Friday, September 14, 2007

The Shape of Things to Come

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Fate of the World

On September 13, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed the long-awaited Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, it has been hailed as a landmark step in global responsibility and in justifiable redress of longstanding wrongs perpetrated upon hundreds of millions of living people and their ancestors. And it augurs well for a new (yet perennial) way of reckoning the behavior of human society in this age of global interconnection, climate change and environmental degradation.

Significant in the voting were the "no" votes by the four main anglophone children-nations of imperial Britain: the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What motivated them to vote no? Mere collusion? Or, perhaps something more pervasive and pernicious was at play through their being locked into an unnatural system of conflict resolution built upon the indirect and imperfect devices of "the law?" Their excuses for voting no had been based, in each case, on vague legalistic premises. Or has Bush's stormtrooper mentality sufficiently pervaded the halls of government of America's fellow anglophonic nation states through their common tongue and shared colonial histories, to set them onto such a path of fearful global regression?

Other dynamics were also at play among the Anglo Four. New Zealand, Australia and Canada, for example, are resistant to more national land being claimed by its indigenous peoples, while in the USA, the resources (read: coal, natural gas and uranium) of indigenous lands are being increasingly coveted by energy companies.

Not surprisingly, Russia also rejected the declaration (through the more passive strategy of abstaining from voting), given its huge indigenous populations and aggressive resource exploitation in their lands - a trait which it has in common with the USA, Australia and Canada.

Among the other nations that abstained from voting, Nigeria could well be included in this mentality (indigenous people are seen there as impediments to oil extraction in the Niger Delta, for example). Other abstentions, such as those of Samoa (an indigenous nation state after all) and the Georgian Republic, can be explained by their close ties and committments to the USA. Bhutan, which also abstained, is a monarchy having many indigenous Himalayan peoples. But monarchies, however well intentioned, are not necessarily prone to indigenous rights.

But there is even more at stake here than initially meets the eye. This declaration is the first and only universal statement on the matter having any strength (despite being termed solely an "aspirational" document). And in that regard it is seen as a threat to the very foundation underpinning the nation state system of human governance.

The rise of the nation state system was coterminous with the rise of global exploration and colonial settlement, which in turn severely damaged the world's indigenous peoples. As nation states arose, indigenous states, tribes, clans and bands went into steep decline. And as nation states spread their influence globally, indigenous lands and labor were exploited wholesale while death rates rose exponentially through foreign dominance of their homelands.

That the United Nations would pass such a declaration is a monumental shift in the relationship between the indigenous idea of society and polity - call it the perennial human system of communal existence in harmonious synchrony with a bioregion or watershed - and that of the indirect, heirarchic, trans-bioregional and extractive/exploitative system of governance and settlement, which is characteristic of the nation-state. Thus counted among the no-voters and two abstainers (Russia and Nigeria) are some of the world's most aggressively extractive nations.

Interestingly, other exploitative nation states such as Great Britain, China and Brazil had voted in favor of the declaration, probably reflecting internal socio-political dynamics. These deal less with a change of heart than domestic or international expediency including, new leadership in Britain, rising awareness in human and environmental rights in Brazil, and political considerations regarding alliances with "third world nations" by China as well as its competition with the USA and its sphere of nations.

But even more to the point, this declaration is the first recognition, after over 500 years of one way dominance, of the justifiable rights and bonafides of indigenous ways of existence. And it signals the return to a semblance of sanity in regard to reasonable intercultural relations and to the possibility of healthy diversity in human social, economic and political ways of being.

While this vote is a sad commentary on several descendant nations of Imperial Rome and their fellow travelers, it is a hopeful first step in restoring human balance in and with the world.

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on
-- have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains?
Nature remains.
-Walt Whitman-

UN Document

Monday, July 2, 2007

A Tale of Two Fourths of July

Central to the American collective self-picture is the story of the Fourth of July. It commemorates the declaration of political independence on this day in 1776 by colonial activists who had become disenchanted with exploitation by a distant monarch, George III of England. This led to the founding of a new and unique nation-state in its time.

We celebrate Independence Day in the classic American fashion through colorful excess. We engorge ourselves on rich food and drink. We parade ourselves in a proud and militaristic manner down our flag-decked main streets. And, we set off the most awesome fireworks that can be devised.

Interestingly, fireworks had originated with the early Chinese, who did not initially consider the warfare potential of the gunpowder they’d invented for the purpose. But after Marco Polo brought the explosive powder to Europe, the Chinese eventually did learn through the example of the Europeans and Americans how to devise potent weaponry – first from gunpowder then uranium.

Americans have another interesting connection with the Chinese on this summer’s day. A distant fireworks event was witnessed by Chinese astronomers on July 4, 1054 AD. Had they known what it truly signified they would have held the celestial phenomenom in deepest awe.

Chinese skywatchers could not have missed the presence of the ”guest star.” Even in the noonday brightness it was possible to discern the supernova, which appeared six times brighter than Venus. Being superb astronomers, the supernova was carefully noted and tracked by them. One account read:

On the 1st year of the Chi-ho reign period, 5th month, chi-chou (day) [July 4, 1054], a guest star appeared approximately several inches to the south-east of Tian-kuan [Aldebaran]. After a year and more it gradually vanished.
- Sung-shih, Annals of the Sung Dynasty; Astronomical Treatise, chap. 56 -

Had the Chinese not viewed the patterned movements of the sky as the model for order and stability in their Middle Kingdom, information on the supernova in the constellation Taurus (and whose remains are the Crab Nebula) might not have been so well preserved for posterity.

And, one wonders, had gunpowder not been invented so early, might its eventual use in destruction and death somehow have been minimized in later times? Unfortunately this appears unlikely, given the conflicted nature of the human condition. There seems to be a base human attraction to gunpowder’s belligerent use, as in: “the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air,” words which every American has learned to sing but rarely reflects upon.

So when we set off fireworks, are we simply revisiting that heavenly awe experienced by the Chinese? Or do we also need the shock and awe of fireworks to help defibrillate our humdrum lives? On each Fourth of July, Americans celebrate while not really knowing why.

Yet amid the patriotic fervor, good times with family and friends, the exhuberance of fireworks, cookouts and colorful parades, there is something else that could be celebrated.

We might pause for a moment in the festivities to contemplate how fortunate we in fact are. And in evoking a sense of thankfulness for our good fortune, health and happiness we might also wish such good fortune on others.

With each burst of the fireworks we might envision sending our best wishes out to all the world’s people, as if saying: “here is a gift of light, vitality, hope and goodness.” Indeed, it has been known to every world wisdom tradition that good things come when we wish them on others. But when we pull the benefits greedily to ourselves, little good comes of it.

I for one will send out my good wishes with each firework’s blast. I will envision them as harbingers of light and life in this suffering yet glorious world.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
- William Blake –

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Humane Being

1. Concern with the alleviation of suffering; merciful - showing or giving mercy;
2. Showing evidence of moral and intellectual advancement;
3. Concerned with the humanities; humanist, humanistic;
4. Synonyms: compassionate, humanitarian, merciful.

1. The state or quality of having existence.
2. a. Something, such as an object, an idea, or a symbol that exists,
is thought to exist, or is represented as existing. b. The totality of all things that exist.
3. a. A person b. All the qualities constituting one that exists; the essence.
c. One's basic or essential nature; personality.

Ways and ideals for humanely existing in the world have been around for as long as humanity has walked the Earth. In every epoch, land and culture, people have celebrated compassion, mental clarity and sustainable modes of living as foundations for being a humane person.

A humane person is a wise being - a homo sapiens - striving to become the best version of oneself in community with others of like will, heart and mind. But the work of becoming humane, fully human, often proves more elusive in deed than in word. It can be said that we are all here on this Earth to “become into humaneness,” which the theologian, Abraham Heschel described thusly:

“I am born a human being; what I have to acquire is being human.”

Some of us become humane beings by way of our deeds on behalf of family, society and world. Others put their “humaneity” into practice by evoking ideals through words and the arts. I happen to be a philosophical wordsmith and a visual artist and musician, so I try to put the essence of the humane into action through these expressive channels. But any talent with which one is born is a tool to the humane.

Yet even the most alluring modes of expression must often await the right moment to have their desired effect. For there are certain times in which ideas come into their own - when their “times have come.” We are clearly now at one of those potent junctures, where a concerted leap must be made into another set of ideals and paradigms for living. It is a time when things seem impossible to change for the better, but it also holds the necessary energetic conditions for a shift from our current fragmented reality of life into one of greater wholeness and happiness.

Conditions now have ripened for the acceptance of ideas that may seem new, but actually have been anciently known. “There is nothing new under the sun,” observed Ecclesiastes. And there are no better ideas and practices than those which have preserved human life since earliest times. Ironically, such humane ideas and the ways for living them have always been here with us – secreted in the depths and antipodes of our collective culture and minds - silently waiting to speak forth from our own selves, featured actors in this life’s tragi-comedy.

My own point of view has been deeply infused with anthropological ideals and alternate cultural points of view. So, I naturally look to others and to the past for inspiration in the unfolding of my personal drama. I seek out the ancients and the indigenous for guidance. because what had vouchedsafe humanity’s ancestors through all those centuries and millennia past, are most certainly applicable to our present human condition.

