Wednesday, November 30, 2005

What Has Changed in 2,600 Years? An Interview with Lao Tzu

Those of you who have been reading along here over the past year or so (that would amount to about a half dozen of you) are aware that I occasionally will quote an old Chinese poet, philosopher, and curmudgeon by the name of Lao Tzu. I do this because I know a little bit about his work, having translated his major work, the Tao Te Ching, and because I know he has a lot to tell us about ourselves and our culture—because he's kind of a "been there, heard that" kind of guy. If there is governmental corruption, corporate thievery, the lust for fame or profit, or murderous warfare going on, Lao Tzu has seen it and talked about it; and he has a unique perspective that is astonishingly pertinent to our moment.

So, starting tonight, I'm going to be asking the old philosopher some questions about current events, allowing him to respond from either his Tao Te Ching (in my own translation) or from the Wen Tzu, a collection of teachings that have been attributed to Lao Tzu. The latter I will be presenting from a translation by the great Thomas Cleary. Let us begin.

DAILY REV: Here at Daily Rev, we've been observing quite a trend in the Bush administration of incompetent, inexperienced, and unknowledgable people being promoted to lucrative positions of the highest accountability, complexity, and risk potential. We have noted this trend in the Dept. of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the Dept. of Defense. Did you have any experience with this phenomenon, and what would your advice be to us in dealing with it today?

LAO TZU: Excessive favor and excessive harshness are both contrary to the Way. If they who give favors richly reward those who have not achieved anything, and give high ranks to those who have not done any work, then people who are employed will be lazy in their offices, and those who live at leisure will be quick to advance.

DR: As you may know, we are now in the midst of a war of occupation, during which we have taken over a sovereign nation for the sake of its oil and perhaps also to threaten another nation that we believe has nuclear designs. There is no end in sight to this war, in spite of the fact that it's not going very well and fully two-thirds of our people are against its continuance, while a vast majority of the worldwide community condemns our country's prosecution of this war. Based on your experience amid the "warring states period," how do you think this will all turn out?

LT: When people have many desires, that injures justice. When they have many anxieties, that harms wisdom. Therefore an orderly country enjoys things conducive to survival, while a cruel country enjoys things that lead to destruction. Water that flows downward becomes deep and wide; rulers who lower themselves to their subjects become perceptive and lucid. When rulers do not fight with their subjects, then the Way of order goes through.

Natural law decrees that violence backfires
Upon all who resort to its means.

Armed forces camp and crawl
Amid thorns and brambles,
Which grow like cancer and close like traps.

Wherever group violence is done,
Desolation walks in its wake.
Truly, the harvest of violence is misery.

The best leader is himself led⎯
He builds consensus, achieves his aim,
And then departs.
Force and intimidation
Are neither his means nor his end.

He is inwardly firm, without display.
He is inwardly firm, without arrogance.
He is inwardly firm, without contempt.
He is inwardly firm, without demand.
He is inwardly firm, without violence.

DR: We have had many occasions in the past year to note the strange inability of this Bush administration to admit error and show humililty and remorse for its many mistakes. What have you noticed is the common result of such behavior? And if you had a message to deliver to President Bush and his handlers in a short space, what would it be?

LT: Gather people by humility, win them by generosity, preserve yourself by restraint, and do not dare to be complacent. If you are not humble, people will become estranged and alienated. If you do not nurture them, the people will be rebellious. If you make a display of wits, the people will be contentious. If you exert pressure, the people will be resentful. When the people are estranged and alienated, the strength of the nation wanes. When the people rebel, the leadership has no authority. When people are contentious, they easily do wrong. When those below resent those above, then rank is dangerous.

Aggrandize yourself or your group,
And you have chosen the path of decadence.
This is called separation from the Source.

To separate from the Source
Is the way of swift and certain death.

DR: Thank, you, Lao Tzu. We hope you can come back and visit us again often.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Death By Free Market

Terry McKenna returns to the blog this evening, with some reflections on certain life-defying trends in American economic policy. This comes on a day when we learned that the Pentagon is breaking up its financial orgy with MZM, an intelligence and defense contractor that has long enjoyed the Bushies' largesse with anyone dealing in guns, office furniture, or political favors (in the case of MZM, all three), at the most inflated prices possible. The stated reason for the breakup was a change in procurement law, but the oddly coincidental connection between MZM bribes and Duke Cunningham's recent confession was not missed by some in the press.

