Sunday, February 15, 2009

Growing Up

Mountains above the cities rise,
On humanity's youth look with ancient eyes.
On the racket and din of children there,
Whose aromas of digestion rise through the air.
Like babes unwilling to give up the suck,
Or gambling fools ever pressing their luck.
Cities of toddlers, teeming with those
Who know not what the Mountain knows.
Rivers of life through the unwitting pass,
But unwitting children make them a mass
Of all that their childish digestion spits out;
Soiling the garment of their brother, the trout.
Unwitting of siblings and of older kin,
Like brain-damaged children who know not they sin
When they strike out at relatives and elevate those
Who know not what the River knows.

What lessons would Mountains and Rivers give
To us, their children, whose lives depend
On Rivers and Mountains, in order to to live?
"To childishness," they say, "put an end.
"Live now as siblings upon the earth,
Life was not meant for just you alone.
Look now to your siblings and know you their worth.
This World was your nursery, now make it your home.
Put away now your toys, for the time has come:
The time when the time to be children is done.
So quit being spoiled and spoiling the land,
Or Mother Earth may do more than just smack your hand.

I was sitting on the side of Mount Helena looking down on the city when I wrote this. It had occurred to me how foolish all our striving and struggling must look from the perspective of millennia. And how like spoiled and ignorant children we must seem from that perspective.

Consider the life of the mountain to the life of the valley. On the mountainside many things live, each taking what it needs from the environment and not imposing on its neighbor, not denying others the ability to live and to make use of the environment as well. Because of this, many types of life flourish on the mountainside. In the valley though, only one type of life flourishes, us.

Always demanding more for ourselves, needlessly imposing on the ability of others to live, assuming that we have the right to whatever we can lay our grubby little mitts on. We refuse to live on equal terms with other kinds of life and so the valley fills with our buildings and our parking lots. What other life exists there is only what we allow.

Besides our inability to live as equals with other species, we can't even do it amongst ourselves! Never has the disparity between rich and poor been so great as it is today. Unimaginable quantities of wealth are acquired while billions hover on the edge of starvation. In this respect, the aboriginal societies that were displaced by our ever-expanding Western "Civilization" were much more advanced that we are today. Sure, they didn't have i-Pods, but no one was starving to death either, unless it was absolutely unavoidable. One of the great ironies of industrial civilization is that while it now has the ability to ensure that all death from deprivation is avoidable, it has instead increased and worsened these deaths through distributive inequalities. And these inequalities are perpetrated in the name of The Economy, whose purpose is supposed to be to provide for the material needs of society.

As a species we have become like a narcissistic child, having lost all touch with reality. We no longer have any concept of what is actually needed to live. As individuals we have forgotten that to live beyond our needs is to contribute to the disequilibrium in our human and natural worlds. How many people could be fed with the resources that we use to manufacture Swiffers(tm)? How many forests and rivers have been destroyed to provide for such un-necessaries? To be able to help and to do nothing is to give consent to the problem, and tacit participation in our species-narcissism is still participation.

If we are to grow up as a species we must learn to act like respectful adults who do not impose on one another. Part of this means dispensing with a wealth-hoarding mentality which is the mentality of a narcissistic child. Our economists, however, tell us that we should all impose on each other; that by everyone imposing on everyone and everything else some sort of just order will emerge. But what emerges from this juvenile fantasy is neither just nor ordered. We must reject this mentality if we are ever to free ourselves from the injustice and chaos this mindset has created. We must learn to live more like the creatures on the mountainside, taking only what we need and living in harmony with the life around us. If we cannot stop living like spoiled, destructive children, we will ultimately destroy ourselves, along with much else besides. It's time to grow up.

Addition, 2/18/09: While reading Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers--Medicine Women of the Plains Indians, by Mark St. Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier, I came across this story of the advice given to 'souls' about to be born into the world. St. Pierre and Long Soldier quote it from Oglala Women by Marla N. Powers:
Somewhere to the south theres is a large camp in which beauty and peace abide. There is a council lodge, and inside it sits one they call Grandfather. One day he calls out to a man and woman, and both of them come sit in his lodge.

