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 –