to entertain the possibility that God, or Spirit, is real? And I refer here to no dogmatic image of God, not to God of the Bible particularly, but God as experience. Our refusal of this experience is what Jung refers to as the willful ignorance of modern man

For many of us, the instinct to mistrust religion is practically visceral. We hear the word and flinch. By now it must be clear, I do not share that mistrust! And though I do not have a perfect vision in my mind – yet – of what a religious community made up of “bliss-followers,” of people who have surrendered to the path of spiritual transformation (Jung’s term was individuation) and are committed to building a society that is in harmony with Nature would look like, I am more and more leaning toward seeing it as mutual commitment to the old stabilizers of human life: to particular family, particular community, particular land or place. Like religion, such a notion can be offensive to our collectively “dumbed down” intelligence. We can hear this as being asked to undergo a life sentence with people we don’t like. We fear the loss of freedom such commitments entail, even as we face loss of the ability to imagine the future for humankind if we cannot bring our way of life into harmony with Nature’s limitations!

And who says that such sacrifice would be a deprivation? Who says calling must take us from what we want to be doing (even if that ain’t much, it’s my right)? Who says these religious words do not point the way to fuller, happier existence? We’ve been hoodwinked, dumbed down, and lead down the primrose path long enough. No matter what way you cut it, the way out of this corner we’re painted into will be a lot of work and some measure of pain. But the satisfaction ahead is that the best from each of us is wanted and expected: by following our bliss we add to the universe exactly what it is missing, and in our own marriages, families, communities and places, meaning is again reflected back to us.

Orin read me this poem by Rumi the other night. It really spoke to the kinds of thoughts I’ve been having, and puts the idea of “calling,” that I have been so prosy about, into poetry. I love it!

These spiritual window shoppers,
who idly ask, How much is that? Oh, I’m just looking.
They handle a hundred items and put them down,
shadows with no capital.

What is spent is love and two eyes wet with weeping.
But these walk into a shop,
and their whole lives pass suddenly in that moment,
in that shop.

Where did you go? “Nowhere.”
What did you have to eat? “Nothing much.”

Even if you don’t know what you want,
buy something, to be part of the exchanging flow.

Start a huge, foolish project,
like Noah.

It makes absolutely no difference
what people think of you.


Friday, July 30, 2010

An Interview with the Urban Hermit: A Nobody for Our Time Part II

By Henry David Toro

“My instinct tells me my head is an organ for burrowing; as some creatures use their snout and forepaws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts; so by the divining rod and thin rising vapors I judge; and here I will begin to mine.” H.D. Thoreau, Walden

HTD: After the last interview, I have some understanding of why you call yourself a hermit. But why “urban?” That doesn’t seem to go with the tradition of hermits at all.

UH: Yes, hermits are usually in the forest or out in the desert, like St. Anthony facing down his demons, not living in the middle of Utica. The hermit archetype we’re familiar with is associated with wilderness for a good reason: the hermit’s “job” is Self-knowledge, and wilderness is a good metaphor for the Unconscious, or the Soul. One answer is, I designate my hermit self as urban because that’s where I am, here in Utica, and since the wilderness of the hermit is also an inner experience, why not here as well as anywhere? If I imagine I need to be out in Nature, I’m done for, since that’s not in the cards for me. And it isn’t in the cards for many people who lack the means or the freedom from responsibility to just up and take themselves off to the mountain or the ashram or the desert.

HTD: But isn’t that a mistake to impose limits on yourself as to where you can go, as well as to what you can be? Isn’t it true that one’s intention, at least to an extent, allows the unforeseen to happen in one’s life? So isn’t it self-limiting to say “I can’t do such and so because I can’t afford it?” What about dreams and visions?

UH: I am a major proponent of following dreams and having a vision. But even dreams have to stand up to some standard of the common good, or what is good for the community, first of all. Not that all dreams are held to such standards, of course. No independent council of community elders checked out Henry Ford’s dream and its consequences down the line, or the development of atomic weapons, or Monsanto’s seed technologies before they went on line. Some “good” is always served by these innovative dreams, but who is looking at the larger good? With the earth being destroyed at an ever increasing rate, with social structures in shambles, the welfare of children down the tubes, dreams have to refer to the context of the world we are in, and to an ethic of compassion and justice. Living in the city, with its strong essences and real diversity, I can never abstract too much, or get too ”spiritual” and lost in my own head. I am frequently annoyed, frustrated, and even depressed by the reality around me. But my job is to remain awake, no matter what my surroundings: if I can’t “bloom” here, what am I saying about myself? That I have to have a $250,000 house in the suburbs or I cannot be happy? In a way, living here forces me to go against a tendency in me to seek a kind of undisturbed gated peace. There is a part of me that really wants badly to go to sleep. I’d rather be awake, no matter what it is I am awake to.