Someday, someone with a hell of a lot of time and energy (and some good sources) will have the ability to write the complete history of crime, corruption, graft, and destruction within this Bush administration. It will be an encyclopedic volume; I only hope the publisher decides to print it on recycled paper.

Mr. McKenna will now address the congregation.

Just a note about compassionate conservatism. You know, that softened brand of conservatism that pretends that we can somehow generate a widely prosperous society via smaller government, diminished regulation and low taxes.

Why bring this up just now? Well I just read an article in the NY TIMES that reports how many states have designed easy tests so that their school children appear to be making the required annual progress demanded under NCLB. Unfortunately, a second and standardized batch of tests exposes the fraud. Thus in the worst offenders, upwards of 80% will pass muster under NCLB and yet less than 1/3 will show proficiency under the genuinely standardized tests. NCLB was a cornerstone of GW’s compassionate conservatism. Leading with tax cuts, NCLB and Medicare “reform,” GW’s conservative policies were supposed to move us toward a new era of policy creativity. The plan was to leverage the free market and private charities (some faith based) so that the federal bureaucracy could be shrunk and the legacy of the New Deal destroyed. Oh yes, it was also supposed to work.

With the war a failure, with old folks now confused by a bizarre Medicare reform, and with a mounting federal deficit, it was inevitable that the last of the Bush platform would also fail.

You might think it early to judge GW to be a failure, but his conservative platform is really not new. Conservative pressures have been dismantling the New Deal and Great Society for the past 30 years. The results have been a disaster for working America.

Just a sampling of the trends:

• Real wages of non-farm workers fell from a high in the 1960’s and have stayed low.
• US infant mortality is worse that of any of our peer nations – and has started to rise for the first time since 1958. Cuba does better than we do!
• The destruction of manufacturing employment leaves no career path for high school graduates who do not go on to college or specialized training.

Some of these trends are just the inevitable push of history. For example, as China and the rest of Asia industrializes, there is greater and greater competition for resources (wood, steel, oil). And low value work in the US was probably always doomed (so jobs in garment and shoe manufacturing would have always left the US under the best of circumstances). Still it was not inevitable that nearly all manufacturing would decline, nor was it necessary that our central cities would be made untenable.

Yet the talking heads continue to chant the mantra of free markets and competition as the means to solve all of our ills. Why?

If we look at the delivery of health care, we see failure. Unlike most markets (like that for underwear or computers) prices are not going down, but up.

Let’s look at food. Yes we produce a lot, but our hardened fruits and vegetables are better for the picker than the eater. And our processed foods are making us fat. To generate more meat, we subject animals to concentration camp conditions. We overfeed our animals and give them antibiotics to survive both the overfeeding and the nightmare of their surroundings. And our feedlots are toxic. Mountains of manure become warehoused in lagoons that can get a large as football fields. The conditions have created an environmental time bomb.

How about gas drilling? In western states, new gas drilling techniques involve shattering underground stone such that methane and other toxic chemical permeate and mix with the ground water.

And yet… no one says a word.

—T. McKenna

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Tyrant's Isolation

We have remarked before on the essential incompetence of tyranny. A recent observation from Cindy Sheehan also reminded me of the tyrant's inevitable loneliness. Sheehan writes:

I almost feel sorry for George up there a couple of miles away from us in his protected Green Zone. He is protected from physical harm (which he need not fear from us) and he is protected from political harm. He doesn't have to face people who disagree vehemently with his policies and who oppose his continued killing with every fiber of our beings. He is protected from the real world of pain and need. He has never had to face his failures or own up to anything. Really, are any of us surprised that he has been such a miserable failure in every way?