And he says to them, "You are now going to make a long journey, so do the best you can. someday in the futute you will come back here again. And then you will be asked to tell about how your journey fared. So go now, both of you. But never own more than you need.
--Admonition of the Creator to New Travelers
[empahsis mine]

This sage peice of wisdom goes to the heart of what is necessary if we are to become worthy inheritors of this place we call Earth. We need, on an individual level, to decline to own more than we need. Individual over-consumption drives societal and species over-consumption. This concept, however, of not owning more than you need, must seem truly radical in a society such as ours that equates happiness with ever-increasing wealth and unnecessary spending.

The Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota (commonly referred to as the tribes of the Souix)have an often used prayer,
Mi'takuye' Oya's'in, which, roughly translated, means "I acknowledge everything in the Universe as my relatives." We need to regain this understanding of our relatedness and interconnectedness to everything, so that we can learn to live as responsible siblings in this world, rather than spoiled and demanding infants. As St. Pierre and Long Soldier put it, "...through the mysterious act of creation all things in the world are permanently related, as is a human family."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Overlapping Parallels: Thoughts on Synchronicity in Vedanta, Blackfeet Culture and Hasidism

I came across something interesting the other day while reading Ron West's book Penuncquem Speaks. He mentions that in the traditional Blackfeet culture and religion there is no belief in coincidence; in other words, everything happens for a reason. I found this so striking because I had heard the exact same thing from Swami Tyagananda in speaking about Vedanta. At least so far as the members of the RamaKrishna Order are concerned, there is no such thing as a simple coincidence. This startling concordance of belief in two so geographically and culturally distant traditions is, I think, no mere coincidence. I think it points to something profound about the nature of life and to an experience of life lived that is the shared inheritance of all humanity. If there really is a common root to all the world's traditions of religious and spiritual wisdom; if there really is a Philosophia Perennis, as Aldous Huxley and others have claimed, then I think this seemingly peculiar idea, that there is no such thing as coincidence, must certainly form a part of it.

And this idea is peculiar, at least from the standpoint of the modern Western mind, because it denies the purely objective nature of our world that most in the West, even the devout, take almost entirely for granted. To the Westerner, all life is coincidence. Occasionally, events may occur that seem to have special relevance for us, but they are the exception, not the rule. Events happen because of impersonal natural laws and random chance, not for any particular reason. To deny coincidence is radical from the Western perspective because it implies synchronicity on a much wider scale than Carl Jung ever imagined. To deny coincidence, as the Vedantists and the Blackfeet Medicine People do, is to claim that in some way all events are synchronistic, all events have meaning.

What this axiomatic principle of thought (which opposes so profoundly our common principles) leads to when applied to everyday life is at least two-fold. The foundational idea that all events are sychronistic, that is, personally meaningful, leads too an increased sense of meaning in life and a much closer observation of and attention to our immediate, lived-in, environment. The two effects are not separate and distinct, however; they supplement and fuel eachother.

To begin with the second: in Penucquem Speaks Ron West says that
"A necessary circumstance to bring real ceremony...into your life is the idea that meaningful life is an observational meditation interacting with nature."

Already we can see meaning and attention getting wrapped up together in this beautifully succinct summation of the basic Blackfeet outlook on life. We can see clearly though, that for Ron and his Blackfeet teachers, the conviction that all life is meaningful and synchronistic leads to a heightened observation of one's surrounding environment*. This observation is not simply a "looking around," but acquires the character of a meditation. Not a meditation in the sense of sitting on a pillow and watching your breath, but a meditation that continues throughout all one's actions.

The other effect of applying the "synchronistic axiom" to our lives is an increased sense of meaning. From the western psychological/scientific perspective we could claim that this is merely projection, that the meaning is simply in our heads not in the world. This is beside the point though, from the synchronistic viewpoint, as all things are assumed to happen for a reason, including psychological projection(which is, at any rate, merely a description of a process and does not answer the why of it's occurrence).