So, really, like Booker T. Washington famously said, “Cast down your buckets where you are.” These words have been misinterpreted to mean “make the best with what you have and things will get better by and by.” Spoken to former slaves who faced a futile competition for industrial employment with white laborers and even immigrants, Washington was counseling a kind of self-reliance; rather than continuing to run futilely after the white man’s economy, black men and women should establish their own, from the bottom up. Today, the advice seems prescient, for what has running after the white man’s economy done for any of us? If we wish to “carve and paint the very medium through which we look,” and “keep ourselves awake,” first we must see that where we are, the limitations that bind us, are our allies in some way. The tasks of consciousness are great enough if you are in one place, married to one person, as Thoreau eloquently pointed out to us. This is a limitation I have chosen to live within. In these momentous times calling for us to change our way of life, this is something I have wrestled with in fine St. Anthony fashion: that is, how to be “stuck-in-place” (Utica or wherever) and prepared to find that “richest vein” at the same time. The answer to this conundrum might save a lot of marriages, as well as slow down the destruction of the planet.

In a well-known Russian fairy tale, The Maiden Czar, the boy Ivan finds himself at the Baba Yaga’s terrifying cottage in the middle of the deep woods. He is asked by the crafty Baba, Have you come here by compulsion or of your own free will? Ivan is no slouch in terms of cunning, either. He answers her in a way that keeps him out of being eaten and his skull added to the other trophies lined up along the Baba Yaga’s picket fence: “Largely by my own free will and twice as much by compulsion,” he replies.

To live within limitations such as place and marriage, for example – and don’t forget, life that is circumscribed between birth and death is the biggest limitation of them all - one has to be possessed of an alive imagination, and, not only that, one must be able to connect with the other realm - the spirit realm, which is the realm of true freedom. If we believe literally that either we must be able to escape a circumstance that has come to seem intolerable or we will be chained to misery the rest of our life, we are missing entirely the third way, the way of being in that circumstance consciously or imaginatively, and thereby transforming it. One cannot be a bliss-follower without learning this approach to the seemingly intractable problems that confront each of us during the course of a lifetime. Putting the problem out there, on the spouse, the environment, the neighbor, the crime-ridden city, means your answer to the Baba Yaga’s question is that you are here by compulsion. She’ll eat you for dinner.

If on the other hand, you insist that you are entirely a free agent, free to do or be whatever you want, she will eat you for dinner. Being brought up in the materialist American context, with its accompanying belief in free will, it is nearly impossible to answer the Baba Yaga’s question except with an answer that will get you eaten. That is why there is such a dearth of genuine aliveness and thoughtfulness in our modern culture, and so much addiction, numbing out, and escape. Many of our society’s adults have failed their encounter with the Baba Yaga. Or rather, they are unaware of that level in their being, and so simply pass from one sleep to another. We are taught not to believe in the invisible, spiritual realm, that if something cannot be empirically proven; if it does not meet with the criteria of rationalism, then it must not exist at all. This is a terrible and consequential narrowing of consciousness. The consequences of such a rigid materialist or secular view begin with unconsciousness on the part of adults toward the very real fears and sorrows of childhood, and their very real needs for intangibles like solitude, and unprogrammed experiences with nature.

Robbed of the inner realm, individuals are helpless to withstand the message coming from a society that has mysteriously become the Baba Yaga, out of control and devouring her young. If we ignore Nature, or if we refuse to learn what Nature teaches us through our bodies and souls, that does not make Her go away. On the contrary, it causes her to gain in destructive energy; in these times it is easy to picture the Baba Yaga having had to build multiple fences to hold all the skulls of her hapless visitors who have upgraded to their flat screen high-def TV and 500 channels on the cable, or who believe that being on Facebook is a good way to be a friend. So, for me, one part of my answer as to why I call myself an “urban” hermit is very much connected to this great lesson of learning to live within the given limitations, as consciously as possible, which is also, I must point out, not the path of deprivation but of desire.

HDT: You mean the Baba Yaga can be defeated by people following their desire?

UH: Well, yes. I hadn’t been thinking that, but it is true, and that’s in the fairy tale as well. In the fairy tale, Ivan is following the “maiden czar,” the awakener of his own spiritual longing for beauty, meaning, a relation to his own soul. Thoreau expressed it as the desire to not “live meanly.” Another way I have of picturing this is that we are called to live the artist’s life, even if we do not think of ourselves as artists.

