Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Two-Hearted Nation

A New World

The determined refugees’ wooden ships made landfall in a promising new world where they strove to realize a righteous and biblically-informed way of life. The Puritans had fled their part in religious and political turmoil convulsing England’s “old world” society of the 1630’s and found their rebirth in a seemingly limitless land.

From out of the Puritans’ fold would arise America’s major Christian denominations and the “Protestant (often called, 'Puritan') work ethic,” that headstrong urge to be productive which fuels today’s self-driven American personality.

Close upon the Puritans’ heels arrived their philosophical opposites, educated idealists bearing the “enlightenment” vision of post-Renaissance Europe. They carried its coals to their version of a limitless new world. Out from their community came many of the “founding fathers” of the fledgling American nation, along with America’s unshakeable sense of purpose and promise.

These enlightenment men called themselves Deists, but they rejected the structured belief system and revelatory character of the Puritans’ fundamentalist biblical heritage. The Deists’ worldview relied instead upon on a relationship with the world’s spiritual creator through the power of reason and the invocation of natural law.

Two visions of reality; two very different systems of thinking and living; two fragments of a possible whole. These early Americans’ beholdings of reality survive today as fragmented versions of an unrealized national vision and its full enactment in American life.

Back in Europe, they had been locked in their disturbed social tango over the centuries. And they would spin together still on more distant shores. As a result, we Americans – their current cultural incarnations - continue to enact two well-intentioned but heavily-lopsided scripts in our deeply dual, new world nation. And it likely could not have been otherwise, given that America’s cultural ways and ideals were founded on the deepest divisions of the old world.

In the ensuing centuries, America’s strict moralists and idealistic empire builders sought to prevail supreme, each in their version of the right and good life. Instead of centering on seeking sincere common ground for the sake of the evolving nation, each remained deluded into thinking that only their vision of reality could ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The eminent contemporary Seneca historian, John Mohawk, noted this schism from his Native American vantage point:

The American pathology finds its roots in a myth-centered nationalism
which entertains a claim that God intended his chosen people to have whatever they want…
Here you find the roots of America's go-it-alone, treaty breaking, empire building,
xenophobic us-against-them psychology.

The non-mythological
(actually less mythological is more accurate)
more rational rule-of-law, cooperate-with-one's-allies America
is locked in a struggle with its evil twin and
seems to lack some of the energetic enthusiasm of the latter.

Americans are not alone in their wounded version of the human condition. Divisive duality has erratically steered the world's ships of state since earliest times. It was the fuel and plague of ancient civilizations from Sumer and Egypt to the Greek city-states. From there, the Greek model was bequeathed to Britain’s and America’s influential grandfather, Rome.

Anglo-America’s informing ancestral societies were basically civilizations of excess. Their fractured worldviews fueled the urge to surplus through trade and war, while they searched in vain for an ever elusive Good amid an abundance of material goods.

Fortunately, and perhaps in natural compensation for civilization’s innate feeding frenzy, an antidote to its gluttony beckoned from the orgy’s sidelines. Here, in the spiritual sphere of life, civilization’s wisdom ways and positive credos for living were taught and maintained.

Ancient civilizations of excess were the birthplaces of the world’s major spiritual teachers - from Buddha to Moses to Jesus and onward. But in spite of their positive influence, the formative script of early civilizations continued to compel their citizens to seek life’s ideals primarily through the exciting but deadly game of duality.

History reveals that the duality game never leads to enduring wholeness or happiness of self and society. Whereas all reasonable people seek such conditions in their lives, they cannot be created at whim nor in abstraction from anything else in the world. Wholeness (which comes from the Old English root word shared by heal and holy) requires being aware of one’s organic and interconnected relationship with and within the web of the world’s life.

My traditional Navajo teachers call this holistic networked reality, k'e, meaning “responsible relationship.” It effectively supports the Navajos’ life goal of attaining hozho, the “beauty” of sacred wholeness. To the Navajo, a person’s longterm survival and happiness are directly connected to holding respect for all members of this universal web, who live throughout earth and sky and into clan and family.

From wholeness in knowing naturally comes wholeness in living. The Navajo invoke the wholeness of life in this poetic manner:

In beauty before me I walk
In beauty behind me I walk
In beauty below me I walk
In beauty above me I walk
In beauty all around me I walk
In beauty from within me I walk
It is all in beauty
It is all in beauty

This precious understanding is one of many reasons that the continued survival of colonized indigenous peoples, as are the Native Americans, is so important to the human experiment. We have much to learn from our indigenous relations regarding the art of living.