And this synchronistic view is not limited to non-Western or aboriginal cultures. I believe it was Rabbi Schmelke who said, "In my old age I have reached such a state that when I come to a bundle of sticks lying cross-wise in the street I take it as a sign that it does not lie there length-wise." From the Western perspective, this is shear projection, bordering on delusion, but from the Blackfeet and Vedantic views, it is entirely appropriate. All things are inter-related and all events have significance, so of course the bundle of cross-wise sticks is "a sign." We must note, however, that it is still up to the individual to determine (or rather to feel) what the meaning of the sign is.

This process: of observing one's world, looking for meaning in that world, and finally by responding to that meaning is, perhaps, what Ron West means by "interacting with nature." This process, or rather, this particular way of experiencing one's life, is, I think, an important part of human spirituality, cross-culturally. As such, I believe it is worthy of consideration (and practice) by all people, regardless of particular religious or spiritual background (or lack thereof). The proof is in the pudding, so they say, and the menu is not the meal. It is only by applying this seemingly radical concept to one's life and watching for the results that one can be convinced that all things are, in fact, related. The universe speaks as well as listens, and if we can hone our own "listening" skills, we will be able to hear what it is saying.

We speak to the universe through our actions, and we listen through "observational meditation." When we are speaking to the universe through our actions, that is prayer. The object of the spiritual path, in one way of thinking, is to turn one's entire life into a prayer and what all wisdom traditions try to teach could be summed up by, as Ron West puts it,
"The idea that the most powerful prayer you can know is how you live your life in respect to all other life."

*Which for each of us is what makes up our individual worlds. This type of meditation, then, leads not out of the world, but deeper in.

Three Poems on Love (written for Montana Festival of the Book 2008 Poetry Slam)

I wrote these three poems for the Montana Fesival of the Book 2008 Poetry Slam (as mentioned in the title). While I did come in fourth out of the seventeen entrants (not bad for my first Slam), it wasn't enough to get me to the final round, which only had room for the top two, so I didn't get to read the third poem there. It enjoyed a small theatrical release later that evening before two of my roommates. As with all lyric verse, these poems are meant to be read aloud, performed, ideally. Hope you enjoy.

The Difficult Relationship

You are short and I am tall,
Oh, this can never work at all!
I'm a Dem and you're Repub,
How is it then that we're in lub?
I'm a pauper, you're a queen.
For us to breed seems somehow mean.
I like Zappa, you like Bach,
When I say "scissors," you say "rock!"
Yet when into your eyes I look,
Find I there a laughing brook,
And lips to kiss and cheeks adore,
And lo! I am lost in sweet amore.
And when you upon me gaze,
What find you there that does amaze?
What it could be I hardly know,
But when I catch your eye I see you glow.

Oh! But our families are Montague and Capulet!
Surely riots would ensue if e're they met.
And how could we then be even friends
If our families could not make amends?
Yet, still we Love...though disagree
About global-warming's validity,
And whether prayer should be taught in school,
And whether Darwin was a fool,
And a hundred million other things,
Yet still we rise, on Love's light wings.

And we laugh together, if sometimes we fight,
For all disagreement in Love begins.
And eventually we find that neither is right,
And so, in Love, our disagreement ends.

Friendly Advice

Peace does not in sadness live,
Nor in a heavy heart can Love reside,
For only unrest can a sadness give,
And a heavy heart cannot open wide.

Go you then, and live in Joy,
And let your Joy a beacon be.
Look you for light in many things,
And in many things a light you'll see.

Know what is come is soon to pass,
So take now time to treasure this,
This grain of sand in the hourglass,
Oh what a shame it would be for you to miss!

See how it sparkles and it glitters so,
In one brief moment's quick descent,
Giving its all for this one show,
And this one show for you was meant.

So perk your ears and watch you close,
And love each moment's brief display,
And feel you things, and sniff your nose,
You can fill your life with Love this way.

I tell you this because I Love you so,
And it hurts my heart to hear you cry.
There are so many things I would have you know,
Like your heart is a bird, if you let it fly.

I'll put the key in the latch, but it's yours to turn.
So turn it, turn it! That bird has wings!
It needs open sky if it is to learn,
To fly, to perch on things.