Prophetic voices today are calling for contraction of our economy, and that means contracting our way of life as well as the whole idea of a global, ever-expanding-without-limits economy. As we can see, the engines of the economy are helpless to stop themselves. Only individuals who themselves can manage the contraction of their way of life – fundamentally a spiritual undertaking - can begin to withdraw themselves from the economy based upon ever increasing consumption. To me this simply means we have to learn once again to honor eros, or the longing of the soul for this adventure of meaning and purpose that we have tried as a society, and failed, to do without. Nothing else – other than our changing the “very medium and atmosphere through which we look –“can turn the sacrifice of contraction into a bountiful feast of a different kind - a feast of beauty, meaning and deep connectedness to Nature and all of life.

H.D. Toro: So an old rust belt town’s lack of illusions, pretense, or false purity can make it a good place to mine for Thoreau’s alternative wealth?

UH: Loss is always a good starting place to meet up with the soul.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

An interview with the Urban Hermit, A Nobody for Our Time
Henry David Toro

Interested as I am in how people at all levels in our society are responding to the growing environmental calamity, and to what seem to be death throes of our western civilization, I determined to seek out individuals who characterize themselves as living out a response to this crisis, albeit not by means of traditional activist venues. Being myself a sort of deep ecologist, and knowing that nature thrives in diversity, I assume there have to be a multiplicity of these responses. The days of the mass movement driven by a collective ideology, to which individuals sacrifice their individual “light” for the greater good, are gone. Secretly, I have long envisioned a grassroots response guided not by ideology but by that which is innate, instinctual knowing of the individual. My anarchic vision would be for a change originating in individuals, in, metaphorically speaking, each grass root, each dandelion, each nondescript clover that we walk over without noticing, sort of a revolution of the “silent and plant-like,” salvation by the utterly unextraordinary.

My proclivities bring me with great interest to the Urban Hermit. It was her nom de plume at first that intrigued me. Its anonymous declaration of retreat from the world, following a tradition going back to the desert fathers, offered an interesting contrast to the mass striving for stardom, the desperate craving to be recognized in this massest of mass societies. In such a massified context, the central message of which is the replaceability of the individual, I wonder, how can we return to the spirit of localism, local economy and local culture, to the diversity that can challenge the corporate-powered centralized monoculture and its destructive, hell-bent joy ride.

So here, in the person of the Urban Hermit, is someone doing it, that is, choosing to be ordinary and to make a difference, to perhaps slow that apocalyptic joyride down simply by opening up the imaginative possibility of another way.

HDT: What is it like, being a hermit in modern life? And how do you feel being interviewed – an unlikely activity for a hermit?

U.R. First of all, Henry, everybody, or every adult, anyway, were we each able to reconnect with the invisible parts of ourselves, that is, with soul and spirit, is a hermit. Hermitry is simply a way of being whole. It is a metaphor for the particular individual located within the collective of society. What we have in mass society is a loss of that which is absolutely requisite for individuality. Human beings are imaginative as part of their intrinsic make-up; what is called “reality” must feed imagination as well as body, so to speak. We require, to be healthy, a basis which includes all parts of the human organism, rather than what we have, a materialist-defined reality that excludes spiritual reality. On the other hand, as you suggest, the last thing a mass person wants is obscurity, which has already been thrust upon her. Cut off from the stable context of community over time, families crumbling right and left, encouraged to follow a career climb that will bring one the material rewards of the culture, as well as identity and a measure of power, (but will further assure one’s estrangement from self and others), the choice to be anonymous and ordinary – a hermit - seems like choosing to be buried alive.

But the reason there is such distaste – not really distaste, but a lack of imagination about - for the local and the ordinary is precisely that materialist base. Outside of the materialist base, and that is an addictive context, by the way – since man cannot live on matter alone, the craving for spirit leads directly to addictions – if one can find her/his way there, it is possible to find a way to live human life meaningfully. Just as religion provided the context of meaning for generations before us, that realm of meaning is still open to she or he who will “knock.” The God that died - as Time magazine declared in the 60’s - was not the eternal reality that is beyond language, but the particular metaphoric version – the collective archetype - that guided western civilization since the middle ages or so.