Joseph Campbell and similar great students of humanity have shown us that there are certain elementary, universal ideals and practices which reappear and reinvest human beings with wholeness, healthfullness and holiness - regardless of outer cultural style, time period, geography or genetics.

I love the way that Navajos and Tibetans express our essential oneness in this regard:

We are all related; are we not each and all five-fingered beings?
- Navajo medicineman -

“Be compassionate toward others; we all have been each other’s mother in previous lifetimes.”
- The Dalai Lama -

Early on in my career I was led by chance and mentorship beyond the hard-headed, anthropological mode of understanding what it means to be human. I was tilted toward an “innerstanding,” by studying and experiencing the wisdom ways of other cultures. Over the years, I have directly come to know how Tibetans, Navajos and other such peoples seek the whole in their lives, while I continue in the work of finding my own humane way to wholeness.

A humane way of being is properly every person’s goal. Even the most hardened and dissolute wish for happiness for themselves and their relations – although their motives and means may be misguided. Even these poor souls have the possibility of humane “redemption.” The way lies in embracing the humane instead of ignoring or assassinating it.

The ideal of humane being speaks to the necessary awakening from our deathly sleepwalk through the world, and to leaving it a sustaining place for those who will continue along our way.

“There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in
happiness, knowledge and wisdom.
Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels?
We appeal as human beings, to human beings:
remember your humanity, and forget the rest.
If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise:
if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”
The Russell–Einstein Manifesto of 1955

Monday, June 4, 2007

Way to the Garden

A strong scent of religion is permeating our sensory, expressive and mental environments. People are searching for the peace, solace and understanding that a spiritual path can provide. And in today’s world there are two religio-spiritual systems from which to choose.

The first envisions an attainable Eden-like Garden composed of this world’s life forms and experiences. The other, which claims closest ties to the Garden of Eden and human salvation, leads in an entirely opposite direction away from potential “gardenhood.”

Since their progenitors’ banishment from the Garden of Eden, practitioners of the latter, one-god system have striven to reconnect with a cosmic mind and power abiding beyond their personal worlds. Their system describes itself by a derivative of the Latin term, religare, implying: re-linking to the sacred.

But the word, religion is absent in the terminology of the former, non-Western spiritual systems. Relinking to external holiness is considered unnecessary in these traditions, as life itself is a religious practice in holiness. The potentially illumined, body-soul-spirit complex within each person simply awaits cleansing and perfecting to reveal its ligare to the sacred.

The way of religion is causally connected to the chaos in our lives by its general inability to provide succor and insight into our suffering. Its path leads away from its own holy garden. There’s a bitter cosmic irony at play here. The invasion of Iraq, Old Mesopotamia, has unknowingly brought the modern day Babylon, which is America, back to the proverbial site of the original Garden of Eden and to the place of origin of the West’s monotheistic religions.

The other spiritual way is preserved by indigenous and non-monotheistic peoples in the face of their current sufferings. Indeed, much of their difficulties has been at the hands of peoples who had not yet found their innate connection to the sacred. Instead, the conquerors co-opted the sacred, in justification of acts against which even their own biblico-koranic religions clearly caution.

As one example of the ancient spiritual way, consider the tenets and practices of Buddhism. A non-theistic system of spiritual thinking, expressing and living, focusing on the dynamics and solutions to suffering and on seeing reality for what it is, Buddhism is a well-tested antidote to national chaos and personal suffering.

Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere likewise have managed to preserve their integrated cultural and spiritual systems after what was without question the greatest holocaust of human history. That Native American (and other world indigenous) peoples have managed to maintain and even expand in recent decades, testifies to the pragmatic effectiveness of their ways to wisdom-in-living.

Underpinning the spiritual systems of indigenous and anciently-oriented peoples are two complementary processes. They were described to me several years ago by Gary Snyder, America’s dear poet-philosopher in matters of spirit and environment. We had been discussing the differences between Zen and Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism. Zen is practiced by many Chinese, Koreans and Japanese; and Vajrayana, by Tibetans, Nepalis and Mongolians (along with some Chinese, Koreans and Japanese).

Gary had observed that:

“In Zen, you go down quickly but come up slowly;
in Vajrayana, you go down slowly then come up quickly.
But both get you there all the same.”

Perhaps you already understand what Gary meant. But permit me to explain my understanding of his words.

Zen is of a Buddhist lineage in what Tibetans call the Yogacharya tradition. Yogacharya refers to a demanding mental practice of meditating directly on emptiness, dispelling the delusion that reality is solely material and sensate. By achieving a mental state of non-duality between the sourceground and the perceived, one gains an enlightened perspective beyond the ordinary, blunted state of mind that perceives the sensory world as being “real.”

Through exceptional discipline of mind and body, the practitioner of Zen is trained to cut through the conventional state of awareness and enter into samadhi, stable meditative clarity. In this clear-minded state one sees through and beyond the constraints of the material, to understand that the ground of mind and reality is pristine, vast and empty of the permanence and tyranny of hardened concepts and forms.

In the Zen tradition, as in others that evoke the creative emptiness of being, the practitioner “goes down quickly” to experience glimpses of the primordial ground within (which also exists everywhere). Once tasted, this sudden “eureka! moment” of clarity and insight (satori in Japanese) must be stabilized and held firmly in mind. So, it must be constantly revisited, recomprehended and restabilized – which is a slow-going and disciplined lifetime practice. In Zen, one goes down quickly to the primordiality of things and thoughts, but comes up into understanding and realization slowly and methodically.

In the Vajrayana, the Sanskrit term for the Tantric Buddhist tradition, one likewise goes down to the primordial ground. But this is accomplished slowly and methodically through programmed and vividly-beheld meditations.

The meditations dissolve one’s uncontrolled attachment to the material and the sensual by carefully harnessing ideal forms of the material and the sensual. These icons become powerful metaphors to the creative emptiness and universal connectedness at the primordial ground.

Tibetan Buddhism’s tantric art is permeated by shiningly colorful imagery and sounds. They are agreed-upon, anthropomorphized projections of ideal mental, creative and physical states of being – inevitably mistaken by monotheists to be “polytheistic” gods.

But meditative buddhas are at their basis empty of actual physicality. Rather, they are subtle mentally-generated signposts pointing toward our own better selves, which already exist in tarnished potential within each human being. Our inner, better selves need then to be transformed into their shining buddha-natures - their enlightened “un-selves.”

For those born into Tibetan Buddhism or who have made it their spiritual path, there is a natural attraction to all the shine and powerful imagery. But at the foundation of the alluring forms is the sourceground of emptiness – the formlessness from which all forms, by default, arise.

In seeking this foundational state of emptiness over the bridge of meditation spanning the river of consciousness and linking the banks of matter and spirit, the tantric Buddhist “goes down slowly,” methodically, to the primordial ground. Abiding there in a stable mental manner, one eventually “gets it” by way of a “eureka! moment,” not unlike that in Zen.

Then, the the practitioner “comes up quickly,” returning into this ordinary, confused reality with new eyes and understanding. The process is likened to that of a shining jewel arising out of the unfolding petals of a glorious lotus blossom, which itself had issued from the dark muck at the bottom of the pond.

The Zen-like way of quickly finding the empty, “unground of being” then returning slowly into understanding but at a higher level, is the way of many diverse peoples of the world, ranging from the Japanese to the Lakota Siouan Indians of North America.

The Lakota people place themselves deeply and valiantly into the midst of their cosmic sourceground, the heart of the Great Mystery, which is beyond comprehension and form but full of power to create thought, life and matter. They do so by fasting on mountaintops over the course of many days, in quest of a sacred vision for guiding them through life. And they engage in communal self sacrifice to the Great Mystery, also over the course of many days, via the Sun Dance tradition.

Visions and realizations abound when one gives the gift of the smaller self and receives the empowered spiritual self back from the source and totality of things, which is the Great Mystery. Similarly, one gives up the daily self for the bliss and direct meditative experience of the “un-self” in the abiding state of emptiness, called the Void in Zen and Tantric Buddhism.

In a manner parallel with Tantric Buddhism, similar wisdom ways enrich other peoples worldwide. Navajo Indians, for example, see the basis of the phenomenal world in an all creative, pervasive and harmonious state of dynamic holiness, which they call Beauty.

From Beauty - by way of the union of its first creations, Earth and Sky - come all manifest forms, life energies and ideals of mind in the guise of natural phenomena and transcendent divinities called “Holy People.” All are sacred to the Navajo. As spiritual embodiments of voice (the creative lifeforce energy) and mind (the clear spiritual thought), they are revered and given appropriate physical forms and qualities. They are incarnations of the sacred within all things.

For Tantric Buddhist practitioners, their meditative buddhas are appreciated as projections of one’s innate potential and cures to suffering. Some are pacific and nurturing of life-affirming, inner qualities of the meditator. Others are forceful in character, conveying powerful spiritual practices for transmuting the practitioner’s primordial ignorance into enlightened mind.

“But,” as Gary observed, “both ways get you there all the same.”

By the example of the pragmatic spiritual paths of the ancient and indigenous East and West, we yet may find our way back to the Garden. But for those who literally await an external agent to show them the way, the way to the Garden may continue to remain hidden from view.