But with your worries you've built a cage,
And each day a layer to the walls you add,
And when you grow cramped you moan and rage,
And claim that the world has made you sad.

But I know a secret that you have forgot,
And this cage that you've built, I can help you unlock it.
Listen, you're searching for something you've got,
And the key to this cage, you'll find in your pocket.

Love is the key and the sky and your wings
And life a gift not made to last.
So hurry, go now, Love you many things,
For today's tomorrow will soon be past.

So let now Peace in Happiness live,
And let now Love in our hearts reside,
And happy Love let us receive and give,
And let our hearts be open wide.

For Peace is treasure that will not rust,
And Love the only truth we can always trust.

The majority of this poem I wrote while in Nepal, I added the last two full stanzas and altered the ending couplet to "flesh it out" a little for the Poetry Slam.

If sacred land we tread with hearts
Uncluttered by cares that fill our days,
And if we turn with all our skill and arts,
And vow to mend our mindless ways,
And if we turn our Love on all that we see,
And hate not the bad and loving still,
Those that do harm us then surely we'll be
Children of God, beset by no ill.

For how can it be that blood is shed still,
When all these long centuries lo, it's been shed?
Has it not been enough, have we not had our fill?
Will we not stop to count the numberless dead?
Will we still let warmongers be leaders of men,
Shouting "FREEDOM!" and "PEACE!" from the end of a blade?
Do we still believe violence can be violence's end
Or that war ever anything but misery made?

Let us turn then in Love, on sisters and brothers,
On mothers and daughters, on fathers and sons.
If we are to be saved it won't be by others;
Look around, behold, we're the only ones.
So I say only Love can heal our ache,
We must Love and Love, 'till our hardened hearts break.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Radical Forgiveness or, What Christianity Can Do For Us

It seems to me that the major outstanding characteristic of Christianity, as compared to the world's other faith traditions, is the extreme emphasis it places on forgiveness. Forgiveness does, of course, find its place in all the major faith traditions, but not with nearly as much clarity or strident insistence as in the Christian teachings. To the extent that Christianity has a relevant message for the people of the world today, I believe it is this: we must forgive. I do not think that all of the world's people should convert to Christianity, nor would I want to see that happen, but I do think we could all benefit from serious consideration of this fundamental Christian precept.

The forgiveness taught in Christianity, through the words and actions of Jesus, is not a typical sort of forgiveness. This Christian forgiveness seems to stretch, and indeed to break, our common-place understandings. It is not just that we should forgive our neighbor for returning our shovel a week late, or our child for staying out past curfew; we must forgive even those who hate us and who seek our downfall and destruction. This is surely a radical form of forgiveness, and it is this radical forgiveness that is so desperately needed in our world today. This message, that we must forgive everyone, even as Jesus sought forgiveness for his torturers as they drove nails through his feet, is the value of the Christian message for today's world.

That this sort of radical forgiveness is necessary in solving crises like that in Israel and Palestine is obvious. That conflict has, it seems, been for a long time nothing but a series of retributions. Grudge is laid upon grudge and retribution upon retribution in an endless cycle of blood and tears. This cycle will, and must, continue until both populations are able to forgive each other their past and current grievances. So long as people of both sides seek just compensation for injuries incurred by the further use of violent means, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis will continue indefinitely. But even if both sides were to forgo the further use of violent measures, without forgiveness there could never be true peace in the region. The purpose of forgiveness is to allow Love to exist. Hatred is defeated only by Love, and until Love has defeated it hatred finds many outlets for its energies. There are many ways of making war on your neighbor, even if absence of guns.

Forgiveness is a necessary first condition to be filled before there can be Love. This is because forgiveness lets those we have forgiven back into the circle of our consideration, whereas a lack of forgiveness banishes that person (or group) outside the circle of our consideration. Forgiveness makes people human again, in the eyes of the one who has forgiven. While there is no forgiveness, the one we hold a grudge against is seen as inferior, something to be looked down upon, and so not a complete human. We see them as less important, less valuable than ourselves, because they have wronged us and so shone their lack of worth. Until we have forgiven we cannot see the other as an equal to ourselves, and so any question of Love is foregone. We may despise them or pity them, we may even patronizingly try to help them, but there can be no question of Loving them.