As to being interviewed, it is a great treat for me. I have no rules against interacting with the society, but I do not seek it, even though I have mostly been convinced it will never come and discover me. In medieval times and later, if you read your Brothers Karamazov, (which I just did last year!) devout people sought out hermits for a perennial truth or a wisdom less bound by society’s fleeting standards. Did you see, by the way, Michael Caine’s brilliant performance as the hermit-hippie Jasper in the movie Children of Men? There is something undeniably nutty about us hermits, but, as with the Caine character, it is a principled nuttiness. Or better yet, a nuttiness that understands, with Blake, that the fool who will persist in his folly will become wise. Today we cannot understand someone who isn’t motivated by fame or status, whose creativity is driven not by ego but by the need to embody the wholeness prefigured in the Divine. Witness the general cluelessness regarding J.D. Salinger’s choice to do exactly what he had been led to do by the “divine” inspiration of his own writing: to become, in effect, a hermit. If we are to become a society of ordinary, common-as-daisy kings, that can bring humanity into its full flowering bloom by bloom, this change is necessary. It depends completely upon switching from the materialist base to the “spirit-in-matter” base.

H.D.T.: Two questions occur to me: what do you mean by the materialist base vs. the ‘spirit-in-matter” base, and what does it mean to “knock” on the door of the realm of meaning?

U.R. The materialist base is simply what we have in our culture to base meaning on. It is the view that the only real things are the things we can see, touch, eat – the things with physicality. There are many consequences to our having reduced reality in this fashion. We have only to switch our gaze cross-culturally and we can see that not all cultures are so drastically materialistic as we are, and that our extreme and strenuously defended (often in the name of “freedom”) materialism is a consequence of our affluence. Peasant cultures, for instance, where people have few to none of the things that for us make life interesting and “worth living,” often have an abundance of spirit. We enjoy being among these people; they make us feel comfortable, at home and “good enough,” in a way that our own cultural context does not. Indigenous cultures, where the separation is not made between spiritual and material the way it is here, do not base human worth according to the criteria of materialism, and can live meaningfully in circumstances we would consider “reduced.” To say nothing of the fact that they also know how to live harmoniously with nature, as we emphatically do not. I’ll say more about “spirit-in-matter” at some other point, but suffice to say it is a base for meaning (familiar to indigenous people but not to our deeply dualistic worldview) that rejects neither the material nor the spiritual. It is a “middle way” that is also the way of living harmoniously with the planet.

To answer your second question, I can use my own case. First of all, the expression, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” probably is familiar to many in a historically Christian culture like ours. ("Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Matthew 7:7) What door? That is what I might have responded with, had I given it that much thought, for much of my life. What I learned is that “the door” is not the door to belief, but to inner experience. Experience precedes belief, or ought to. And when one has experience, the matter of belief, and of different beliefs, is nullified. ( I suppose the fact that one calls a certain profound and private kind of experience “spiritual” or a “conversion” means that the mind decided to call the experience this and not that – which is a kind of belief This is precisely the reason we need guidance from tradition, so that such numinous, individual experience can be understood as being humanly meaningful. No matter how far out and obscure the images in a dream, for instance, we pay attention, and take insight from them if we understand these as being the voice of the soul.)

To materialist, rationally based people like myself, as I was raised to be, the matter of belief in God as promulgated by mainstream Christian churches is a serious stumbling block. My own situation was further complicated by the fact that my father, being an artist, moved the family a certain distance away from 100% acceptance of the materialist base. Clearly something else (i.e., my father’s painting) was very important which could not be explained materially. Perhaps partly for this reason, I would never get out of the cul-de-sac of materialism by surrendering my will to, essentially, the religion of Jesus defined by others. In my family, received, conventional wisdom already had a crack in it.

For whatever reason, I had to knock on the door for myself, the door, that is, of direct experience of the Divine. Sounds mystical, is mystical, but that doesn’t mean it’s at all exclusive. We are all mystics, as Matthew Fox among others points out. We are all mystics, but if we remain within the materialist, rationalist context we are not going to find this aspect of our nature. What is more, we will remain afraid of seeking that door. We will dismiss our wildest most profound dreaming, like Ebenezer Scrooge, as being caused by the modern, low-carb, high in Omega 3 equivalent of “ a bit of bad beef.”

My own discovery of the door was the result of a process prompted in part by the deeply unsettled state of mind I found myself in through much of my twenties and thirties. I was utterly clueless as to a path or a purpose in my life, though I ended up with a Masters degree in Divinity by 1979. Marital conflict was also a huge factor in the pain that was driving me toward exploring my inner realm by means of psychotherapy. Mind you, in my region of upstate NY, and this is still true, one does not discuss in public such things as analysis and psychotherapy. There was a sense at that time of moving out from the norms of my original culture even just in going to talk to a therapist about my depression. In combination with this was the fact that I had prepared for the Unitarian Universalist ministry and was serving a church in upstate NY during my 30’s (the 1980’s, roughly). This clergy identity was another way in which I was in, but not of, my local central NY culture. Because of the ideas afloat in liberal religious circles of that time, I began to delve into feminist spirituality, Jungian psychology, and eventually the 12 step recovery process. The process of finding out “what was wrong with me” was turning into a spiritual process! All of this culminated in the summer of 1988, after I had left my job in the church, declaring my need to “find out who I am.”