Indigenous cultures of equipoise have derived potent lessons from their pasts. As human beings, they all had been to the brink of disharmony and back over the many millennia of their existence. Their ancestors had experienced the sad results of the polar games of life, and these lessons are recalled vividly in their histories, old and recent. But unlike the civilizational experiment, surviving indigenous peoples consciously chose to learn from their past errors of duality.

Such attention to balance in living was alluded to in the following words by an Iroquois orator during colonial times, raccounting what life had been like before the White Man arrived,

When we were in power,
they went on in harmony.

And, the early twentieth century Lakota Indian sage, Chief Luther Standing Bear, got to the heart of the matter in his his observation that,

True civilization lies in the dominance of self
and not in the dominance of other men.

I can personally attest to the Native American way of wisdom-in-living, having resided for many years amid the genteel Navajo people. From this perspective I can see that we modern-day Americans have come but a short measure in our quest for the living grail of wholeness and happiness. Our dilemma stems from holding to a collective vision based on deep dualism - of human and natural worlds in collision.

We have been equipped since earliest civilizational times to be a society in conflict – at war. We revel in opposing political factions, wielding sabers of words and deeds in unending and numbing contest. No wonder that the brutal game of American football was originally created to teach young officers the Euro-American form of “attack and hold” warfare.

Can such dualism ever be conducive to wellbeing? Are long term harmony and happiness likely to arise in societies having “reality frames” that are founded on extreme dichotomies such as: leaders and followers; the haves and have-nots; my team vs. your team; the well-cultured and mass-cultured; the one right way and all the other wrong ways; good and evil?

Superficial cultural differences aside, the world’s nation-states operate according to a common civilizational script, whose motto well might read:

From duality flows energy.

Duality creates psychosocial energy much as a swinging pendulum runs a mechanical clock. Indeed, we modernists closely follow the clockwork model that issued from Newton's Mechanistic Age and its most influential mechanism.

Mechanism had created its own reality right from the start of the civilizational experiment.

Consider the technic of the written word. Humanity’s first writing system - cunieform inscriptions into hardened clay – was developed in ancient Sumer to record commercial transactions. Sumer was the first Mesopotamian civilization and the model that all old world civilizations have since followed.

Five millennia onward humanity witnessed another technical revolution in literacy. The moveable-type printing press of Gutenberg enabled the mass printing of books and broadsides. Its deep effect on the transmission of knowledge was a significant factor in the rise of Protestantism and peasant uprisings during the unsettling shift away from feudalism in Europe.

The mechanical world picture has had a powerful effect on person and society everywhere. While not inherently unwholesome, it can be a dangerous influence on state, military, church or commerce in the absence of the mediating presence of humane values and genuine empathy.

We are seeing major mechanism-induced unrest again in our lifetimes, particularly with the advent of the digital revolution. Computers bring interesting yet often unsettling knowledge and influences into our lives. They are not panaceas. Whatever happened to the paperless office, and to all that leisure time promised by the coming of the computer? And then there are the dangers in online chat rooms to unsuspecting youths, and the potential for uncensored surveillance of the rest of us.

An unhealthy focus on mechanism is the natural fruit and active seed of a dualistic vision of self, society and world.

Dualism is one of two fundamental life roads available for human beings to travel. There is dualism’s Path of the Pendulum. And, there is the time-proven Way of the Web of Life. For without wisdom knowing the web, the dive into duality along the civilizational pendulum becomes inevitable.

Our Foundational Vision

The civilisation of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls.
In fact, all the modern civilisations have their cradles of brick and mortar.
These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men.
They set up a principle of "divide and rule" in our mental outlook,
which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them
and separating them from one another.
We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, man and nature.
It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built,
and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition.
Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana

In 1936, a two thousand year old ceramic vessel was unearthed in the Mesopotamian region of present day Iraq. This type of discovery was hardly a surprise in the land of Sumer and Babylon, a region whose earth is deeply encrusted with the detritus of extinct civilizations.

What made this ovoid jar so special were the iron and copper elements fixed within its lid by means of a daub of petroleum tar, along with evidence of their having been corroded by a fruity acid. Any eighth grade science student, not diverted by the unusual look of the vessel, would readily recognize the ancient object to be the electric battery it surely had to have been.