“We are stardust, billion year-old carbon;
We are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain;
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”
- Joni Mitchell, Woodstock -

Monday, April 23, 2007

The West & the Rest

In the West:
sleepwalking full of amnesia,
amid forgotten wisdom and ways;
In the Rest:
holding fast cultural treasures,
for grandchildren's journeys and days;

In the West:
worshipping uncertain futures,
demonizing old ways gone by;
In the Rest:
living in the eternal moment,
timelessness at the foundation of time;

In the West:
mired deeply in matter,
seeking realness in fictional things;
In the Rest:
What’s real is the heart of the matter,
font of mind and life yet unrevealed;

In the West:
sensing our own separate natures,
living solely in substance & time;
In the Rest:
awoken to reality’s vastness,
as a universe spreads out inside.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fixing Humpty Dumpty

Once the eggshell of coevolution between the poles of national life is broken, it is exceedingly difficult to restore the integrity of the shell.

When it comes to human affairs, opposites attract more readily than they repel. This is most fortunate since the energy of attraction is crucial to maintaining the integrity of culture and society. It is particularly necessary in the domestic life of nation states - the most complicated and unstable of human sociopolitical experiments.

The challenge of maintaining cohesion amid the diversity of mass society lies in how people honor their innate differences in language, cultural history and everyday experience. How can they manage to coexist, if not completely in peaceful relations, at least in decent tolerance of their differences?

Yin and Yang

There is little peace or tolerance these days in the Disunited States of America. There are two major opposing camps in conflict on the national stage. “Churchgoers of science” and “scientistic christianists” are engaged in a wide-ranging battle for the hearts and minds of the populace. To further complicate the equation, each camp has its fundamentalists holding to an extreme “one right way” stance, while there are also “relativists” among them, envisioning an harmonious reconciliation of their differences.

Throughout the tumultuous ebb and flow of American society, somehow over the centuries room had been found for reasonable dialogue. While certain flash point events, such as the Civil War/War Between the States, signaled a serious breakdown in communication, the country did manage to restore dialogue and uncertain equilibrium, although at great cost.

Despite our tempers and stupidity, human beings yearn for harmony to prevail. But when communication breaks down, life becomes uncertain - sometimes lethal. We are at such a moment in the collective karma of American Society.

The Iraq War is currently being gladiated at home between neo-biblical, scientific creationists and equally zealous practitioners of mechanistic science and technology. They each espouse schizophrenic fragments of an elusive, unified national dream which, from time to time, regains its relevance in the collective consciousness after our coming to blows.

The Western dance of duality became inevitable when, for the first time in human history, science and religion were fully separated from one another at the advent of the eighteenth century in Europe. Once set onto their differing trajectories, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

In an insightful recent essay, Chris Hedges describes the creation science movement among American fundamentalist Christians. He outlines how it has donned the sheep’s clothing of scientific language and method to cover its wolfish appetite for religious and secular influence. I will get to his revelations in a moment, but first, let’s consider the other player in America’s danse macabre.

For hundreds of years, mechanists have held sway over the sciences of life – be they in healing, in explaining the physical nature of reality, or in providing the necessities of shelter, clothing and the like. The mechanized vision of things served effectively in the domain of everyday material experience. From waterwheels to space shuttles, certain seemingly inviolable physical laws appeared to have applied. In the process, the mechanical has deeply come to influence the cultural dimension of life.

Simultaneous to this surge toward the scientific, arose its antidote in the form of (“secular”) humanism. Humanism helped to alleviate the suffering and confusion of the industrial age by injecting a perspective of spirituality and morality, which previously had been the sole provenance of religion. Their ideals had last operated as a unity during the era of European Hermeticism - before the 18th century’s apartheid between science and religion.

With the split between our culture’s scientific and spiritual sides, Humpty Dumpty had his great fall, never again to be restored whole to his perch atop the wall of cultural solidity.

Fixing Humpty Dumpty

Once the eggshell of coevolution between the poles of national life is broken, it is exceedingly difficult to restore the integrity of the shell.

The ideologies of the two camps have seen hundreds of years of their own unique evolution, while fitfully sharing a common mass culture. In the process, they have learned something of how each other thinks and operates. But wielding this common knowledge as a weapon has made the waters of society murky, as they fight over their ideologies in the mud of their cultural pond. To find a solution requires seeing the problem with clear eyes and calm minds – quite the challenge amid all the muck.

Hedges contributes to clarity, by explaining the rising, “Christo-fascist” movement in America to scientific/humanistic readers. It currently promulgates a contemporary version of the Puritan worldview, called Creation Science. This is disseminated through a combination of scientific packaging and mass marketing to a society well tenderized with fear and confusion.

“Creationism is not about offering an alternative,” he writes. “Its goal is the destruction of the core values of the open society--the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to advocate for change… and to accept that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable.”

This ethos is an “article of faith” among scientific humanists. While the biblical picture of reality and the fundamentalist way of life are hardened projections of the ethos of Christian creationists.

The duality dance has taken a new twist in these times. As Hedges observes: “And yet coming from the modern age, these Christo-fascists cannot discount science. They employ jargon, methods and data that appear to be science, to make an argument for creationism… The movement desperately needs the imprint of science to legitimize itself. It achieves this imprint by discrediting real science and claiming creationist science as true science… They seek the imprint of science and scholarship to legitimize myth.”

America has a habit of suddenly switching realities. We reach a social turning point then burst into action, but only to blindly embrace another equally lopsided and fragmented polar picture of reality. We have seen this occur in our lifetimes. From belief in an non-corporeal god of the biblical word, people shifted to the god of physical science - and back again.

These contrasting worldviews are constantly being yelled into every American mind, and in every possible manner. Although their styles and intentions have become increasingly interwoven at the surface of American mass culture, they remain far apart at their roots.

We have taken on incomplete versions of the whole force, which is the natural, holographic union of matter and spirit. In so doing we have perpetrated the ultimate sacrilege – call it the proverbial Fall from the Garden - by cutting each off from the other. By way of this primal apartheid between physical and spiritual modes of knowing, expressing and living, we have fallen into our current Humpty Dumpty conundrum.

What was whole since the beginnings of humankind – the healthful coevolution of matter and spirit - has been ruptured. Can all the king’s horses and and all the kings men put Humpty Dumpty together again? The task is perhaps insurmountable. But we must try; first by coming to awareness, then by right intentions and finally, in the greatest challenge of all, through awakened will.

How to develop awakened will? Willpower is awakened when it is harnessed by the mind and the heart, combined. But our personal and collective wills must be first cleansed of their flawed concepts and intentions. This leads to the goal of what all human spiritual systems recognize as being that of an awakened person.

The Work Ahead

Our European cultural ancestors called it the Work, or the Great Work. They saw life’s personal dimension as spiritual work. This consisted of purificatory acts followed by reintegrative processes of spiritual and physical alchemy. Through its various stages, the adept was transformed into the goal of the Work. This, in its mystical, alchemical form was called the lapis or “stone of the philosophers.” In its personal form, it was the transfigured practitioner, who had attained the lifetime goal of a “glorified body,” from which radiates infinite wisdom and love.

The practitioner of Hermetic alchemy (which by the 18th century had been eviscerated of its spiritual dimension and renamed chemistry) was truly a religious person. Oaths and prayers guided the Work. A coworker of the opposite sex was present at important stages in the process, so as to potentiate, inspire and balance the Work.

The Work honored and involved the unity of male and female principles – call them wisdom and love - in what was the “cold fusion” of its day. But instead of operating solely on the molecular or atomic levels, the alchemists’ reactions operated more significantly on the levels of the vital force of life and consciousness. The latter are of the deepest orders of the quantum world, and include what the celebrated physicist-philosopher David Bohm referred to as energy, pattern and meaning.

It is in all these essential levels of our existence, those of body, soul and spirit, that we now must focus the powers of the will. Whatever one’s spiritual, intellectual or lifestyle tradition may be, each must act - and act with heart and clear headedness. We must draw upon our background resources, be they Christian, Islamic or Judaic; Indigenous, Buddhist, Jain or Hindu. Be one a humanist or religionist; industrialist or craftperson; woman or man; old or young, we each have our ways and skills for doing the Work in the world.

And we certainly have our work cut out for us. In our atomized way of life, each generation must recreate the Work in its own image, through the partnership of wisdom, heart and awakened will.

We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side:
one which we preach,
but do not practice,
and another which we practice, but seldom preach.

- Bertrand Russell -

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

What Truth Is

A friend recently remarked: "what the truth is....we don't know," which got me to thinking about the Western reverie called “the truth."

The word "truth" conjures the image of an ironclad ideal, a conceptual firewall standing above imposter hypotheses laying claim to it. But early in the last century, with the simple statement that “matter is both a particle and a wave,” quantum scientists at long last discarded the either/or notion about “the truth.”

In the complementary, nano-world of particle and wave, the truth is found at both extremes of the quantum picture, in fact, at infinite points in between – and simultaneously! The quantum truth about reality may also be described as “neither of the above,” since it originates in the depths of manifestation - before reality splits into duality.

What is the truth? It depends on the perspective of the beholder.

For the average spirituality-seeking American, truth says that Jesus is God; that the messiah is soon to return; that souls abide in heaven and extraterrestrials are out there, somewhere, as well.