That July, my husband and I got ourselves down to Kirkridge retreat center in Pennsylvania to attend a workshop offered by Ann Wilson Schaef, author of When Society Becomes An Addict, Codependence: Misunderstood, Mistreated, and other books. The mantric phrase for the weekend, repeated often by Schaef, who encouraged personal reflection even to the extent of doing that rather than listening to her talks, was “Trust the process.” There I experienced, amidst much anguish that came up for me during the three days, the most profound awakening of my life thus far. It was Anne Schaef’s use of those words, “Knock and the door shall be opened unto you” that did it for me. For the first time I understood that the Christ was within me, and that that inner Christ (or
Self archetype, in Jungian terms) was what I must follow. My life up until that point had involved, even for our culture, an extraordinary amount of repression. I was so terrified of my interior I had avoided going near any kind of counseling or therapy during my 4 years of training for ministry, when my fellow ministers-in-training at Yale Div were flocking to it. I was terrified of that immersion that must have felt to me then like the threat of annihilation.

Well, dear reader, of course it was an annihilation! But what joy there was for me in that reunion with my lost Self, with my long-rejected soul! I cannot exaggerate. The experience at Kirkridge led to a greater commitment to 12 steps, to a conversion experience to belief in the Christian God, and to eventual confirmation as a Roman Catholic in 1990.

HDT: Yikes! Catholicism? From the perspective of the New Age, that could sound to some people like a great leap backward!

UR: Well, don’t forget, I was devoutly following my process – or my heart rather than my head - at that time. Catholicism appealed hugely to my starved protestant imagination. Also, it appealed to the powerful need I felt at that time for Father. Having been influenced by archetypal psychology and the comparative mythology preached by Joseph Campbell, I was certain that my being there in the Catholic church was part of the re-emergence of the feminine, of the Goddess, in that theology and tradition. I felt belonging as I had never known before or since, and the period of my Catholicism was great for my marriage as well. Everything was finally making sense. The fact that I was shunned by my liberal friends did not bother me. I was “On the road to find out,” as Cat Stevens, another convert to a scripture-based faith, used to sing.

HDT: I know from things you’ve written that this period of reprieve from “the struggle” for self knowledge ended with a kind of scary and profound collapse in early 1994. After all the work you had done at that point, which after all, was more change already than most people experience, and now you say things were going well with your spiritual life - why do you think this happened?

UH: Brief answer: With the new and strange experience of happiness I was having, I believe for the first time I was strong enough to experience the real initiation. Just recently I was reading an interview (The Sun) with Malidoma Some, the West African spiritual teacher and author, where he talks about the initiation experience. He mentions in a couple of places that in fact, initiates in his Dagara tribe do not always make it through the initiation. They die, literally. Initiation is real; it is an experience of coming against the power of nature, of the death-life-death cycle, of finality. This is the awareness of the initiated adult, not of the pre-initiated child. For all the work I had done, I was still not initiated. Through my first conversion, and the deep sense of safety and belonging it brought me - belonging in the sense of belonging in my life and also of belonging in a religious tradition - I had achieved innocence at last. Experience, that of meeting up with the dark aspect of God, was still ahead of me.

HDT: Are you saying that experience or initiation has to involve the actual risk of death or, as in your case, of madness?

UH: I am saying the process is not for the faint of heart, yes. On the other hand, I was faint of heart – never would have taken on the type of experience that forces one to face mortality in this way, which is perhaps why in my case the hand had to come up and pull me down. But remember, the path of initiation, while in many cases brought on by an accumulation of pain from grief or loss, is also and equally the path of desire. Joseph Campbell’s oft-repeated adage Follow your bliss was intentionally meant to bring people into initiation. No way you can follow your bliss without meeting up with the Baba Yaga for real!

HDT: I don’t remember Campbell ever saying this. You make it sound as if he had an agenda beyond just teaching comparative mythology and encouraging folks to follow their true desire.

UH: It’s not hard to figure out. He was a teacher, remember. Everything he talked about was there by intention to help convey his teaching. Remember his showing us the planet earth as seen from space, and telling us we need a new mythology that crosses boundaries and will include the planet? He preached a revolutionary message, but subtly, as befitted someone who actually thought about his audience. As he pointed out, if you are out there preaching against the status quo, you too will risk crucifixion. I hear his story about the tiger and the goats as being exactly about this issue, and as explaining his choice to “appear as” a mellow, kindly, tweedy college professor – an acceptable persona in our society. That’s what he truly was, but he was also, and really, the tiger.