“Impossible,” one might say. “How can electricity have been known 2000 years ago (and probably earlier in Sumerian and Babylonian times)?” Yet, why could it not have been invented then and there, considering the dualistic spirit that was the zeitgeist of Mesopotamian times?

A battery operates on the principle of extreme electrical duality. The battery is like the pendulum clock – which in turn reflects the character of the civilization that had devised it.

Let’s ponder how a battery operates. Proper conditions for an electrical current to flow are created at its two poles. To complete the circuit, to begin the flow of electrons, the current must be made to work: to create light, motion or the storage of digital information. In the process a lightbulb glows, a motor turns, a computer computes.

The battery maintains an artificial imbalance of electrons, those elusive elementary particles which compose the electrical current. To generate electricity requires at minimum two metallic rods immersed in an acidic solution (in Mesopotamia, lemon juice or vinegar would well have served the purpose). At one metallic electrode, the cathode, a surplus of electrons is produced. While the other metallic pole, the anode, suffers from a scarcity of electrons.

In their state of imbalance, the electrons strive to reunite into equilibrium. The disparity is remedied by way of a metal wire, which connects the electron-rich pole with the electron-poor one. In so doing, electrical energy flows and, given the natural resistance of its molecular structure, the wire begins to glow hot.

Insert the bare wire inside a sealed glass vessel emptied of air, and you have a light bulb. Today we use electricity to operate a motor, computer, electroplating system, electric chair. The uses of the battery (and the later electric generator) are unlimited, given adequate power (amperage) behind those poor electrons seeking equilibrium within their vitriolic bath.

And vitriolic, too, is the land of origin of the “Bagdad Batteries,” the milieu in which the duality vision of old world civilization first had taken form. Today’s Sunnis and Shiites continue to tragically enact the duality script that had once built then torn down the Tower of Babel (“the Hanging Gardens of Babylon”).

In Mesopotamian society, human laborers served as its social electrons. Instead of metal poles there were the fields of grain and domesticated herds, together with mines producing precious metals and jewels. To continue the metaphor, civilization’s acidic bath was the vitriol of divisive dualism imbuing the culture and its times. In short order, surplus wealth – social energy - had been amassed, but at the expense of precious human and natural resources.

Thus the die was cast. The original civilizational script spread by way of cultural transmission and trade to Egypt, Greece, Rome and Britain. And it remains today intact, within each of us able to read these words.

The old civilizational frame for referencing the world now frames our world picture. It sees energy in oppositions, creativity in conflict and productivity in striving for balance. Irony of ironies, it is being reenacted at the time of this writing in the land of its inception by two of its foremost contemporary cultural descendants, the Iraqis and Americans.

The dissipative ethos of "work and suffer for your rest" has increasingly become the world’s prevailing mantra since the behmoth of civilization began its inexorable slouch toward the future.

About eight thousand years ago near eastern indigenous peoples, living until then according to the neolithic or new stone age way of cultivating Nature, began to forget their timeless wisdoms-in-living. They fell intoxicated under the spell of material plenty and their own cleverness in making it happen. They began exploiting their environmental and human resources at whim and without limit. “The bigger the barley harvest, the better the barley harvest” might well have been their refrain.

They lost touch with fundamental, aboriginal values regarding responsible membership in the web of life. They parted from their founding vision of a living homeostasis, in which change was always ongoing but where there was room for varied modes of life to make their way in the world.

Civilization had traded its living garden of diversity for the taste of the alluring fruit of dualism from off the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Early progenitors of the civilizational way created a metaphorical snapshot of this moment, preserved in an episode from an early Mesopotamian story. It was later re-formed into the Old Testament’s Genesis account of the Fall from the Garden of Eden (the garden most likely being Mesopotamia itself).

Reconciliatory Steps

Like the battery, we now dance to that ancient duality song. And we’ll likely continue to do so, so long as we solely reckon our histories and realities “civilizationally.”

When Rome bequeathed the civilizational model to Britain, along with it came another biblical story. It told of two brothers in conflict beyond cooperation - tragic children of Father Nation and Mother Nature.

The biblical story of Cain and Abel, sons of Eve and Adam, is a powerful metaphor to the division between peoples following Nature's Way and those immersed in Civilization's Way.

Daniel Quinn excellently observed in Ishmael that Abel, the milder and more peaceful brother, embodied the way of the Neolithic pastoralist (and, it could be said, the sustainable gardener). While Cain, the senior and more cunning brother, signified civilization’s large-scale farmer (and rancher). "Abel-mind" retained conscious and responsible membership in the web of life. “Cain-mind” knew the web as a treasury of resources to be utilized freely and to its fullest extent.