These envisionings have become truths to millions of people. In actuality, they are phantasms - mental and volitional projections - which we create because we need them to be there for our peace of mind.

All great spiritual traditions accept their mythic progenitors and gods as being real. But they also teach that there is no difference between the substantial and insubstantial. So their truths and gods come and go in many forms and planes as required.

Quantum science joins mystical spirituality in seeing things as natural projections out from a subtle fundamental state: the font of no-thinged-ness, the divine matrix, the plenum void. For both, truth abides at this sourceground, where all is in flux without any concepts or constructs yet existing.

Navajos, Tibetans, Balinese and Maya are among numerous living peoples of wisdom with a fine grasp of this deep truth. They achieved their understandings through fully-engaged membership in the cycles of earth and sky. From such natural wisdom come visions, stories, dreams.

Consider now the West’s rational, literal-minded mechanists. They comprise the majority of Americans and increasing numbers of people worldwide. Let’s call them “Modernicans.”

Modernicans have the identical cognitive and imaginal faculties as have the Australian Aborigines. Native Australians celebrate the Dreamtime as their spiritual sourceground. We Modernicans also live in the Dreamtime, although we do not realize it. We no longer understand that there is an all-creative, indescribable and immaterial font (quite unlike our personified, monotheistic God) from which all phenomena flow.

Modernicans had lost their foundational spirituality, which held this knowledge, when our European cultural ancestors discarded the spiritual dimension in Hermetic alchemy, renaming it chemistry. There could be no room for the unity of spirit and matter during the Age of “Enlightenment.” But since spirit does indeed matter, they were segregated into the conceptual apartheid systems of church and science.

Still, human beings yearn to be whole; it’s just the way we are wired. We are wired to see spirit amid matter, which are, anyway, one in the same at their root.

How then can one unveil spirit within form? Dreams of events to come and visions of animal or human guides and gods are universally heeded for the purpose. But their qualities and scenarios are determined by the cultural worldview from which they arise.

If that worldview is a picture of a state of wholeness underlying the natural cycles of time and space, then the dreams and visions of its beholders will be of similar character - in harmonious form and flow.

But if the world picture is of a fragmented and disharmonious character then this too is revealed in visions and dreams. In a world picture where time is an arrow, matter is solely material, and reality is predictable, then the old gods will no longer come - except in wounded or mutated form.

What form would the gods project onto a culture where earth and sky are no longer understood to be in oneness? Might they be beautiful but fierce; innocent but faulted? Certainly, they would take on iconic forms from the presiding mass culture.

Should the Modernican gods-to-come look like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, or even those cute bug-eyed ETs, this would work - so long as they are known spiritually, as projections of consciousness, species and culture.

However, without a wholesome worldview in which to find meaning and completion, we will continue to frantically search for truth in channeling Egyptian or Native American princesses, or in being startled by the veiled light of our own minds reflected in UFO sightings.

But, what of the inner meanings of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Will they serve us as helpful symbols of dualistic power and personal polar tendencies? Or, having become familiar to so many people via the cinema, are we now them and they us, but without understanding how and why this is so?

The world picture of the Modernicans describes a galactic reality in explosion and implosion, conflict and competition. It portrays massive hungering for more, for bigger and better things, experiences and worlds. It is a reality scenario underpinned by craving, frustration and confusion.

This is not the image of Native America’s world reality. There, animals, humans and gods move as relatives, in synchrony with the inexorable cycles of time and within the sacred embrace of earth and sky.

Nor is it the Tibetans’ all creative, timeless-formless state underlying space-time - and all that it contains. Both visions derive from their cultural and individual imaginations. They describe a wholesome and awesome world, which many people would appreciate and enjoy.

The reality that Modernicans see, likewise, is a projection of their individual and cultural essence. But this universe is in continued disorder, collapse and recovery. It is full with stories of empires and rebels, and of demi-gods (more recently extraterrestrials) bringing dangerous knowledge and power to earthlings while they walk among us in human disguise.

It actually sounds much like the way indigenous people had perceived the Modernicans to be, during the early years of contact and colonization. At first encounter, the white men seemed to the Native people to be quite the non-human horde, with an incomprehensible worldview, a bizarre god and alien ways of life.

Perhaps it’s time that we take a long hard look at our ourselves through others’ eyes, in partnership with the powers of our own imaginations. There is much to see and learn. Perhaps we may yet awaken from our sleepwalking haze to find a deeper and more meaningful sense of the truth.

All we have are our visions and dreams. We dream throughout the dance of life. What is truth and what’s the dream? Ay, there's the rub.

Beauty I’d always missed with these eyes before,
Just what the truth is I can’t say anymore.
- The Moody Blues,
Nights in White Satin -

Here we are on a dream caravan;
a caravan but a dream, a dream but a caravan…
- Sufi verse -

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

American Karma

Bush fruit has already fallen from the founding tree of America and has begun to rot upon the ground. We must now respond in a wise manner to this most recent fall from the garden.

Seeds of Karma

The toll exacted by American adventurism in Brave New Mesopotamia can be counted in numerous ways. There are body counts of deaths and injuries to American and Iraqi combatants and innocents. And there are the usually media accounts and images of shattered Iraqi homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, families, ethnicities, ways of life.

In present day American society there are increasingly dire consequences coming home to roost, as well. The most lamentable fallout from its cowboy imperialism lies in the disrupted peace of mind and ruined sense of wellbeing of America’s own people and society.

America actually has never been an easy place in which to live. Read some first person accounts of daily life in colonial or early industrial times. Or ask a Native American or African American friend or neighbor about theirs or an ancestors’ experience with American culture.

A deeply competitive and acquisitive spirit has provided Americans the dubious benefits of material ease. But the lack of peace of mind and basic civility have been the prices consistently paid over the years for the promises of the myths of progress and manifest destiny. And these same myths continue to fashion the self image and global actions of contemporary America.

During this first decade of the twenty-first century, amid a blizzard of changes and choices in our lives, things have gotten even more out of hand. In an increasingly interconnected world of fierce competition for material resources and addiction to material solutions to happiness, we find ourselves in serious trouble.

Beyond the incessant brain chatter from choosing cell phone plans to balancing credit card accounts, there is an even more sinister kind of torment contributing to our daily bewilderment. There are words to describe its psychological origins: fear, pride, greed and anger. The worldview of America has been sculpted in certain moments that powerfully reflected these psychic imbalances. They were major turning points in US history and all were connected with conflict, war.

The American Revolution violently imprinted a cultural ethos of self-autonomy, but also discarded beneficial aspects of English culture. The Civil War laudably freed the slaves, but also cemented deep divisions between large segments of the national population. Even earlier, America was built upon a fundamental old world schism between the Puritans and the Enlightenment Men. The fruit of these unreconciled turning points are now being exhumed in the battle for the soul of 21st Century America. This time the battle is being waged between newly styled crusaders and gladiators: neocon/religious zealots and progressive liberal/humanists.

The result of this divisive assault is that the mental and emotional balance necessary for a person, family and society to maintain and thrive (no easy effort, even during the best of times) lies now in tatters.

In contrast, the example of history suggests that successful ways of life are necessarily oriented to harmony over conflict and conflict resolution over the force of arms. In such cultures, peacemaking is considered to be equally as heroic as warriorship. The absence of an ethos of harmony has always proved fatal. In my experience as an anthropologist, I know of no imperial civilizations to have survived to tell their tale, other than through the mute voices of their ruined cities and poorly-comprehended writings and symbols.

Fog of Life

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, like thousands of other concerned citizens I wrote to the White House asking the cowboy-in-chief not to go to war. My reasoning was that the drum rolls to war were already doing psychic violence to the American people. So it would be a monumental disaster to our peace of mind and social fabric should war come to pass. Now, US national and personal life have been seriously destabilized. The dreams and wellbeing of Americans have been deeply shaken by the invasion of Iraq and attendant misdeeds by government.

Strong ideals and emotions have always been present as a background hum in the American soundtrack. But now they have led to dangerously polarized camps, dark antagonisms fertilized by the spreading compost of the Bushites. They bear some resemblance to the causes of America’s Civil War. And, too, they reflect conditions leading to the self-destruction of another seemingly civilized nation state a half century ago, which was Germany at the rise of the Third Reich.

Fortunately, we’ve not yet reached the tragic national conditions of 1930’s Germany, although to many people, worldwide, the American invasion of Iraq looks much like the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland at the start of WWII.

In fact, the tendency toward global fascism has been inherent in the Western way - certainly since Roman times. Thus we must be ever vigilant regarding our collective motives and actions in the world.

Likewise, throughout US history, social eruptions and economic crashes have led to internal communal conflicts, inequities and abuses - which the collective American mind seems to have the uncanny ability to rationalize or simply forget. Even in our profound amnesia, though, we have enough reminders through expanded sources of information to know better than to repeat such mistakes.

But so long as awareness is slow to see the light in the fog of life, we will continue to stagger in the footsteps of the Civil and World Wars. The ultimate casualty of this ignorance will have been the peace of mind and civility of America and, given its massive influence, that of the entire world.

George Santayana observed in 1905 that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately this truism was lost of those who would initiate the most violent century in human history.

And the lesson is lost, too, today on us/the US. We live in a society that reinvents itself with each generation, while it looks to its youth instead of its elders for inspiration. Can such a nation of 300 million really be on the right road, being fueled by adolescent dreams having little of the wisdom gained from life’s experiences?

