Saturday, January 1, 2005

Two Questions for a Time with No Answers

Yes, we are all struggling with it--even to choose to avoid or overlook it is just another way of wrestling with this numbing reality. The size and vastness of this human loss have seemed to dwarf everything else that so deeply appalled us a few days ago (such as Iraq). Like the water that snuffed the lives of a hundred thousand people in a few torrential moments of unimaginable force, it overwhelms the intellect and all the other familiar devices of inner order and moral tabulation that we rely on to explain the omens and events that are fed to us in each day's news.

Yet we have to try, and it has already started. A New York Times editorial spoke of "the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth's surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them." A popular astrologer, Jonathan Cainer, wrote: "After the earthquake, it is hard not to wonder whether, through our callous disregard for the environment, we humans are now starting to make an enemy of the earth itself?" Andrew Limburg of Independent Media TV reports an alarming temporal coincidence between seismic testing for oil and gas and recent sea-born earthquakes, including the one at the center of this catastrophe, and he asks if this is all a "Coincidence or a Corporate Oil Tragedy?" Others are asking how a one to two hour long window of time between the earthquake and the arrival of the tsunamis at the affected countries could have been ignored in evacuating endangered shoreline areas. Keith Olbermann's popular blog at has reported that several warnings from seismologists and scientists in the area appear to have been ignored by government officials in Thailand who may have been more interested in protecting the income from tourism than in ordering precautionary evacuations.

These explanations and questions will all need to be addressed, and soon. Yet something tells me that this is not the time for it. What is required now is, first and foremost, a global outreach of feeling, care, and help to all in that part of the world who have suffered, and will continue to suffer. This may mean a donation to organizations that are involved in the delivery of needed services and other human help (a listing may be found here ); and a call to corporations, governments, and other institutions to bury their agendas, put down the calculator, and help (another astrologer, Eric Francis , asks "whether the message is getting across that we in the Western world have much more important things to do with our resources than bomb people.").

More than this is the provision of help that comes from the Cosmic energies that connect and imbue us all. This is a gift that anyone of any economic status can give, from a few moments of sincerity and open awareness each day. For many, of course, it may appear difficult to pray for those afflicted: after all, an indifferent Cosmos (to the editorial writer of the Times); an angry Earth (to Jonathan Cainer); or simply a wrathful God (to many religious people who also believe that their God hates Americans, or Islamic fundamentalists, or whoever the enemy of their in-group happens to be) is what brought us this disaster and its unfathomable loss of innocent life (it is estimated that at least a third of the dead were children). So propitiatory prayer may not be the best inner approach in this moment: perhaps a less doctrinal or denominational invocation is what is needed now. I have found that my most effective conversations with the invisible realm happened where I had no idea who or what I was calling out to, and no expectation of how the help would come. But it did.

So we can begin by thinking of the dead, and asking that the consciousness of each individual who lost his and her bodily life in this cataclysm be touched with luminosity and the acceptance of letting go, to arrive at a center of peace in the realm of the Formless. Then, perhaps we can ask that each of the dead be given the ability to connect with the heart of his and her family and loved ones, so that they will deeply feel the continuing presence of the Beloved, even amid their grief. We can similarly ask that help, in all its manifest and hidden forms, arrive for those left behind, and that their suffering be eased and their lives blessed with insight and the energy to go on. It seems like an impossible request to make in the face of such a soul-crushing vastness of suffering--homelessness, poverty, waste, illness, and seemingly unendurable loss. Let us humbly acknowledge that seeming impossibility in our conversation with the hidden world; for that will help us to cast our call for help across the earth, without the impediment of expectation or self-consciousness. And let us follow our call for help with an expression of gratitude, for this will further activate the helping consciousness that is being engaged by our inner work and aid in returning us all to a more open awareness of the true human place within the ocean of the universe.

The next step, which really is an inseparable part of the the whole in this inner response, is for each of us to ask the question, "what can I learn from this event, in order to live my life out in a more harmonious connection with the Cosmic Source of my being, the Destiny to which I will return, as these tens of thousands have done so suddenly?" This is less about asking the questions posed by the editorialists mentioned above (though similar questions may occur to each of us), and more about returning to the most deeply personal questions that may occur to us intermittently over the course of a human life. The marvelous meditation teacher and writer, Jon Kabat-Zinn , discusses these kinds of questions in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (New York, Hyperion: 1994):

"The truly interesting question here is, 'What exactly is my way?', meaning my 'Way' with a capital W. Rarely do we contemplate our life with this degree of probing. How frequently do we linger in such basic questions as 'Who am I?', 'Where am I going?', 'What path am I on?', 'Is this the right direction for me?', 'If I could choose a path now, in which direction would I head?', 'What is my yearning, my path?', 'What do I truly love?'" (p. 132).