HDT: As we all are.

UH: As we all are.

Interview to be continued. Next installment, the interviewer asks the Urban Hermit to talk about” spirit in matter” in an accessible way.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Choose Your Crisis (and Save the Planet)

"Buddhist enlightenment consists simply in knowing the secret of the unity of opposites- the unity of the inner and outer worlds..."~Alan Watts
“Everything contains its opposite.” Hermes Trismegistus.

Driving home from Clinton on the weekly pastry pick-up trip that supplies our Café with delicious scones, cookies, biscotti and more, Orin returned to the subject of the vast and horrific oil spill going on in Louisiana that has particularly planted itself in his consciousness. And there we were, driving back to Utica from Clinton, no different from all the other oil-dependent folks on all sides of us, mired in the dilemma.

What will it take, I wonder, to accomplish the paradigm shift that might allow us to relinquish the way of life that demands fossil fuels for its maintenance? I call for “paradigm shift” because I do not particularly believe in technological solutions, but rather in change of consciousness as “the solution.” Certainly the oil companies are working at technological solutions to the embarrassing problem of oil spills (or perhaps only working to convince us that they are working on such solutions!) – and look at the results!

Speaking not as an expert, but in an effort to put this into terms I understand, what is entailed centrally in such a paradigm shift is the capacity to transcend fundamental “normal” consciousness, which can be referred to as “the plane of the opposites,” or dualistic consciousness, a concept used in eastern spiritual traditions and though with differences in western hermetic tradition to explain the realm of suffering or conflict that is “normal.” This is the common consciousness in which most of us do our “thinking” every day. (Or what passes for thinking! Personally, I waste a lot of thought on self-criticism, resentment, and other unconstructive kinds of “thought-like activity.”) In spiritual terms, it is considered the plane of the opposites because at this level of consciousness, individuals are trapped in the illusion that either this is true, factual, real, or that is. The problem is, when an individual is restricted to this level of awareness, given any pair of opposites, whether material, behavioral, mental, etc., she can only perceive one of the pair as fully real at a time. In the plane of the opposites, choices must be made on one side or the other, which makes our everyday consciousness lopsided and delusional in an interconnected, unified universe. This lopsidedness has led us to prefer mind over body and nature, for instance, to value male over female, to see others in terms of friend or enemy, to see morality as either good or bad, as if these were clearly discernible. In other words, either/or thinking, though handy, is incomplete, and can lead to destructive, consequences. It is extremely difficult to transcend this kind of thinking, and there are many spiritual practices designed to help people do this. However, these are not my focus.

Right now in our country we are experiencing what amounts to a struggle against consciousness change, an unsettling circumstance in which a significant portion of society remains firmly in the plane of opposites and allows hostility for the “other” (in the form of republican or democrat, Hillary or G.W., Obama or Glenn Beck) to drive all public expression. It’s a society-wide traffic jam!

Recently I asked my students in an upper level undergraduate writing course at the local state college, who have read several articles of radical media criticism, to read an essay by the late scholar Edward Said, called “Covering Islam and Terrorism.” In her response to the reading, one student, a young woman who is not gifted in writing, wrote in her response about how her friends had responded after 9/11: “we should drop a nuclear bomb on the middle east and wipe them all out.” Not entirely sure that she didn’t agree with her friends, even though I had been working to raise consciousness through heightening awareness of the way mainstream media functions to construct reality, I referred to her words in my final address to the class. I suggested that it was exactly the function of our media to strengthen this kind of “either/or,” enemy-making thinking that will allow us to funnel our fury onto innocent human beings in other countries, at the same time maintaining our belief in our country as being beneficent and good.

When we exist primarily in the “common, everyday consciousness,” we are ripe for such manipulation, which works against another, innate tendency to love our neighbor and to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. In fact, existing in the either/or consciousness it is impossible to do otherwise than to make some other “other” the focus of either our enmity or our envy, our adoration or our derision, our extreme love or our fear and hate. We have now had two thousand years in which we have not gotten the central message of Christianity’s most revered spiritual teacher, to love our enemy. This would be an irresolvable stalemate but for one fortuitous fact: the primary “other” that holds the key to all the rest, our very real and up-close “opposite number” is located within ourselves. We are granted the opportunity, at least, to accomplish this necessary transcendence at every moment. The question I ask is, how may more of us achieve this difficult integration of our internal opposite and thus be readier to inhabit the new paradigm, a change which is as much a shift of consciousness, as a matter of “lifestyle change?” Implicit in my question, because I live in Utica, NY, is how may this be accomplished by people of modest means living ordinary lives

Certainly one way to make this shift in consciousness is through personal crisis, or a “hitting bottom” of some kind. At times of pain and loss the fact of nature intrudes catastrophically in our lives; pain brings an opportunity to go through the crisis and see what it has to teach us. Our culture, because it cannot recognize the inner opposite, encourages us to take the high road, to “get over it,” and thus to preserve the ambient dualism. The low road, on the other hand, leads to acquaintance with that “other” within us, our “opposite,” who was never taught to take “the high road” and who feels everything.