The choice to remember the past is ours to make, while the motivation to learn from the past is usually lacking. But sometimes people and events rise to become catalysts to the lesson. As such, George Bush and his criminal cohorts may actually be doing us a favor in disguise. Permit me to explain this strange notion.

Strange Fruit

There is an ancient human understanding, one which I have studied for quite some time. It is the axiom of karma, which peoples such as the Tibetans call the Law of Cause and Effect. Millennia of close observation of the thoughts, words and deeds of humanity had led Buddhist sages to the conclusion that (to quote a more familiar description of karma) “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Or (in the lingo of 20th century America): “what goes around comes around.”

We all know intuitively that one can’t work against the natural flow without a major reaction or recalibration eventually arising. Buddhists call this shift the “ripening of the karmic impulse.” It is likened to a fruit attaining full ripeness then falling off the tree to rot upon the ground. From its flesh comes putrifaction but also nourishment to the seed and organisms in the earth.

There is no valuation attached to this act. Buddhists don’t say that the poor fruit is “wasted” or that the rotting flesh “messes up” the manicured lawn and people’s lives below the tree. They say, instead, that this is a indicator of the impermanent nature of reality. And they extend the wish that perhaps this fallen fruit will be the source of many beautiful fruit trees to come for the benefit of everyone.

Somehow, this is how I look at the Bush regime in moments of charity. Through their savage actions and shortsighted intentions they just might well bring about conditions for a healing crisis to occur in this wounded and schizophrenic nation.

Bush fruit has already fallen from the founding tree of America and has begun to rot upon the ground. We must now respond in a wise manner to this most recent fall from the garden. But how?

Will we merely regret the fallen fruit as we clear it from our chemically-treated lawn and our national memory? Will we cut down the tree of state in retribution? Will we merely breathe a sigh of relief as we clean up the mess made in Washington, but go no deeper in investigating the causes that had allowed the abuses to take form?

Or could the rotting fruit of state fertilize a new ecosystem of thought and behavior, in the process harvesting healthful sustenance for tree and people? Will we heed the lessons of the times? Can we evoke the energy and wisdom needed to reorient our basic patterns and goals, in light of the national fall from grace now seen daily on a TV or computer screen near you?

This is the curse and the challenge in the ripening of the America’s karma. Fruits always fall from trees. What differs is the way and rationale by which one cleans up the mess. We now have to make that choice - and with an awfully large and smelly, rotting fruit.

Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence:
wealth without work,
pleasure without conscience,
knowledge without character,
commerce without
science without humanity,
worship without sacrifice,
without principle.
-Mahatma Gandhi -

Friday, March 9, 2007

Call from the Canyon

Reflections on 21st Century America In the Midst of an Ancient Land

After many seasonal rounds of dwelling in the land of the Navajo Indians - within the physical and spiritual presence of glorious Canyon de Chelly - I have come to understand a few things about myself, our culture and this world.

Living amid the powerful rhythms of nature yet still in touch with the human-formed world, I have come to see with clearer eyes how we stand unsteadily at a critical crossroads in our modern lives.

While having been birthed by Nature, our lives have become increasingly abstracted from it. This mounting estrangement from the basic ground of being surely lies at the root of that gnawing disaffection afflicting so many people in today's world. Henry David Thoreau gave voice to such disenchantment, already endemic in his rapidly-industrializing America of the nineteenth century, with the words: "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

Fortunately, here in Native American reality there is a powerful antidote to this collective dis-ease. It continues to vouchsafe the lives of many indigenous peoples, here and worldwide, despite the daunting challenges they face in personal and cultural survival. It derives from the understanding that we are each holographic expressions of Nature - that wherever we may be, we are never apart from its influences, sustenance, lessons and blessings.

The powerful presence of Nature permeates the human being on every level - from the sensed to the most subtle. As such, it is within our power to revitalize our connection with this essential source of inspiration and nurture. This is possible by making a fundamental shift in how we view our place in its movements and greater web of being.

Like the Navajo, we denizens of modernity are ultimately capable of directly benefiting from a relationship with that ineffable wholeness underlying our daily lives - by marrying ourselves to its spirit and creative renewalness all alround us. In the doing we may re-find life-sustaining wisdom and joy, which are rarely encountered anymore in the maelstrom of contemporary life.

The Native American already knows what the "newly-Native American" in us has just begun to perceive: that the infinite vastness we call Nature is an all-living, all-pervasive, all-encompassing state of being, both without and within, and not some object or process from which we are set apart.

The English visionary poet, William Wordsworth understood this Nature as: “a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things/all objects of all thought/and rolls through all things.” Wordsworth's insight was powerfully validated for me by a Hopi Indian poet and friend who, on reading these words for the first time, remarked avidly: "why that's what our spiritual beings, the katsinas, are all about!"

Over the past years I have been fortunate to live amid great natural vitality and indigenous wisdom. I have resided in a ceremonially-consecrated hoghan - the Navajos' "home-sweet-home." An eight-sided log cabin with a conical roof, with a smokehole for a woodstove’s pipe and a stone-covered earthen floor (that is carpet-covered as in a Mongolian yurt), its doorway customarily faces the east and the rising dawn’s light.

Living thusly in the round, facing the dawning, nooning, dusking and darkening of the day with feet on the earth and eyes drawn upward toward the revolving nighttime sky through the skylight, is a profound experience, deeply affecting one's view of the world.

The name, hoghan, reveals its universal significance. Ho refers to the greater environment, the cosmos-at-large, while ghan is a dwelling or home. The hoghan is the terrestrial embodiment of the cosmos in its dynamic state of order and harmony, which the Navajo call hozho, "beauty." As in the Navajo benediction: “in beauty all around me, I dwell,” indeed, I dwell.

Here, by Canyon de Chelly, America’s second largest and most sublime canyon, which has seen well over seven thousand years of human habitation in its ruins and through its rock art, the phrase rings deep and true. As I look out from my doorway onto the beauty of green growth amid red rocks and deep blue sky, I also gaze outward through the mind's inner eye to see even further - over hundreds of miles, over the vast and powerful Colorado Plateau. It spreads beautifully in all directions at the heart of the high southwest.

Still, I'm literally across the road from the works and trappings of "civilization." There, in a well-landscaped lodge and friendly campground, waves of people come from all over the world to pass a few days in quiet awe of the presence and power of Nature.

They look in curiosity at the exotic-looking Navajo, who know implicitly that their flesh, blood, life force and mind are of the very nature of this place. Like the nearby lodge, I too have electricity, internet and telephone service in my dwelling. And, should I want it, cable TV is available on the pole right outside my door. Useful though these amenities can be, they are possessed of a certain irrelevance in the face of the real world and of the perennial ways of living surrounding me.

As I watch the world materialize, as if in slow motion before my eyes, and behold the eternal journey of the sun, moon and stars through the vault of sky, I am constantly reminded of what is real.

“I want what is real/I want what is real/don’t deceive me,” sang an Indian in the face of the 19th century's inexorable European tide. And, despite the omnipresence - even here - of the 21st century, I am beginning to know, to really know, what is real - to see the real in everything.

No words can adequately describe it. They can only hint at the open secret: that one is fully in nature and of the spirit, wherever one may be. And that is the real world.

The reciprocity of the experience of life with the earth, with nature,
with the places where the planet rests, is natural.

And in those places where life is deeply altered,
where the quality of life is directed to other horizons,
nature becomes shy;
not because she has impoverished herself,
not because she has lost herself.
Nature becomes shy because of our lack of care.
Nature becomes shy because of our lack of attention.

When people open their hearts and turn their attention
(not the intellectual attention, but the one of the spirit)
to a sun's ray that crosses the sky and touches the ground,
they are restoring a subtle level of contact with life and nature.
When the heart starts to beat again in unison
with the cycle of the winds, the rain, the moon,
this spiritual reintegration of the man
with the place where he dwells
starts to unveil again
and starts to run vividly
inward and outwardly.

- Ailton Krenak -
Indigenous Brazilian

Friday, March 2, 2007

World Understanding in the ‘00s: A Conciliation of Civilizations?

On reading Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial 1993 essay, World Politics in the ‘90s: A Clash of Civilizations? I was struck by its terrifying assumptions. It matter-of-factly laid out his case for strife among civilizations being the next catalyst to world conflict, succeeding political and economic conflict among nation states. His scenario pointed in particular to the coming clash between the religious civilizations of Christianity and Islam.

It disturbed me that this essay by a Harvard professor of strategic studies and influential insider in U.S. government affairs came as the world was breathing a sigh of relief over the thaw in the cold war. It cast a chill on hopes for a widely anticipated “peace dividend.”

The essay’s implications rang untrue to me. As an anthropologist who has lived for over three decades among peoples and nations with cultural values, religions and ways of life vastly different from our own, I knew that such an ethnocentric analysis could be misused in the emerging climate of cultural and economic globalism.

If there were one fundamental piece of wisdom that I learned from my years of immersion in other cultures, it was that there are no absolute certainties regarding the human condition. If anything, there are many erroneous views on how human beings and society think and operate. And these are very frequently held among the leadership and general populace in ill-informed nation states such as our own.