So the pressing challenge that affects us in these times, immersed as we are in the civilizational vision, lies in discovering a way toward reconciliation between the two poles of our anciently-wounded, collective spirit; a quest to find a point of sustaining balance and wholeness.

But the reality of these times is that our extreme American visions and values have eviscerated their common, middle ground. It started with the earliest settlers from Europe holding on for dear life in a strange new land, to the old, wildly-swinging, reality pendulum.

Puritans and the Enlightenment Men attempted to establish a new world society in projection of each their hopes and dreams. But the process was inherently flawed from the start. Neither party possessed the full picture, nor, certainly, the “one right way.”

Each embodied fragments of ideas and ways of their homeland, one as intelligencia, the other as moralists. One saw succor in thinking and reason, the other in praying and faith. One looked toward building a utopian future, the other toward enacting a utopian past.

But hope for the future must be structured upon the wisdom of the past. Are not faith and reason both necessary for navigating the human condition? Are they not, each, necessary aspects of the One and, therefore, of one another?

Indigenous cultures and spiritually-oriented peoples worldwide still honor the two-in-one notion that all beings are inseparate from one another and from the creative source. This knowledge leads to an unified body and mind within each person. And by extension, it creates a happy and peaceful society. Sadly, their example has so far proven elusive to the modern, "civilized" world.

Dividuals and Individuals

Deep dualism has fragmented contemporary America into a schizophrenic nation. Whereas both camps hold to laudable ideals, such as love of family, keeping positive intentions, and striving to do good works, each lacks an integrated collective soul and vision of global and personal wholeness.

Becoming the best versions of ourselves is a challenge, even under the most ideal conditions of life. But the fragmentation into lesser versions of ourselves has been accelerated by civilization. We are mostly “dividuals,” divided beings, striving to regain our individual, undivided natures.

Right now, we tend toward having "two-hearts," which is the way that Hopi Indians would describe it. For the Hopi, two-hearted people are unstable, unreliable, potentially threatening to the wellbeing of themselves and community. Such minds (the Hopi say that mind is seated in the heart) are weak, volatile and fly from one divisive thought to the next.

To the Hopi wisdom holder, when a person strays too far toward a behavioral extreme or conflictive point of view, danger will arise for that person and others in contact with the two-hearted dividual. This extreme state of dualistic imbalance is called powaqatsi, the “way of witchcraft,” which leads to koyanisqatsi, “life out of balance.” From their vantage point of 500 years in observation of the dominating Euro-Americans, traditional Hopi will sometimes use such anti-spiritual terms to describe the prevailing American way of life.

The Puritans brought a hardened worldview centered on the notion of a "one right way." They fled a homeland engulfed in dissention, as former participants in that unrest. They sought refuge in a new world where, unfortunately, they promptly turned to burning their earth religion-practicing “witches” and to dispatching the indigenous Indians. Ironically, both could well have taught the colonists much about the meaning of being civilized.

The Puritans’ uneasy partners in American society - the Enlightenment Men - were similarly highly-ideological and quick to action. Their world vision issued from the hubristically titled, "European Enlightenment." It continues in the modern system of science and, at its benign best, in the tradition of secular humanism. But they too remained blind to the suffering of Indians, and Africans, neither of whom were given a say in the founding of the new nation.

The Enlightenment Men brought the spirit of learning and (limited) social egalitarianism to the American colonies - a gift of the Renaissance. But their vision and way in the world became mechanical and self-serving, increasingly fired by addiction to the notion of material progress as being the "one right way" for achieving lasting happiness.

Two visions, two ways in the world; both became frozen at the extremes of their civilizational reality. One was the religious protester, the Protestant; the other, the rationalist and empire builder. They were missionary and architect; priest and scientist. And the results of their ideological and social two-heartedness can be encountered throughout American history and into contemporary life.

Dueling Arts

The two sides of our fragmented world vision took different guises as the centuries progressed. One wide-ranging version of the perpetual seesaw was enacted in the skirmish between the Classicists and the Romantics during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And, it can be heard still in their respective classical musics.

I remember during the 1960’s how Baroque and Early (Medieval and Renaissance) Music were in fashion. There was something wonderfully transcendent about these otherwise highly-structured and predictable sonic traditions. Within their musical structures was a deep presence of the spirit, of soulfulness. Feeling and deep intent radiated from the melodies and harmonies. I could listen to just about any piece by Bach, Handel, Josquin or Palestrina and sense the soul in it.