There is nothing so isolating as the inability to admit error and accept the responsibility—and the opportunity—for change that our mistakes freely offer us. But even in the one public instance where he has appeared to admit an error, Duhbya layered over his statement with a stereotypically lawyerish waffling and buck-passing. The American public saw right through this and Bush's approval ratings continued to plummet after this moment of palpably superficial contrition. In other words, it was just as much (if not more) of a lie as any of the other innumerable falsehoods to emerge from the Rovespeak lips of these hideous tyrants.

Thus, they are isolated: Dick in his bunker; Duhbya in his ranch (once again beseiged by those dangerous Moms, for whom new entries must be made to the code of law re. public assemblage amid the roadside ditches of Crawford). Karl is forced into his wormhole to scheme his way past the fate that Scooter must now face in isolation. More of them will be forced into a more literal imprisonment once the Abramoff investigations bear fruit; just as we learned today of what lies ahead of Congressman Cunningham of California.

For anyone who has ever felt the pain of loneliness, it is hard to resist the impulse toward pitying such people—hard, even, for the mother of a boy who had been sent to his death for the sake of their profit-drunk neurosis. But Ms. Sheehan knows better than to indulge such pity (read her remarks on the "Throw the Bitch in the Ditch" email that was written about her); and we should refrain as well. For to pity someone has the same effect as opposing him: it offers him a false energy that only feeds his ego further; thus pity, like opposition, only compounds the original problem, the essentially neurotic consciousness of ego.

The best thing, the most compassionate thing, that we can do for Lonely George and Desolate Dick is to take from them the power that they stole from us five years ago, and hold them firmly accountable for their murders, their deceit, their arrogance, their greed, and their deadly, isolating complacency.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

'Tis the Season to Be Folly

As we enter another season of the great retail grab, I thought it may be helpful to remind you of the dangers that lurk in the cult of consumption. In my recent book, I described the problem this way:

Life on the treadmill is so deeply agonizing because it is an imprisonment of every aspect of our nature. The body is trapped in the perpetual, claustrophobia-inducing commute, followed by the repetitive drill of tasks performed amid that soul-crushing sameness of environmental and psychological desolation. The mind is benumbed with the Sisyphean infinity of drudgery and submission that stretches before it; while Spirit’s naturally rounded contours wither amid fluorescent confinement. Most people will readily admit to the truth, the reality, of this agony; yet just as many will scoff at the notion of undertaking to free themselves from the Cult of Hard Work through insight practices—even as they run off to the Lotto agent downstairs to play their money and place all their hopes for transformation into the lap of The Random Drawing.

The most noteworthy, though hardly surprising, factor in the idolatry of The Random Drawing is that even when the card comes up a winner, the danger has only just begun. Consider this story from today's L.A. Times, which is really quite stereotypical of the fate of many such "winners":

A woman who won a $65.4 million Powerball jackpot with her husband five years ago was found dead at her home overlooking the Ohio River, where she had apparently been for days before anyone found her, police said...Neighbors said Merida stayed out of public view until last December, when a body was found in her 5,000-square foot, custom-built geodesic dome house. Campbell County Deputy Coroner Al Garnick confirmed that the man died of a drug overdose. Official records of the case were unavailable because of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Merida used part of her winnings to buy a second home, but when she tried to evict the resident, the renter sued. A hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

This phenomenon has actually been well studied by psychologists, and there is an abundant literature on the stresses encountered by Lotto winners that often break apart families and endanger life itself. Back in the '70's, a team led by Dr. T.H. Holmes created and tested a rating scale of life events according to their relative potential for overwhelming both psyche and body. They found that, among their top ten risky life events, marriage, retirement, new family member, and marital reconciliation were roughly on a par with death in the family, divorce, and imprisonment. "Change in financial state" (either positive or negative) also ranked highly among anxiety-inducing and health-threatening life events.*

Christmas, by the way, rated 12 impact points on this scale--but that was 35 years ago, before Wal-Mart and the Warehouse Shopping Obsession became features of our collective psyche. Today, filling up the back of an SUV is considered de rigeur—the sine qua non of the shopping experience.

Curiously, it was around the same time as the development of Holmes' LCU Scale that Ernest Becker wrote his classic The Denial of Death, in which he made the following assessment of our culture:

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness call for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.