But in our culture it isn’t easy to find our way onto the “low road.” instead of teaching us to make contact with this interior one who feels much, we are encouraged by practically every message coming to us via mass media, to immerse ourselves in addictive activity or/and substances. From the point of view of keeping the masses passive consumers and workers, addictions are not one bit dysfunctional: addictions, as well as do obsessions and compulsions, which are epidemic in our society, to keep us in the old paradigm and under the illusion of “either/or.”

Remember, this either/ or thinking is entirely natural and universal. But it is also natural to achieve transcendence beyond dualistic thinking. The addictive process is a means of numbing, of repressing the natural energy and aliveness contained in our bodies and thus of controlling against a higher awareness or consciousness. The consequence of the mass failure to achieve initiation, which is another word for this transcendence of dualism, is the global catastrophe we now have: destruction of the planet, incessant bombing of poor people, terrible inequities in the distribution of life’s “goods,” support for terrorist regimes while maintaining the image of ourselves as the good guys, and an incapacity to take our eyes off the “the enemy.”

Inasmuch as we have a society in which few achieve the transcendence, or paradigm shift, I am speaking of, and thus few are initiated into the psychically altered stage of adulthood, we are primarily a people who are stuck in the old paradigm, unable to imagine our way out of the tragic dilemma mentioned in the opening scenario. Faced with the overwhelming evidence that our way of life is destroying the planet, we can only protest, “But what can one person do?” – a question that itself comes straight out of the old, dualistic paradigm. Having bought into the individualistic, either/or narrative told us by our culture, we have relinquished the deeper knowledge of our connection with all of life; we have lost the comfort of that knowledge and also the sense of responsibility that naturally accompanies such awareness. Only if we know the deeper connection can we have the strength and the driving energy to pick up the awesome responsibility to act on behalf of the planet.

That is, only if we know we are loved – and this is a far greater representation of love than we are ever exposed to by our culture – can we love back with adult, generative kind of love that can say firmly no to the destructive forces that manipulate and divide, which thrive upon the dualistic, either/or thinking every single one of us is prone to. Without experience of this impersonal energy of love, human love degenerates to its pallid relative, a preference for sameness, by which we can love our family and friends generously and at the same time wish for a nuclear bomb to be dropped on “our enemies.”

So that another, more commonly available avenue to transcending the plane of the opposites and to find the consciousness dominated by compassion, we must know its opposite in ourselves; we must know we have been hated, as well as loved. The most cherished assumption of pre-transformational consciousness is that of being unconditionally loved: by parents, by society, by our country, which in turn secures our loyalty to that limited consciousness in which we grew up. That consciousness taught us: If there was anything amiss in that world, it was our own fault for not being good enough, for being unworthy.

The great psychoanalyst and writer, Alice Miller, who died last month (4/14/10), pointed the way to find this opposite within us, and thus toward transcendence and the new paradigm. In her work that bids the reader to acknowledge the generalized, unconscious cruelty that society inflicts upon children, she indicates the way to overcome that fundamental resistance to “meeting” our opposite within. As she so well knew, the first inviolable tenet of ordinary consciousness that must be overturned is the one we most cherish: our parents loved us. God bless the child who knows better, that, because parents love within the limitations of the culture, children are loved in an either/or way, meaning, inasmuch as we become the child our parents want us to be, we are “loved.” Thus we learn that to be worthy of receiving love is a matter of not being our true selves. We learn not to challenge that dualism residing in our innermost foundation that tells us, while my world is fundamentally good, I am fundamentally worthless or bad.

Back in the 1980’s many people, my mother included, were fascinated by the work of John Bradshaw, author and educator in the recovery and self-help movements, and his focus on “the inner child.” My mother, who died in 2008 at the age of 85, watched every one of his PBS specials, bought his books and devoured them. But she never took on that most difficult, extremely painful work of going within and actually acquainting herself with her own “inner child.” I say this not to point out my mother’s failing, but to underscore that it is easy to remain at the level of fascination with the “other,” it is far more difficult to actually engage with it. That “other” within, after years of our staying obediently within the bounds of everyday, dualistic consciousness has indeed become “the enemy.” It has the aspect of a monster, feeling more like malicious threat than entreaty from an adorable “inner child.” We do not gladly engage with it, just as our society does not easily open itself to the human, “like us” reality of the people behind the visage of terrorist presented to us via our media.