It seemed to me that the charged word “clash” had been generated by a mentality seeing reality in absolutist terms, whose use ran the danger of becoming fuel in a self-fulfilling prophesy of global strife.

Recently to the contrary, the British Broadcasting Company completed a major worldwide poll among 28,000 people in 27 countries, asking the question whether there was in fact a clash of civilizations between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic East. The respondents replied with a resounding no. The poll concluded that the conflict was within the realm of politics and economics, not in the inherent humanity or religion of the people. Rather, extreme religious ideology became a player in the conflict as a result, not a cause, of the current ecopolitical crisis.

My anthropological experiences agree with the collective wisdom of the poll. I had spend considerable time in Islamic society, in both urban and rural Turkey. In the course of my research there during the 1960’s, I encountered relative ease of communication and of living among the people.

There was a widespread sense among us of “taking for granted” our mutual “otherness,” then proceeding from there in a jointly rewarding manner. We accepted one anothers’ distinct differences in outlook and cultural style with general good humor and with implicit respect for the integrity of ourselves and cultures.

What I took home from the experience was the basic goodness and hospitality of villagers and urbanites alike in Turkish society, when unchallenged by alien ethnocentric notions and machinations. Here, and in my later studies among Native Americans and Tibetans, it was evident that when people were comfortable within their own skins and living in basic harmony within each their own unique cultural circumstances, they were just as you and I would wish for our own families, neighbors and society to be. Their version of the human condition worked acceptably for them, allowing their people to generally prosper and to achieve an appropriate degree of cultural harmony.

Like people worldwide, the people of Turkey strove to make the most of life in their own ways. And, they held sacred a code of decency and hospitality toward strangers. Although filtered through the prescriptions and customs of their Islamic creed, their way in the world was ultimately the measure of their own humanity, which knows no cultural boundaries. My experience in the traditional Middle East left a warm spot in my heart – and no doubt would have been there even if I were not trained in the central anthropological ideal of cultural relativism.

The term cultural relativism is worth a few words of explanation. It recognizes that all aspects of a culture - its works, creative arts and ideals - are appropriate to the environment and history of its people. While they might appear contradictory to elements in the cultures of others, they serve to maintain an intelligible system of life for their people – which is all that counts.

This obvious realization arose within 19th century America’s fledgling field of anthropology along with another understanding called, “the psychic unity of mankind.” It pointed out that all human beings, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of their ways of life, are equipped with the identical mental potential.

Both ideas were promulgated by Franz Boas, who was responsible, probably more than any other person, for humanizing anthropology in America. He was deeply concerned with the influence that social darwinism and evolutionism held over the late Victorian European worldview. They posited biologically-determined, evolutionary stages of culture, which ranged in succession from savagery to barbarism to civilization. The scheme was much like biology’s Linnaean tree of evolution of plant and animal species, but applied to human life. Savage was simple and crude; civilized was (more desirably) complex and refined.

Native peoples, who were seriously compromised in the course of colonial conquest, appeared to fit the bill in this scheme. They were considered savage if they held to a “simple” hunting or gathering pattern of living, or barbaric, if they were nomadic herders or basic gardening peoples.

From this false scheme of simple to complex, came a deluded social interpretation of evolution. “Red in tooth and claw,” as the biological evolutionists labelled the wildness of animal life, was applied to human patterns of culture. The savage and barbaric were thought to be by nature in constant conflict among themselves. Never mind that warfare was actually invented by early civilizations to protect and further acquire their great stores of surplus wealth.

But Boas would have none of this nonsense. He knew from extensive sojourns among native peoples that they were no less human than those in the wild and disturbed cities of America and Europe. If anything they had devised over many millennia, quite successful strategies for maintaining sustainable societies in their regions of the world.

So in order to correctly understand other human beings, Boas realized that all cultures must be seen as integral entities, making rational decisions cross-generationally about how to proceed in the most effective and harmonious manner. And with this realization came the understanding that so-called pre-civilized peoples were full fledged human beings, and in no way inferior to civilized peoples. All humans were possessed of the same psychic unity.

With that background I read Huntington‘s essay on the clash of civilizations. How in this day and age, I wondered, could an academician be such a simpleton in implying that if your religion and culture are significantly different, you could be fated to be antagonists or even enemies? It suggested that, like the Victorian vision of non-Western peoples, we were again in an “us against them; red in tooth and claw” world reality, where only the fittest will survive.

Perhaps this delusionary worldview stems from the inherent instability in the most recent of human cultural experiments, civilization itself. Huntington himself alluded to civilization being destined by nature to arise then collapse. There are always great upheavals in the life cycle of human civilizations. But they stem mainly from the dualism and rancor generated by “being civilized,” and less so from the cultural and religious systems underlying any civilization. Consider the fates of the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, Mayans and Incas. It was civilization that did them in; it was culture and religion that kept them going.

That George Bush and his neo-conned cohorts could cleave to the model of a clash of civilizations outlined in Huntington’s essay, and allow this throwback vision of human life to rear its head in the land of the greatest cultural genocide in human history (against its native peoples), is a measure of how far this society has fallen from being civilized - in the better sense of the term.

But the coin has its two sides. And the clash now being generated from our side through the neo-colonial rampage of globalization, can yet lead us to a conciliation of civilizations. Despite our deluded notions, the reality of life is that all humans hold the same hopes and dreams; we are all the same at our deepest roots. And when, finally, the deadening notion of the separateness of humanity is finally debunked, the ignorance that invokes clash instead of conciliation in global human affairs will no longer find support and, hopefully, vanish.

I remember a comment made by a Navajo philosopher on his cultural concept of dinĂ©, meaning “people, living beings.” He explained that in the world there are two and four legged people; there are flying, crawling and swimming people. And in the web of life, he continued, “we are all relatives,” which requires respect toward them all. Then the Navajo elder raised his hands, saying, “and all human beings are the same; do we not each have five fingers on our hands?”

You are rightly proud of your material culture,
but you must not think peoples without it are necessarily uncivilized.
Civilization and material culture are not one in the same.
Your peasants have but few of the things your townsmen enjoy,
yet they are no less civilized: they may indeed be more.
It is a question of spiritual outlook.
- Rinchen Lhamo,
a Tibetan woman speaking to the early 20th century British –

Monday, February 19, 2007

In the Circle of the Spirit

Navajo and Tibetan Wisdom Paths to Humane Being

Entering the Circle

They were the heady 1980’s and 90’s, a time of prosperity and seemingly infinite possibilities. In those years I rarely found myself stateside. I was residing mainly in Himalayan India, Nepal and Tibet along with sojourns among Tibeto-Burman hilltribes in southeast Asia. When back in America, I would more likely than not find myself on Indian lands in Arizona and New Mexico.

During the majority of those decades, I was living in realities which were radically divergent from that of my natal culture. Navajo Indians and Tibetans shared basic ways of thinking, expressing and living which were much closer to one another than to those of mainstream Americans.

Their common ground derived from their enshrining essential lessons in living from out of their long pasts. Historical narratives told of bygone times during which many of their versions of today’s basic challenges had been engaged and surmounted. These provided their ancestors guidance in negotiating the pitfalls of the human condition. Whereas the modern nation state of America has forgotten the lessons of its past, Tibetans and Navajos remember theirs and heed them still.

Living for many years on the Navajo Indian Reservation has immersed me daily in the Navajo vision of the Good. It describes a personal journey into a state of cosmic equipoise, which the Navajo call Beauty.

Tibetans likewise aspire to merge with the substance and vastness of the cosmos, without and within. Their way to the Good is through developing an illumined mind and expansive heart on successive lifetime journeys into Buddhahood.

Since both deeply honor meaningful visions of themselves in the world and ways of fully living in it, I decided about twenty years ago to write a book describing their common ground.

In the course of writing Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit, I pondered four wisdom ways that are central to Tibetans and Navajos, and are shared by all harmonized peoples of the world in various guises. Likewise, in their absence, they speak volumes about our Western society’s currently unwholesome condition of dis-harmony, dis-ease.

Navajo ideals for living are founded on the Beauty Way, which recognizes one’s deepest relationship with all beings and with the world. It honors the path and goal of “attaining a ripe old age founded on the harmony of universal beauty.“ The Navajos invoke this quest by the often heard spiritual phrase, Sa’ah Naghai Bik’eh Hozho. This accounts for the beautific character so obvious in the faces of traditional Navajo elders.

Just now, as I write these words, the beautiful face of an elderly Tibetan appears to my mind’s eye. Tibetans likewise lead their lives on the rock solid road of their Buddhist tradition, and it is reflected in their beautiful personal presence.

Tibetans enter into reciprocity with their phenomenal universe using the daily greeting: Tashi Deley. It references “a long and consummated life in auspicious relationship with the universe.” Holding such an aspiration, Tibetans journey beyond the sufferings of this life and future rebirths.

Adding to this aboriginal ideal, the Tibetan Buddhist path leads into the abiding realms of cosmic emptiness beyond materiality and into illumined heart. These goals are expressed in another everyday expression, Om Mani Padme Hum. It references the arising jewel-like compassionate mind of enlightenment (mani) in the lotus-like matrix of the cosmos (padme).

These descriptions naturally lead to the question regarding what happens when a cultural ideology and social system deny such an integrative worldview and ethos in living. What can be said, therefore, about our own modern cultural vision of self, community and cosmos?