Every person's true self is always ready, always eager, in fact, to address these questions; and if a terrible event like the Asian earthquake can help many of us to raise such questions in a spirit of sincerity and humility, then the healing benefit will be transmitted across the field of consciousness to those who have suffered. There is no doctrinally-approved or universal method or technique to addressing such questions: every individual's discovery will be unique. That said, it does appear to be true that some form of meditation represents a very practical means of reaping the greatest benefit--both for oneself and for the whole of humanity and our planet--in exploring the depths to which such questions may lead us. But meditation, too, will be found to be unique for each individual who practices it: one person may find that it consists in a run around the park or a walk through a silent wood; another may find meditation in the quiet interval before sleep descends; others may find the contemplative potential contained in a practice such as Tai Chi Chuan or in a simple, everyday activity, mindfully done--such as cooking a meal, taking a bath, or tending a garden. Such experiences will often open us to other meditative moments that life offers--from moments of restful awareness during a daily commute to work, all the way to the various forms of sitting meditation practiced in formal traditions such as Zen Buddhism. How you "get there"--that is, how you open yourself past the boundaries of the superficial, in a broadening expansion of awareness--is, again, an individual matter: the journey itself means far more than the means employed or the route taken. Just follow the questions that arise from within, and let them teach you; let them lead you.


So, with that understanding, and in the confidence that everyone will undertake to learn uniquely the lessons that these events contain (and thereby contribute to the growth of us all, for every path of self-discovery followed in sincerity and humility furthers the paths of all); I will try to sketch out a few of the principal points that I have learned in the past few days of exploring the personal meaning of this moment of darkness upon the Earth.

"The world is too much with us" the poet Wordsworth warned us, and this is part of what I hear in the lesson of these events. This is somewhat in the vein of Cainer's ominous fear, quoted above, that humankind has made an enemy of the Earth; but as true in its way as that may be, I would prefer to take the matter of enmity out of consideration, because I do not believe the Earth or the Cosmos knows or recognizes anything of human enmity, so why speak of it now? I would prefer to emphasize the inner direction of Wordsworth's warning--that a pervasive obsession with the superficial ("getting and spending," as he puts it) has brought us to a point of division and separation from the Earth and our deep connection to it as a living organism--indeed, as the "macro-organism" of which we are "micro" cells and supporting components.

This separation has been created through a multiplicity of influences and motivations: the impulse of enmity and the war-compulsion that Francis justly complains of; the arrogant intrusiveness of our oil-lust and our use of increasingly invasive means of punishing our planet--sucking its life-force with the tools of our accumulation-obsession, as Andrew Limburg suggests; and the mindless complacency of our attitude toward our celestial home--the depth of our conceit and the global breadth of our ignorance.

At this very moment, another space-probe is speeding among the moons of Saturn, taking measurements and collecting data; the American Congress has passed legislation to allow for the exploitation of outer space by tourists and private corporations or individuals who wish to pursue their private agendas beyond the gravitational field of the Earth; and NASA has announced a possible restoration of the space shuttle program in 2005. Our obsession with "the heavens" and "the beyond" seems to know no bounds of scientific curiosity or entrepreneurial adventure (and corporate or government funding)--yet how little, how infinitesimally meagre, is our knowledge of our own planet, our home!

In this respect, we can allow the numbers to help tell the tale: the major government-funded player in the Earth science field in America is the U.S. Geological Survey, which has been budgeted slightly over $900 million for FY 2005; while NASA, the agency responsible for the exploration of outer space, will receive over $16 billion. But the obvious disparity in these comparative budgetary figures, enormous as it is, is less important than the ideological prejudice that it reflects. What if a similar technical, creative, and financial energy were expended on a thorough and sensitive understanding of the composition and dynamics of our planet as on the disposition of the Moon, the farthest reaches of our galaxy, and the depths of the universe beyond? Nor is the United States alone in this obsession with space: Russia and China have displayed the same outward-staring myopia, in spite of their obvious human and resource-management crises that they continually face within their own countries.

But let us return to the inner lesson here: there is some distortion of consciousness, a massive misdirection of focus and belief, that is supporting such an enormity of ignorance and arrogance--to stop asking questions once the numbers are announced would be to repeat the already recurrent error of the mass media in this regard. My own feeling is that it all relates directly to the tacit but palpable megalomania that informs our culture's self-image and its systemic, medieval model of the human place in the Cosmos. "The Earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof": an external God (to Whom the most powerful leader in the world currently is connected, by his own admission) has appointed a chosen species made in His image (by the way, God is a Man) to conquer and control our planet and our universe, and force them into a position of submission and subservience to this Man-God that has been assigned to rule the Earth.

The corollary of this assignation of dominance from the Deity further clarifies the height of the delusion (and Wordsworth's timely warning as to its extent): "be fruitful and multiply." This is a commandment from the Ruler of the Universe to humankind that basically amounts to an endorsement of total occupation: populate every corner of the Earth, and then over-populate it--not just with your human presence in its teeming multitudes, but in the sheer weight of your creations of dominance. Let the concrete and steel towers of Man be seen from everywhere on the globe (and even from outer space); let the paved roads, the machines, the vessels of transportation and commerce, and the tools of exploitation and destruction spread over the Earth and into its galaxy, until the delusion of human Deity, human Mastery, is made the overpowering and unremitting Reality of the universe.