But they are the same act on different levels of reality. Both acts of rejecting awareness or refusing to “befriend the dark” (whether inner or other) serve to keep us in the plane of the opposites, incapable of transcendence, and thus powerless against the ongoing destruction of the planet, the rampant violence and war, the immorally uneven distribution of “goods” among populations.

Another relational area endangered by ordinary dualistic consciousness is that between the human opposites of men and women. Each of us is one or the other (skipping for the moment the ambiguities of gender orientation), and each of us has within us both aspects or archetypes, popularly referred to in men as the “feminine side,” and in women, the “masculine side.” Skipping for a moment the fact that increasingly fewer young people have any idea of what marriage is for, and fewer are perhaps even experiencing the traditional honeymoon period, it is still possible to talk about what is at stake in that moment of marital crisis when “the honeymoon is over.” So thoroughly dualistic are we, once the dazzle is seen through, and the other with bonafide feet of clay is staring at us across the breakfast table, though we are at the point when the marriage can do its deep level work and acquaint us with the long neglected “opposite” within, most of us opt to go no further. The culture gives us no help, and lets face it, divorce is good for capitalism.

As I have said many times in the past, the value of marriage at this crisis point in history is its offering to us a way into the paradigm shift by its forcing us into relation to the impossible opposite. It could be looked at as a way of embracing the crisis, rather than waiting for it to find us through loss or illness or death of a loved one. Whether performed in an institutional church or not, marriage is a sacrament, in that it is a means to connect with an archetype (divine reality) and thus to provide a path for that larger, generative, non-dualistic love to enter and transform human life. It is not an anachronism to be tossed out with the rhythm method and spinsterhood, but rather an extremely relevant, democratically available means to move human consciousness along toward the new paradigm. Consciousness will not change without the crisis that forces it out of the habitual groove of either/or, and marriage constitutes such a crisis. As we approach closer and closer the planetary crisis from which there will be no return, I am pitching for our choosing our crises instead: choose community, choose marriage, choose stable relations over time to people and place, go deep instead of only upward, learn to embrace difference.

Because I am married, I have been able to participate in transformative work in my community that I would not have done as a single person People love the things my husband and I have offered in our community, and often do not understand the source of the unusual energy we have. In particular, many people are content with hackneyed kinds of dualistic “war between the sexes” language and attitudes. At a public event recently where we hosted a superb jazz performance at our nonprofit space, The Other Side, my husband in his typically nervous way loudly sent out a couple of messages that indicated his fear that I would not get things right. In the current atmosphere, it is always permissible to suggest that the man is the oppressor. As I was stacking chairs after the performance, a woman said to me, sincerely and with all good intentions, “He couldn’t do what he does without you.” Kindly advice for the downtrodden woman, unconscious support for either/or unconsciousness. I would ask everyone, “Kindly refrain from such acts of random kindness!”

What we need at this time is not such kneejerk “team player” mentality. We need the adult perspective that recognizes what it will take to provide the generative love sufficient to change our way of life from the ground up. Such work cannot be done from within the delusion of separateness and isolation engendered by everyday, either/or consciousness. Because marriage is the smallest unit of community, made up of two “differences,” the marriage vows contain transformative potential needed in this time. The crisis entailed by this union of opposites is no different than the one we are confronted with by mortality itself. Avoidance of that crisis simply gives us a little more “wiggle room” in which it is possible to wiggle out of the truth of death and the necessity of limitation. It allows us to remain in the familiar separateness of either/or consciousness, rather than in the “freedom for” limitation imposed by community and by nature. Because of its now optional status in society. never has the time been more opportune for the sacramental, transformational, metaphoric understanding of marriage to become common.

The soul wants to transform; it wants to individuate. If you look at the work of Dr. Jung, this is what it suggests; there is an innate potential within the psyche or soul for wholeness; in fact, the template for wholeness is already there in the archetype of the Self. When we engage in the transformational process, we are merely following the direction laid out for us by nature, by our nature. Not all of the traditional limitations of culture and society were laid down in order to oppress us. Some of them are there in order that we can liberate ourselves and society toward meaning, conscious adulthood, and the creation of the new paradigm. Choose your crisis: if we cannot manage, in the tiny unit of community that is marriage, to reflect the non-dual, transcendent reality of oneness existing in and through the opposites, then heaven help us in accomplishing this on a planetary scale.