As it now stands, our sense of place and purpose has lost its innate wholeness to a fractured conglomeration of legalistic pronouncements and god-centered commandments. Although the arcane mystery schools of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions of monotheism hold basic teachings and practices in parallel with the Navajos and Tibetans, they are hardly holographically present nor readily reduced to practice in daily living, as they are among the Tibetans and Navajos.

Perhaps through the example of the Navajos and Tibetans, we yet can find inspiration to go forward with the restoration of the good and wholesome in our lives.

Teachings of the Circle of the Spirit

Many observers have remarked upon the similarities between Navajo and Tibetan ideals, arts and ways of living. While a historical connection between the two is not likely proveable, they do share in common certain universals in spiritual philosophy and practice which suggest a relationship at the level of the collective unconscious.

These similarities are particularly evident in the mandala-like sand paintings common to both cultures and their ideas about matter and spirit. Extensive parallels exist among many aspects of both cultures, including their creation teachings, cosmology, sacred geography, psychology, visionary arts, and healing and initiation procedures. And they provide powerful inspiration for us to reconsider our own cultural paradigm and to recover a healthful sense of sacred wholeness in our lives.

What are the tenets and practices that find common ground in the distinctive wisdom traditions of the Tibetans and Navajos?

To answer this, I set out in my book four universals shared by these two amazing traditions. The first three are principles or common visions of self and reality, while the fourth is the path for integrating the three understandings into one’s self and experience of daily living.

I call the first principle in the Navajo and Tibetan Circle of the Spirit: Awakening and Connecting to the Nature of Things.

It asks several questions of the wisdom seeker: how did the world come about and what is the fundamental nature of this world? Also, how did humanity come about and how are we a part of it all?

The Western worldview holds answers to these questions but they mainly lie on the surface of things, in the material realm of inquiry.

In terms of world origination, Tibetans and Navajos recognize megacycles of creation and disintegration. As in the cycle of the seasons, so too in the cycle of worlds, which go through their own natural phases. This understanding contrasts markedly with the monotheistic, which posits the fabricating of a single world by an all powerful but abstracted creator god. And this latter world is alive only in its animal life, with human beings standing in dominion above all other living things.

In Navajo and Tibetan intellectual cultures, the outer, material realm is alive and vital on many levels. All beings (no distinction is made between animate and inanimate) are interconnected in responsible relationship through sharing the same innate characteristics and potential. This makes for a more encompassing and richer realm of thought and experience than our own.

Both traditions consider the inner reality of things as consisting of life force wind and the awareness of mind. Interestingly, in the farther-reaching frontier understandings of quantum physics – David Bohm’s work in particular – similar understandings of the interpenetration of matter, energy and meaning are being explored. And it is probably in this sphere of the new sciences that common ground will be found among the Western, the Eastern and the Indigenous.

I’ve entitled the Circle of the Spirit’s second principle: Balancing and Unifying Earth with Sky. Its fundamental questions include: how can we maintain personal balance amid the polar tendencies of life and thought? And, how can one find wholesome integration between the earth-grounded foundation of living and the sky-vast potential of mind and spirit?

Both cultures envision the idealized human being as if standing upon a mountaintop. The person is the interface between the stable foundation of the nurturing earth and the limitless inspiration and potential of the sky. Navajos and Tibetans recognize the need to balance at the fulcrum of life’s seesaw, which they call the Beauty Way and the Middle Way, respectively. In both wisdom systems, the path consists of an ongoing rebalancing act for getting oneself through life in a successful and harmonious manner.

By contrast, in the modern Western world we try unsuccessfully to build up rigid roadways for maintaining an unchanging state of mind and society. This creates a vision of the path through life being the “one right way,” as opposed to other “wrong ways” of thinking and living.

Where a Tibetan or Navajo would never consciously go to such extremes – such a posture is deeply troubling to them - the Westerner tends to envision going to extremes as the obvious solution to “righting a wrong.” The result is a life in constant upheaval, much like the rebounding ripples from a stone cast into a pond, creating interference patterns on the water’s surface. While there are always ripples in the flow of life, the former approach seeks to quiet them while the latter, unreflectingly, magnifies them.

Again, quantum understandings can help explain the veracity of this aspect of perennial wisdom. Quantum scientists have proven that the existence of extremes is illusory. They are but hypothetical aspects of the totality, which is always in a state of dynamic flux somewhere, indeterminately, in between.

Niels Bohr, considered to be the father of quantum mechanics, had placed on his family seal the Taoist yinyang symbol of the great way of balance, together with the saying: “contrary is complementary.” The phrase refers to the “complementarity” of subatomic states in quantum reality, where matter is composed simultaneously of particles and energy waves. While they are seemingly different (contrary to one another) they are, in fact, expressions of the same underlying reality. They are complementary expressions of the totality.

The third principle of the Circle of the Spirit is entitled: Centering in the Mandala of Self and Cosmos. The Hindu-Buddhist term, mandala, describes an idealized or enlightened state of being and knowing, generally encoded as a fourfold circle.

This principle engages such questions as: how can one find a stillpoint in the constantly moving reality of daily existence? And, what do the four quarters of the day, the seasons, and phases of one’s lifetime have to teach by analogy regarding harmonizing one’s inner and outer reality?

Navajos and Tibetans signify the totality of existence through mandalas, created in sand, pigment painting, sculpture, and even dance. These encode the balanced, idealized qualities of personal actions, creative expression and of mind, as models for personal reintegration. They are powerful psychophysical maps of our inner and outer realities from the point of view of the consummated person standing atop one’s sacred mountain at the mandala map’s center.

Taken together, the first three principles serve to describe an integrated and stabilized world vision of self in cosmos.

What are our modern equivalents to such psychophysical maps? Except for the symbol of the earth photographed from space by the Galileo satellite on its way to Jupiter, or perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of an encircled human, we have none. But once upon a time we did have many such visual guides to self in cosmos.

During the Renaissance, Hermetic alchemical mandalas were widely created. They depicted the relationship between the person and cosmos, together with the qualities and energies of the illumined adept of spiritual alchemy. Despite its deep meaning, the spiritual side of Hermetic alchemy together with its symbolic mandala imagery were rudely discarded. Only the physical, outer work of alchemy survived to become the basis of scientific chemistry and the experimental method.

The fourth quadrant of the Circle of the Spirit, entitled: Becoming: Sacred Rites of Transformation, examines how to put the first three principles into practice in one’s daily existence.

Tibetan and Navajo wisdomholders understand implicitly that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Knowledge accumulates; wisdom guides. They know that we must become initiated onto a path of wisdom, so that the person may be remade into wholeness, holiness. Life becomes a path to the goal of Beauty and Buddhahood based upon the three understandings described above.

The transformative procedures for becoming wise, whole, healthful and holy, are held closely by their practitioners as priviledged information, to be shared as appropriate to the person and purpose in each society. They are often couched in elaborate and colorful ceremonial events which allude to a deeper psychospiritual reality.

But Buddhahood and Beauty are meant to be embodied in daily living. So, once initiated upon the Beauty Way or Middle Way paths, life becomes itself the practice in perfection.

To embody these cherished goals is a tough task in modern life, where the grail of living lies mainly in personal success and material acquisition, and less so in spiritual development. Nowadays, even the spiritual dimension is out of balance within itself and practiced separately from daily life – such as at specified times on the weekend, as is the case in Western monotheistic creeds.

The first three wisdom principles must be present and active before the fragments of spirit and matter can be reunited. When science and the church took the body and soul of Western civilization as each their own, the proverbial fall from the Garden of Eden was recreated in a new era. Refinding the harmonious unity of matter and spirit is the real work of our age.

It would have been most fortunate for the modern millions to have been born into ready-made systems of equipoise - as have the Tibetans and Navajos. But they too are subject to the effects of our crazy, fragmented world vision. We are all in this together, but we in the West are in it far deeper.

Still, the prognosis is not fatal. We may yet find our way back to the garden of humane being should we choose to open the door to our current prison and walk out into the bright light of the Circle of the Spirit.

(Author autographed copies of Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom are available. For information on ordering:

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Once and Future Vision

The Challenge and the Promise

Several years ago, while living on the Navajo Indian Reservation, I was consulting with a respected medicineman who held a "day job" teaching traditional culture at a nearby community school. Once a year he would challenge his students with a question, crucial to the survival of the Navajo people in these modern times. He asked, "how can you know where you are going in the rocket age, if you don't know from where you have come?"

The medicineman's question has helped me to focus on the critical task now confronting us all in the twenty-first century world. It revealed the necessity of heeding time-honored ways of thinking and living that contribute to the development of awakened individuals, compassionate societies and a wholesome, sustainable world. To attain these goals, we too need to reawaken to the timeless reality pictures storying our own cultural past.

When I ponder the question posed by the medicineman, I naturally reflect on how traditionally-minded Navajos face life's daily challenges. Navajo foundational teachings and practices are based on seeking a harmonious and healthy existence in a world of great sentience and power. These provide them the motivation, insight and means for consciously progressing through life in the natively-Navajo manner, that of "walking in beauty" – of living in balance. And no mean feat is this, considering the awesome counter-influences issuing from the dominant and dysfunctional nation-state that surrounds them.