"There is nothing that the human mind cannot accomplish" is the technological axiom supporting this net of institutionalized arrogance. Perhaps so; but there is also nothing, it seems, that the human mind cannot destroy. The cost of this web of distortion is the very thing with which we began our life as a species, and which we can never quite renounce, no matter how far we monumentalize our supremacy and disparage or enslave our planetary neighbors--the plants, animals, and inorganic (but sentient) consciousness of our Earth.

This cost is being revealed graphically to us in the reports coming from the scene of the devastation in Asia. News sources (such as CNN ) are reporting that rescuers (actually, those who are reviewing the carnage and counting the dead) are not finding any dead animals among the terrible human waste that they are discovering on the beaches and nearby inland areas of at least six countries. Where have the elephants, monkeys, and other indigenous creatures of these parts gone, and what made them go? Currently, all we're hearing is that the animals appear to have fled to high ground before the tsunamis struck land. But what told them that they were coming--what did they know, and how, that all the people appear to have missed?

In hearing these reports, I was reminded of research, published recently, that revealed the ability of dogs to detect epileptiform activity in a person well before the obvious symptomatic onset of epilepsy (the convulsions characteristic of epileptic seizures). Animals, it seems, are possessed of what humans call a "sixth sense" in regard to such things. Most pet-owners will tell you that their dog or cat will come running into the house minutes before a storm arrives; and it has been reported for centuries that animals can detect and respond appropriately to the immanence of a tornado, earthquake, or other natural environmental disruption, well before it becomes manifest to conventional human senses.

But aren't we animals, too? What happened to our "sixth sense"? Why can't we respond to trouble before it arrives, just like the apes and other creatures from whom we descend? The fact is, we do, and we can. Our problem is that most of us in Western cultures (and Western-influenced cultures like those in India, Thailand, and other Asian countries) have been deeply conditioned to deny, repress, and demonize our animal nature--even to the point of rationalizing our animal abilities away in an odd act of false modesty that credits the animals with exclusive powers that we do not possess (and, in a quick reversal, we proceed to marshal--that is, enslave--the animals, in order to serve our self-interest, instead of asking whether and how we might recover or develop similar skills in ourselves). Most of us in this culture have been trained to believe that our animal nature is a part of our "lower nature," our "baser self," to which is ascribed all our evil, taboo, primitive, and ungodlike impulses, such as deviousness, violence ("bestiality"), and sexuality. From our earliest childhood, most of us are subjected to this form of conditioning, until it becomes so deeply and insidiously programmed into us that it seems a part of our very nature! As we grow up, we learn to make compromises with our animal nature--to tame it, train it, and channel it into socially-acceptable forms of expression and indulgence. This is the compromise that is memorialized in all the dominant religious ideologies of the West, in many of our codes of governmental law, and in much of our science, such as the Freudian canon of psychology.

It doesn't have to be this way: all we have to do to free ourselves of this madness and to begin the recovery of our whole being in all its diversity of skills, senses, and adaptive abilities is to expose, challenge, and then discard the ideological assumptions and lies upon which this self-limiting folly is founded. This is not a process that will demand monumental or Herculean effort: we simply need to turn inward and face down the demons in an attitude of unwavering, cut-the-crap perseverance. Nor will it require special training, skills, or professional expertise; for this is a task that calls on each individual's common sense and our natural ability to communicate--that is, to share private insight within a social setting. After all, it was probably such a combined influence of individual sensation and shared communication that helped the animals escape the waves of death that trapped so many humans.

Perhaps there is an evolutionary lesson in this as well: we are perhaps being called back to a living relationship of equivalence with Nature and her creatures. Evolution is not the linear, survival-of-the-fittest, exclusionary movement from primitive-to-civilized that has often been drilled into us. No: evolution is probably more accurately conceived in that more transformative of geometric shapes, the circle. It winds through overlapping arcs and ripples of Change, none of which can be identified as definitive or superior.

Could it be, I have been wondering, that we humans are on one such arc of transformation, wherein the limitations of intellect-in-isolation are coming to be generally realized--a period of return to a broader perspective on ourselves and our planetary neighbors? For several millennia, we have pushed our forebrains, naked, out onto the stage of life, in an ever-increasing isolation of aggrandizement and distortion, only to discover--on a deeply visceral, maybe even a genetic basis--that we can't truly survive or endure this way. Are we in the midst of an evolutionary ripple that is taking us, through the developmental shocks of crisis and tragedy, into a more intimate and equivalent relationship with Nature--with the animals and plants, rocks and soil of our world--that will lead us back from the delusion of the monarchy of intellect, toward the complete and regenerative experience of ourselves as individual threads in the eternal fabric of Being?

I do not know the answer.