In this season of war, terror, governmental deceit, recurring natural disaster, global poverty and illness, we cannot afford to allow a government or any other societal institution to allow us to forget. The stakes for our planet and our nation are way too high, and no act of denial or habit of indulgence—be it at the mall or in the tavern—can remove or even conceal the dangers that we all face. This holiday season, let your awareness be a light to action, and let each action be another step on the path of freedom and healing.


*You can try taking the LCU Scale for yourself: just go here and follow the instructions. Score yourself for any of the events on the list that have occurred for you over the past two years; and if your total is near or over 300, you may wish to think about seeking help, here or through my private practice.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Health Alert: The Stupid Virus

Forget the bird flu--we have a stupidity virus running rampant among us. We've already noted the stupidity potential inherent in Michael Brown's new shingle, which is currently up to attract well-heeled corporate clients interested in, excuse me...managing disasters.

How about a vote for the organizers of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? As stupid as an insurgent M&M filled with hot air, don't you think? In case you don't live in New York City, anyone walking outside Thursday morning here would have immediately written off the idea of sending megaton balloons into the sky, especially if their reins were to be controlled by people with as much training and experience in the performance as Michael Brown had for his job. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "you don't need a weatherman to know how hard the wind blows."

As many of you no doubt know, the Darwin Awards site celebrates and honors the stupidity of the dead--that is, of those whose stupidity was powerful enough to call Charon's ferry to their shore. What appears to be lacking is a salute to corporate stupidity--the kind that will hand over legal tender to the likes of Michael Brown for advice on disaster planning, or that will send vinyl weapons of mass destruction into the air on a day when cyclonic gusts are blowing through a city whose skyscrapers create a convenient and synergistic tunnel effect. All for profit: indeed, there seems to be no stupidity or complacency too large or too destructive if it serves the idol of Profit.

Therefore, I am taking further nominations for the palm of corporate stupidity--let us call our project the Thigh Bone Honors, as a tip of the cap to..."the FEMA".

Sorry about that...I've had a case of punitis for about 30 years running now.

Incompetent Buffoon, LLC

There is something seriously, seriously wrong with this nation, with this society, when this man is permitted to operate a consulting business in the very arena where his monumental failure sent hundreds of innocent people to their graves and nearly wiped a city off the map of the United States.

But the man claims to have corporate clients lined up at his doorstep, waiting to pay him for the benefit of his valuable experience and know-how as an expert on managing disasters. We can only hope that, for the bazillionth time in the past year alone, he is lying.

But I wouldn't be surprised (I'd be shocked, but not surprised, that is) if some corporate shooters are willing to drop a few thousand on a guy who's got some ties to the Bushies and their cozy little financial circle-jerk society.

This man shouldn't be making money--he should be making license plates! I am reminded of the words of Lao Tzu, written some 2,600 years ago, amid circumstances that probably matched or even exceeded the depths to which this nation of ours has sunk:

Oh! How the desolation around me
Has reached its utmost sunken limit!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Life Lessons in a Time of War—"Black Friday" Edition

Tomorrow, the shopping mania will possess millions of Americans on the day after Thanksgiving—the day that has come to be called "Black Friday." (It is considered "black" because of the accounting practice of marking profits in black and losses in red—thus, a day on which retailers expect to take in lavish gains is a "black" day. The etymology and history of the term are discussed in this Wikipedia article).

The problem with Black Friday and all that it represents is that its attitude is out of place with the times we live in and the dangers our planet faces. So while I would discourage no one from shopping (I like it, too, sometimes); I would also like to offer a reminder for those of us who are willing to contemplate before rushing headlong into consumption.

When you go shopping, think small, and look for small. Shop enough to fill a knapsack, not the back of an SUV. When you buy something, you are helping someone to prosper. Do what you can, therefore, to ensure that each someone you help with your purchases is one whom you would invite to your home, into your life, in friendship and trust. To do so is to help capital flow as nature intends.

When you feel the surging voice of want, ask questions of it before you respond to it with action. Look past the object of your want, and ask: "What does Want...really want? What does it need?" Ask this of every advertisement you see, every display you pass, every pang of consumption that you feel.