Forgiveness does not necessitate Love, however, but it is the necessary first step. Indeed, it is the necessary first step not only for Love, but for any kind of respectful interaction at all. Forgiveness provides the tilled field, as it were, for the growth of whatever may be planted in it. What grows in the ground that forgiveness prepares will be the result of future interactions, but without forgiveness the ground itself remains unprepared, and nothing but more thorns can grow in a thorn patch. If the ground of relationship is not first turned and readied by forgiveness, the old entrenched weeds will remain in sway, no matter what new things we may plant there.

Forgiveness is necessary for waring societies, if they are ever to know peace, and it is necessary for groups within societies if they are ever to know happiness during peacetime. Until we can forgive the poor for their poverty, the rich for their wealth, the Republicans for their conservatism, the Democrats for their liberalism (or conservatism), etc., we will never be able to solve the problems we face because we will never be able to face each other as equals. Each group damns the other, placing them outside the bounds of consideration, and constant internal struggle is the result, much to the detriment of society as a whole and of each of its members. Forgiveness within a society may not lead to the end of politics and differences of opinion, but it removes the walls between groups and allows each person equal standing in the eyes of all their fellows. While the walls remain, each person speaks as an equal only within their own walls, those of the group to which they belong. To those encircled by other walls, their voice is paid no heed and so dialogue between groups and between the individual members of those groups is impossible. Thus the societal in-fighting continues ad infinitum, like the organs of one body fighting over the supply of the body's blood. Until the groups within a society forgive one another they cannot assent to the worth and value of other groups or their members. In such circumstances continuous civil war, whether armed or purely “cultural,” is virtually guaranteed, as each group seeks to prove its worth through the overthrowing and undercutting of rival groups.

On the inter-personal level as well, radical forgiveness is the necessary prelude to authentic and therefore fulfilling relationships. An interaction with another person is never genuine so long as we hold some grudge in our mind. If we begrudge another because of their past deeds, or their religious beliefs, or their lack of intelligence or tact, we belittle them to ourselves. When we belittle the other, we cannot enter into a real relationship with them;they remain, as it were, a level beneath us. Half of relationship is the giving of oneself, and half is the receiving of the other. While we begrudge and belittle those around us, we cannot receive from them because we deny within ourselves that what they could offer us has value. We need not agree that the other is right, but we must be willing to forgive them when we think they are wrong, or else genuine relationship is impossible. The less we forgive, the more we cut ourselves off from the possibility of genuine relationships and the more we contribute to the impoverishment of our lives.

Finally, there is the intra-personal level, the forgiveness of self. If we cannot forgive ourselves, we degrade, not some other this time, but ourselves. We look down upon ourselves, we reprove and reprove and finally despair. We convince ourselves of our own worthlessness and if we persist in this long enough, we make ourselves indeed worthless. When we forgive ourselves our faults, we restore ourselves to full humanity and dignity, we restore value to ourselves. From this firm footing we can then become useful and replace what we had found blameworthy within ourselves with something we find better. Forgiveness of self, then, is necessary in allowing us to fully embody what is best within us.

Forgiveness is most powerful, of course, when all sides forgive each other together, at once, but this is not the usual situation. Even if one side may be willing to forgive, the other may not, and matters may not seem to improve at all. If this is the case, is there any value in our forgiving at all? The answer must be yes, for a radical forgiveness from one side alone may serve eventually to lead to a universal forgiveness on all sides, but the withholding of forgiveness can only serve to prolong hostilities. Jesus himself set the ultimate example in this regard, forgiving and asking forgiveness for those who were participating in his execution, knowing that this would do nothing to change the outcome. It is at least in part this insistence on forgiveness without regard to the actions of the other that makes the Christian concept of forgiveness so radical.

Whether we are Christians or not, we would all do well to attempt with our utmost powers to emulate Jesus in this practice of radical forgiveness. No matter who or what we pray to (assuming we pray at all), we could do worse than to say, “forgive us our trespasses and help us to forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.