In contrast to the Navajo, who celebrate and preserve their culture's wisdom traditions, our own future-oriented and single-minded vision of individual, society and world has contributed to the descent of an unfortunate "veil of obscuration" between ourselves and the foundational wisdom traditions that had guided our ancestors. This self-created amnesia to our formative past has led to a weakened and constantly shifting foundation upon which we attempt to build our lives, raise our children, create our works and maintain positive cultural ideals.

Despite prodigious material achievements by the West’s modern way of life, it suffers serious holes in its collective soul. Our role in the social, ecological and cosmological scheme of things and our insights into the purpose and conduct of life have all suffered from the lack of a truly life-affirming vision.

Throughout history, great communal visions were built upon time-honored wisdoms-in-living and honed through hard-learned lessons from the past - the very roots from which we are today estranged. The philosopher George Santayana observed of this human condition that “those who do not learn the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it.” Put another way, those who do not heed the lessons of the past are destined to become impoverished to the extent of their absence in their lives.

In the years since the publication of my latest book, Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom, I have become intrigued with the spiritual and cultural character of humanity's foundational "wisdom visions." And, in particular, with those which had informed the ideas, expressions and actions of the cultural stream of the West. They continue to provide the framework for living that we modern Westerners carry with us, individually and collectively, but of which we are today hardly aware.

With the awareness of earlier wisdom visions all but severed in our culture, I began to seek inspiration from traditionally and spiritually-grounded peoples, human beings surviving in small pockets worldwide who still strive to live by such premises and ways.

It is useful to look outside of one's habitual "amniotic sac of reality,” to see the world through fresh eyes. To this end, I have lived and studied over the years with Tibetans, Navajos and other similarly-cultured peoples. The result of this deep immersion in alternative visions of reality has unveiled a beholding of wholeness in self and world, which I call the Once and Future Vision. It is a beholding of ourselves and cosmos existing in dynamic equilibrium – in living harmony, and is composed of two facets.

The first facet consists of a compendium of four foundational wisdom visions, a “circle of visions,” which has so far cumulatively informed us about ourselves and our world. The second facet contemplates a state of global and personal wholeness, which is now fitfully emerging in our culture, communities and personal lives - even as the world about us devolves into apparent chaos.

Indeed, in order to know where we are going in the rocket age, we too need to know from where we have come. In wisdoms past lies future’s hope.

The Circle of Visions

Four foundational wisdom visions have served as roadmaps on our Western spacetime journey. We now must reawaken to them and consult them for a successful pilgrimage into the future. With the right intent, perhaps it is not too late to learn the lessons of the past.

I have called the first wisdom vision, the Original Vision. It encompasses the world picture of the Paleolithic and Neolithic - the Old and New Stone Ages. This long gestation period was the sourceground out of which humanity's basic patterns of thought, expressivity and living had developed. The Paleolithic was humanity’s great era of awakening in the world while the Neolithic completed the unfolding of the innate potential of the human hand, mind and spirit.

Unifying the wisdom ways and visions of these two ages of stone was an unvoiced, shared conviction that "you are in the universe and the universe is in you.” Humanity and cosmos were of necessity in a reciprocal dance of life and consciousness, of responsibility and caring, respect and nurture. In holding this viewpoint, one seeks a wholesome, healthy and holy life by playing a willing part in the living world’s sacred web of sentience and vitality.

While this original wisdom vision is now separated from most of us by many millennia, it continues to influence our lives in subtle and forgotten ways: from our fundamental myths and patterns of thought and dreams, to our basic foods of field and herd and in the ways by which we clothe and shelter ourselves.

During the extremely long period in which humanity had lived according the Original Vision, the world was seen as Mother and the spirit of life permeated all things. In these earliest times, humans - be they hunter-gatherers, farmers or herders - possessed a deep sense of responsible membership in the Web of Life.

But, approximately six thousand years ago came a massive shift in humanity's way of being and knowing. Vibrant and creative, highly-centralized and acquisitive, the world’s first megacultures congealed upon the foundation of the wisdom visions and ways of the Stone Ages, but with a distinctly different attitude toward human beings and their world.

Sovereign city-states arose amid closely guarded fields of grain and pens of domesticated animals. Their citizenry kept mercantile records in alphabetic writing and coaxed powerful metals from the Earth's rocks. Accordingly, the world came to be seen in a very different light. It was now viewed as garden, ranch, mine and treasury, to be harvested to the fullest extent under humanity's self-rationalized right of ownership, which in turn was often backed by the force of arms. We have come to know this radical break in the human pattern of being in the world by the term "civilization."

Ironically, the most effective antidotes to these “civilizations of excess” lay in their own prodigious wisdom teachings. These transforming ideas and practices flowered in an atmosphere of affluence and creative foment, but sprouted from seeds sown during the earlier times of the Original Vision.

One such life-oriented system of cosmology and ethical-spiritual behavior developed in Ancient Egypt. I have termed it the Hermetic Vision (after Hermes, the ancient Greek incarnation of Thoth, the Egyptian god of transformative spiritual knowledge). Eventually, native forms of the Hermetic Vision developed in all of humanity's cradle civilizations, from the Nile to the Yangtze. They provided systematic ways toward personal illumination through refining one's connection to the enchanted cosmos beyond and within.

On its diffusion to the West, the Hermetic Vision served as fundamental inspiration to the European Renaissance, while contributing essential experimental methods to the later system of science.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ancient Indo-European world, civilizations of the Indus Valley in South Asia nurtured a stream of hermetic spiritual knowledge and practice that would ultimately flower throughout the eastern world as Buddhism.

In this manner, civilizations gave birth to some of the world's most illustrious spiritual teachers, such as Moses, Hermes and Buddha. Their teachings served as essential antidotes to the internal conflict and confusion of the civilizations that had spawned them.

With the Hermetic Vision's forced retreat from public view by the close of the Renaissance, European merchants and militarists of the so-called Age of Enlightenment were actively engaged in exploring and exploiting beyond the known margins of their world. An age of colonialism was now in full swing, resulting in the subjugation and wholesale extermination of indigenous peoples and the expropriation of their natal lands and resources.

How different were our ancestors’ visions and values from these indigenous peoples' fundamental pictures of existence! Their Indigenous Vision was, as it still is, centered on finding ways for maintaining a life of personal and communal harmony in a sacredly-held natural world of deep meaning and power. While almost destroyed during the period of exploration and colonization, the Indigenous Vision has come, ironically, to inspire and inform those whose cultural ancestors originally had intruded upon the Native peoples' lands and lives.

From Rousseau's flawed romantic sentiment of the "noble savage" to the Iroquois Indian Confederacy's essential contributions to the democratic basis of the U.S. Constitution, we Westerners have been beneficiaries of indigenous "Indian giving" on every inhabited continent of the Earth.

In short order, by the close of the seventeenth century in Europe, through what could qualify as a "Faustian or devil's bargain," the Church had taken control of the soul while science got the material body of Western civilization and its peoples. Through this unnatural split, reality and its creations were considered to have the character of machine-like material entities - operating according to God's laws in otherwise empty space. This denaturing and dehumanizing worldview contributed to lands and peoples being exploited without limitation.

Out of this megashift in viewing and being in the world arose the Mechanical Vision - the fourth fundamental script and communal "take" on reality, which currently underlies our contemporary lives. Having begun in revolution to the worldview and premises of the Hermetic Vision, the Mechanical Vision of Copernicus, Newton and Descartes has been in full swing now for several hundred years.

Interestingly, in these times the Mechanical Vision has actually begun to edge toward rapprochment with humanity’s earlier wisdom visions, through revelations by its own high priests - the scientists themselves. This return to the perennial has materialized through indisputable discoveries and "unsettling" implications of quantum physics and other “new sciences.”

A Once and Future Beholding

To attain the full possibilities of our personal, social and spiritual lives, we need to become reaquainted with wisdom visions from our past and experience them at a more awakened level of understanding. This will contribute to our becoming restored to a degree of wholeness enjoyed by very few individuals and peoples in today’s world.

Regaining our full inheritance as human beings is all the more pressing in the face of contemporary world events. Escalating forces of dissolution provide dire urgency for reconnecting with the wisdoms of our past and, ironically, the necessary alchemic conditions for the arising of a new wisdom vision of ourselves and world.

The way in which the next beholding of reality takes form depends certainly on present-day events, patterns of living and currents of philosophical, artistic and scientific thought and practice. But it must also be a conscious endeavor, a summation, “in a new key,” of knowledge and ways from earlier wisdom visions of self and cosmos, which in any event continue to reside within the deeper recesses of our collective culture and individual minds.

To speak effectively to the challenges of our age, such a vision must necessarily evoke a living wholeness in the world and within each person. It must inform all realms of existence - from the technical to the spiritual; the medical to the political; economics to the arts; birth to death - by way of the daily practice of what may be called Awakened Civility.

Reconnecting with perennial ways of knowing, seeing and living will radiate waves of wholeness and blessing within our lives and, given our pervasive influence in the world, the lives of other peoples and indeed the planet itself.

Through reawakening to the lessons of the wisdom-filled visions of our progenitors we may effectively heal the division between the lessons of the past and aspirations for the future, and vouchsafe our lives, society and world into a state of wholeness, longevity and peace.