Before you buy, look within and wait until you see clearly what you would have and what it would mean to have it. Be clear within, and you will always have everything you need without.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Lessons in a Time of War, 4

An old Indian chief of an American northwestern tribe was once asked by an impatient journalist to describe, as briefly as possible, his people's spiritual values. In response, he stood up outside his home, spread his arms wide as if to embrace the river, meadows, and forest around him, and even the distant mountains. As he did so, he cried, "Gift!" Then, bowing his head, he slowly brought his arms back to his body, his hands lightly clasped over his heart. He murmured, "Thanks."

This is a message that gets somehow lost or muffled amid the sizzling dead turkeys, the parades, the football games, and the drone of cultural bromides that we are subjected to on Thanksgiving Day. Many of you who read this blog are no doubt aware of this, and of the fact that our world has much in it that arouses revulsion or sorrow more than gratitude. People are starving still in Niger; more suffer in Asia from the recent earthquake there; a vast Chinese city of some four million inhabitants is under threat of a deadly poison in its water supply; the continuing death and chaos in Iraq are still met with denial and deceit in Washington; and the suffering continues in the Gulf Coast, far from the front pages of the newspaper, while an oppressive government attempts to silence the voices of democratic dissent. In short, this would seem a time of bitter blame than one of gratitude; for we live amid a time of war and global privation. Therefore, I am offering the following reflections on blame in a time of war.

You can misplace your keys, your wallet, or your glasses, and still survive. But if you misplace blame, you will surely suffer; if you misplace it regularly and recklessly, you will surely and inexorably die, from the core of your being outward. There is no death to fear except the one that kills the soul.

Do not blame fate, god, society, or the universe for your life's ills. Blame belief and the institutions it breeds. You can clear out the mud of belief from within yourself; you can distance yourself from the institutions governed by belief, and thus preserve your true self, whole and sane. But you cannot kill a culture, dissolve a society, destroy the universe, or murder god.

Give yourself to conflict and you have fed the furnace of war. Wars are not born of bombs and guns, but of beliefs and negative emotion. When you look at another and think, "that is my enemy"—be it in a battlefield, in a marble hall of power, or a carpeted office—you have just started a war.

Peace does not arise when the last of an enemy force is slain, or when a personal adversary has been defeated. Peaces arises not through the consummation of conflict, but through its dispersal. Kill the beast of war within, and the phoenix of peace will fly without.

Belief is the insurgent of the psyche. Kill a little of it every day, and your life will clarify with the liquid light of living truth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Caught in Spin-tropy

I'm working on another book right now, based on much of what I write about here at Daily Rev. If you're curious about why I feel the need to write a book, the short answer is that a blog isn't a large enough space to even list all the lies, depredations, and murderous crimes of this government of ours—let alone to comment on them.

As some of you may know, I also like to place the events and people of our time and culture into a psychological perspective that I think helps to provide some personal meaning and direction to readers. It's an alternative to simply having a vent-blog, where super-heated emotional gas is shot out into the atmosphere, without any particular focus or perspective.

However, as a psychotherapeutic counselor, it has been my experience that an occasional venting session isn't a bad thing; and it's sometimes fun to observe. Therefore, I now turn the cyber-stage over to my friend Terry McKenna, who doesn't believe in disguising his true feelings about things.

Did you hear Darth Vader’s speech about the Iraq war? Darth who, oh sorry, I meant Vice President Cheney. But don’t you think he has a cunning resemblance to everyone’s favorite villain? Dick Cheney is very much our nation’s Darth Vader. And just like the aging Jedi, he began his speech with a tone of reasonability, but as his true feelings came out, his mouth twisted into a snarl.

The biggest lies:

That congressmen had access to the same intelligence as the White House. Nonsense. The president is overlord over all three intelligence services, the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department. From all three, intelligence trickles up to the White House in many forms. Congress gets the left overs, just an extract really. Of course, none of this can be proven – but that’s exactly how this corrupt administration likes it.
That Iraq’s WMD included nuclear weapons. While everyone would agree that Iraq wanted to be part of the nuclear party, there was never any consensus that Iraq had a viable nuclear program.
That Iraq was a front in the War on Terror. Yes, it is now, since terrorists and bandits have poured in to fill that vacuum. But before we attacked Saddam Hussein, his nation was less likely to be controlled by Islamic terrorists than, oh let’s say Saudi Arabia.