But then (and here I know I’m stepping on some readers’ musical toes), one need only listen to a piece by Mozart or one by a composer son of J.S. Bach. The organically-unfolding harmonies, understated sensuality and infused spirituality of the Baroque and Early Music composers gave way in their later Classical style of composition to a mechanical clockwork structure. Its musical voicings - while clever, playful, dramatic, even inspired - were often shallow and fleeting in feeling and effect.

Little wonder that in this day and age Mozart is all the rage.

To illustrate my thesis, I can recall the comments of a remarkable musician and scholar, Dr. Helmut Hoffmann, whom I had known early in my career. He was originally a concert pianist and by the time we’d met, a world-renowned scholar of Tibetan religion.

I once had asked him about which composers he particularly enjoyed. His answer at first perplexed me. "I listen to music up through Bach,” was his reply.

"But, Dr. Hoffmann,” I responded, “what about our wonderful later composers, such as Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Stravinsky, and the like?"

"Listen,” he retorted somewhat testily, "up through Bach [who was born before the European Enlightenment] they composed for God; after Bach they composed for ego."

In this critique of the Western mind and its way of creativity was a fine Buddhist teaching. It pointed out that to be deeply moved by the spirit of music (or art, science or religion), it must be imbued with a meaning and beauty that can only be revealed in an egoless manner.
When one’s reputation, success or public persona becomes a major motivator in the endeavor, even an unconscious one, then a certain degree of aesthetic and structural perfection may well be attained. But it is likely to be a soulless, mechanical kind of symmetry and beauty.

In hindsight, Dr. Hoffmann’s comments served up a powerful metaphor to the state of collective psychospiritual duality now imbuing the United States of America.

Remembering Wholeness

Our present human condition basically comes down to the widely-quoted observation by the philosopher, George Santayana:

Those who do not remember the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it.

Unquestionably, there are some major unlearned lessons in America’s brief past.

Less than a century and a half ago, America exploded into “Civil War,” or “War Between the States” (the name depending on one’s contending point of view). But at its root, it was neither civil nor a matter of states (in the sense of nations) being involved. The North and the South were however two very different states of mind.

I believe that they were nineteenth century reincarnations of the Puritan-Deist schism. Historians might debate this, but it seems to this student of culture that the South, fresh from the massively vitalizing, “campmeeting movement” of evangelical Christianity and still strongly rooted in distinctive social and agrarian ways, came head to head with quite different kinds of Americans populating the North.

The predominating world picture of the North was that of the Enlightenment Men, one of material and social progress, human industry and science (separated, officially at least, from the influence of the church through the tenets of the national secular bible, the Constitution).

Far from being relics of the past, both perspectives continue to fuel contemporary American society’s dualism. Successful society is like a ceramic vessel or a bolt of whole cloth, which are fired and woven in harmony. But drop the vessel or tear the cloth through clumsiness or anger and they become fragments, incomplete versions of themselves. This is the current state of American life and mind.

Similarly, during the 1960-70’s, the era of the Vietnam War, America had been embroiled in another conflict closer to home. It was engaged between well-intentioned, socially-engaged American youth and their equally well-meaning parents. The latter were consumed with providing their disinterested children the good life, of which they had been deprived during their own youths.

The disconnect between the reality visions of the two generations were key points of social conflict in those days. And it was no coincidence that the Cold War between capitalism and communism was simultaneously raging, exacerbating the intergenerational strife.

Nowadays we have the red and the blue states. We have atheists and evangelicals; neo-liberal conservatives and conservation-minded liberals; the lawful and the (increasingly) criminal; nation states and terrorists. Ad nauseum staggers our dualistic mass delusion.

And it looks likely that we will continue to fling out our meaningless oppositions as easily as we name our cars, toys and pharmaceuticals. The underlying script is conducive to this, in fact relies upon oppositions to allow our way of life continue to operate.

Will we continue to labor under a fragmented, dualistic and dissipative pendulum in knowing and living? Or can we redirect our creative genius to rediscovering, in the heat of divisiveness, our essential roots as members of the dynamic and self-vitalizing web of life, of which we are currently confused and fragmented members?

The choice is ours to make.

Peace starts within each of us.
When we have inner peace,
we can be at peace with those around us.
When our community is in a state of peace,
it can share that peace with neighboring communities.
Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama