Saturday, March 26, 2005

Celebrating Eostre

What weird mixtures are formed in the cultural celebrations of our time! Fat, bearded old men combine with an image of a holy birth to give us Christmas; and with the passing of winter comes another and even stranger rite of bunnies, eggs, a crucifixion, and a rebirth, known as Easter.

The name is derived from that of an ancient Celtic goddess known as Eostre (who is still remembered in the name "Esther"). She was a symbol of fertility, of sexuality, union, potency, and growth. She was often pictured as a protectress of rabbits, as in this image, which is meant to represent Saint Melangell, a Christian development of the Eostre myth. Bunnies, as everyone knows, have long been a reminder of Nature's love of sex and fertility. The egg, symbol of conception and birth, enlarges on this celebration of sex and the continuance of Life through sex.

In Dan Brown's amazing novel, The DaVinci Code, Sophie, the brainy and beautiful codebreaker, goes back in memory to relive a scene of an Eostre rite, in which she sees her grandfather making love with a woman amid a circle of celebrants. This is a primordial Easter ritual: the honoring of Nature, fertility, and sexuality in a scene of loving community. It is an observance that has been repeated in one form or another in almost all cultures and traditions. In Chapter 2 of his Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, remarks on this communion of sexuality, love, and Cosmic Union in Nature:

The formed and the formless
Create and support each other.
In the Cosmic Unity,
The light and the dark dance and mingle
Like the breath of lovers.

So how did we get to the point where we now grimly remember a bloody, painful execution (itself glamorized in a well-known Mel Gibson film), followed by a story of resurrection? And where did Nature, her fertility and openness to the spirit of sexuality, the spirit of Eostre, go amid this new scene of sin, suffering, death, and escape to Heaven? It is one of the strangest developments in the ideological history of humankind, and we have yet a long way to go in unraveling its destructive and oppressive legacy.

How you celebrate Easter, then, will be largely a matter of the extent to which you have, or are willing to, cleanse yourself of that legacy of sin, guilt, misery, death, and separation from Nature. The veneration of Eostre was originally, it appears, about welcoming the first full moon of Spring and in the process, turning both within as individuals and toward one another as community, in a celebration of the regenerative capacity of Life to renew itself in the most natural, fulfilling, and delightful of physical acts. Therefore, why not disperse with the self-abasing darkness of a story about a naked man nailed to a tree and instead honor the spirit of Eostre by making Love--to your spouse, your lover, or even yourself?

Friday, March 18, 2005

What About Reincarnation?

I sort of used to be a Buddhist, and with them, reincarnation is a proven fact: there's lots of very well attested and documented records among them of people who visit the environment of a previous lifetime and demonstrate a familiarity well beyond the realm of ordinary possibility. I'm sure you heard or read much of this material (a good source in this respect is Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, one of the best-written guides to death and its experiential aura ever produced--I have a copy and in fact quoted him in the last chapter of the HP book).

That stuff is pretty compelling, but I found that reincarnation reduced to the level of belief became for me a kind of catechism, a doctrine to be followed rather than experienced. By the time I became a Buddhist I had already encountered Roger Woolger's work: he's a Jungian psychotherapist who wrote a book called Other Lives, Other Selves that documents his clinical work in leading people into their past lives. I met him at the NY Open Center about 18 years ago, and watched him as he gave the most compelling demonstration of past-life regression that I have ever witnessed (more than one, actually). I wanted to try it myself, but didn't have the money to afford his fees and never quite got around to really attempting it on myself. Woolger said that he had no opinion about reincarnation, because he saw this form of regression as a clinical instrument, a method that helped people feel better.

Working with the I Ching, I've come to a less structured and more embracing way of understanding the life of consciousness that continues after the death of a living being in form (this goes, of course, for humans and all other life-forms). My meditation experience with Lao Tzu, which I wrote about in one of the chapters of the new book, tended to confirm a general impression that consciousness continues after death (to this day, I quite commonly feel my old, beloved cat Lou jumping onto the bed beside me, and hear his purring--sometimes I'll look or feel about in the dark for him, the sensation is so clear).

But it's not about a progression of lives, birth to death to birth to death to birth, ad infinitum or until you gain enough karmic merit to enter Nirvana--that seems to me an ideological simplification of a truly quantum and time-defying process. I think we can, for example, experience the consciousness of people or beings who haven't lived yet in linear time, or of the consciousness of entire nations, peoples, species, or planets. We both already know from experience that we can directly feel the presence, hear the voice, and sense the feelings of those who are alive but physically distant from us: this, too, tells us of the extraordinary motility and energy of consciousness--it leaps through time and space and across the boundaries of self and other. That's why the so-called string theory of modern physics appeals to me: not, though, because I'd like to imagine the Cosmos as consisting of physical threads of infinite matter. I'm far more attracted to the idea of the vibration of the strings, the music that they produce: that, to me, is the reality of string theory; because that helps to explain my experience. I feel as if every time I consult the I Ching, for example, in a mindful attitude of sincerity and openness, one (or more) of those strings is "plucked" and I hear the resonant music of the Cosmic Teacher.