And beyond arguments for war, the big Dick also neglected to mention that the White House did everything it could to silence those who thought the war would be an expensive and difficult enterprise.

So we are back to square one. The arguments in favor of war appeared to have been lies, and the war plans for war were based upon an extremely optimistic reading of the tea leaves.

Did the president lie? Maybe not – he’s possibly the least capable president in a century, so it’s very likely he believed what his handlers told him.

—T. McKenna

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Leaving Hogwarts: Back to School

I saw the new Harry Potter in one weekend, with my 11-year old daughter. We agreed that it's an outstanding film that still doesn't quite do justice to Rowling's epic story. The dragon scene was perhaps overcooked; the Pensieve scene—one of the more haunting moments in the Potter literature—fell just short of transmitting the metaphorical magic of Rowling's prose; characters and scenes that seemed perfectly fit for cinema (such as the midnight chase through the school after the bathroom scene, climaxed by Harry's fall into the staircase) were absent; and the graveyard scene was curiously truncated and lacked perspective (that light-web and the phoenix song of the story were but weakly rendered by Newell's forcefully understated CGI). But the overall flow of the story was compelling; the pangs-of-adolescence theme was humorously explored but without being overdone; what little we got of Alan Rickman (Snape) was hilarious; certain brief visual portents were beautifully set (such as the stained glass portrait shedding tears); and most of all, the acting was crisp, professional, and occasionally absorbing. Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye is an Oscar-worthy performance (I'm not kidding); and the three kids have made quantum leaps from film to film in their skills and imagination. Emma Watson (Hermione) in particular has a long and distinguised career ahead of her. Everything considered, this is a film worth seeing—and then seeing again. Highly recommended, for Potter fans and anyone else as well.

Now, for us here at Daily Rev, it's back to school as we leave Hogwarts behind for a while. The Bush administration and its lackies are doing such a marvelous job of self-destructing that it sometimes seems the rest of us can safely sit on the sidelines and simply enjoy the show. But just to be on the safe side, we'd better help them along a bit. In fact, let's help them a lot—as much as we can. People's lives—those living today and into the next generation—depend on it.

We'll begin this week with a contribution from our regular correspondent, Terry McKenna. Terry is touching on a theme that I've broached before (check here and here). This is how I summed it up in one post from earlier this year:

The center is a personal and organic space that's unique to each individual; it is nothing less crucial than the inner reference point of a life successfully and fully lived. When a person is in his or her center, others around them can feel it, and benefit. But when the center is lost, or buried under the stinking loam of ideology, there is danger. If you want to know how much danger, just consider Bush and bin Laden, or Rumsfeld and al-Zarqawi: these are significant and tragic examples of people who have lost all contact with the center of being.

So let's see how Terry presents the current case for the center, and how we might get—and stay—there. We'll no doubt be picking up the discussion further from there over the course of this week. Mr. McKenna, the blog is yours:

Another passionate essay in favor of the middle.

When I turned 17, the country was so polarized by the war, that Republicans were able to elect a creep like Nixon. By the end of the Clinton years, the country was again polarized and the Republicans again found a way to exploit the situation. Thus we elected the idiot-king/ideologue, George Bush. Yes, I know that Bush was handed 2000 by the Supreme Court, but he wouldn’t have gotten close without a crippling political dynamic.

Now more than ever, America needs an effective Democratic Party. To become more effective, the party needs to move to away from extremism and toward the moderate middle. To do so will take creativity, compromise and leadership.

I’m not talking about a limp-wristed moderation that is mere compromise; what I envision is a robust centrist moderation that revisits and strengthens our once strong commitment to solid government and social welfare.

How do we select centrist views, and how do we stay away from the edges? Instead of defining it, I’ll illustrate it. An example of a problem that is recognized by the center is the problem of those who have no health insurance. Even conservatives agree that we must construct a solution to this dilemma - where they go wrong is by suggesting a solution based on tax credits and savings. The Democrats should take this one on, by developing a strong position in favor of a single payor national health system. Another example of a problem that is recognized in the center is the deficit. But instead of rampant budget cutting, the democrats should look at the supply side of the equation – tax revenue. Over the past 30 years, taxes have shrunk as a share of GDP. Overall taxes have declined by 1/3, but corporate taxes have shrunk by ½. Democrats can march in with a strong program of real tax reform – make corporations pay their fair share for the benefits they get from residing here. And return personal taxation to its former progressivism.

What is an extreme position? Let’s look at abortion. While many (Most?) Americans believe in the right to early abortion, it is not clear that Americans agree about the limits that a state can place upon use of this procedure. Yet when the smallest restraint is proposed, the left comes in with almost the same zeal that the right brings to the issue of hand guns. Of course most of the proposed abortion laws are dishonest attempts to challenge Roe Vs Wade, but the American people are left behind by the arguments.

The Democrats are already in a position to change. They have a strong moderate wing, represented by folks like Jimmie Carter and Bill Clinton. And the need for change is made more obvious when we consider the long term demographic shift to the Sunbelt and away from cities. For the past half century, cities have declined both in population and in relative influence. While a few cities retain their hold on America’s psyche (New York, San Francisco are two examples) many others are but a shadow of their pre 1960’s selves (think of Cleveland, St. Louis – even pre Katrina New Orleans). Remember, outside of cities and a few close suburbs, folks don’t vote for the Democrats. Of course Democrats may never regain the old slave holding South, but it is really a shame to also lose places like Morris County (New Jersey) from year to year.

And the benefit of just 2 successes (taxes and healthcare) would be profound. How many poor young teens would need to resort to an abortion if they had access to a pediatrician before they became sexually active (and received timely advice about contraception). And how many more US manufacturing businesses could stay afloat if they shared the burden of employee benefits costs with the entire nation (especially with competitors who now don’t provide benefits).

And wouldn’t management of the Federal Government be much more effective if it had a robust income stream from which it could afford to fund its basic operations.

The course of moderation might piss off all of the interest groups that currently fund the party, but if the party stays where it is, it remains on the sidelines.

—T. McKenna

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Light in the Graveyard

Beginning around midnight all over this country and around the world, people will be lining up to see the latest film adaptation of another Harry Potter story. This time, it is the fourth tale in J.K. Rowling's series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Good books serve to nourish us psychologically, and—for those who are receptive—spiritually as well. One of the thematic messages that flows through every one of the Potter stories is a lesson that seers, scientists, and artists as diverse in time, space, and language as Lao Tzu and Albert Einstein have attempted to teach: the simple insight that god is not a man.

A great sense of freedom comes out of this plain realization, wherever it is deeply felt. For then we understand that there is no separation between ourselves and the ineffable; and therefore it is entirely unnecessary to imagine that one or the other of us has the inside scoop on who or what god is, and what group, nation, or ideology god happens to favor. In short, such an insight kicks out the false underpinnings of everything that supports the Osamas and Bushes of our world.

Harry Potter begins to learn this lesson from his very first moments of self-reflection, during his first year at Hogwarts. It is a teaching that bears restatement if only because it so frequently ignored. Here, then, is my small effort at recaptiulating what others more capable in art and science than I have taught before. It is from my book on the Harry Potter stories, The Tao of Hogwarts: Transformative Themes and Practices From the World of Harry Potter.

Chapter 5: The Cloak and the Mirror: Self-Images of the Individual Ego

It was a magnificent mirror, as high as the ceiling, with an ornate gold frame, standing on two clawed feet. There was an inscription carved around the top: Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 12

Christmas break is approaching at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Harry Potter is a cauldron of shifting and frequently aggressive emotions. He has just lived the greatest triumph of his young life—the capture of the "golden snitch" in his first competitive Quidditch game—but he is also troubled by his glowering Potions master, Professor Snape, who seems to have carried some sort of personal grudge into his relationship with Harry. There is also the increasingly annoying problem of Draco Malfoy, the school bully who is developing into Harry's personal nemesis among the student body. "I hate them both," Harry says of them, "Malfoy and Snape." Fortunately, Hagrid is there to call him back to the joy that has marked this time of renewal and discovery for Harry, ever since he had been rescued from the torpid superficiality of his oppressive boyhood home to attend this wondrous school where magic is ordinary and where his very name inspires respect.

Yet at this point, he remains trapped in a realm of oppositional thinking, where there are only friends and enemies, for and against, loyalty or hatred. Of course, this is as much as he's been exposed to at the odious home of the Dursleys, with whom he was raised. But he is now not only in the magical world, but in its educational element—he is in an academy of natural magic, where he will learn how to unlearn the ideology of opposition with which he has so far been conditioned. This is the beginning of a transformative path toward self-understanding. The way of this unlearning process will be marked by Harry's discovery of certain means of self-insight, as well as the formation of several interpersonal relationships that will teach him that, no matter what appearances may seem to dictate, evil does not always sit at the same table, conveniently marked with a large green banner decorated with a great silver snake. In the coming years, Harry will further learn that evil is not an inborn or natural trait, of either humans or the Cosmos, but that it is the apparitional mark of error—not the inherent stain left behind by some congenital inner defect. To help him through this process of inner growth, Harry will be given a number of metaphorical gifts—transformative objects, experiences, and messages—that will gradually lead him to the recovery of his original autonomy. In the first book of the Potter series, a number of these gifts will be introduced in the images of the letters from the magical world (and the owls that bring them); the marvelous train ride which becomes a part of every one of the subsequent stories; the grounds, buildings, and atmosphere of Hogwarts; the Sorcerer's (or "Philosopher's") Stone itself; and the two central metaphors of this "solstice phase" of Harry's inner development —the invisibility cloak and the Mirror of Erised.

The cloak is a Christmas gift—one of the first of Harry's life, since he was never given any by the Dursleys—which comes to him from his dead father through his mentor, Dumbledore: the unsigned note which accompanies the cloak only says, "your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well." The invisibility cloak is a magical (and therefore metaphorical) object of immense value and beauty: it is "fluid and silvery gray…strange to the touch, like water woven into material." Clearly, Mrs. Rowling is not writing this in a vacuum of invention: this is a metaphor of great historical depth and psychological meaning, particularly within the mythology of England and Ireland:

In the story Tochmarc Etaine (The Courtship of Etain), the god of the Otherworld, Midir, demands in compensation for the loss of an eye in a brawl, a chariot, a cloak, and the most beautiful maiden in Ireland as his bride…This was a cloak of invisibility (like Siegfried's tarnkappe in the Nibelungenlied) and of forgetfulness…The god Lug wore a similar cloak which enabled him to pass through the entire Irish army without being seen when he came to aid his son…To put on the cloak is to show that you have chosen Wisdom (the philosopher's cloak). (Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, pp. 205-206)

The invisibility cloak is an image of transformation, and not of self-obliteration, depersonalization, or disembodiment. For Harry, his body is still manifestly there—he can feel it, and so can others if they bump into him (indeed, this is part of the challenge in using the cloak). Whenever he wears the cloak over the course of the five stories, Harry's physical and intuitive senses seem to become more acute and penetrating: he becomes more open and alert to experience than when he is visible. The cloak's virtue is to take him to, and through, the experiences that will contribute to his inner growth—indeed, it is an active metaphor of the practices involved in the development of the true self. These include inner movements of one's total being—the intuitive, feeling, and spiritual capacities of our nature, that live and glow in quiescence beneath the often-repressive monarch known as intellect.

Harry discovers this the first time he uses the cloak: he goes to the library, thinking that this is where he "should" go, in order to obtain information. But he quickly discovers that he is being called beyond the realm of "should" and "ought," once he has put on this cloak—that he is being called to penetrate deeper regions of the psyche than he can reach through the symbols and instruments of intellect. This message is brought to him very quickly: the library is said to be "pitch-black and eerie"; the books "didn't tell him much," because they are written in "words in languages Harry couldn't understand." Finally, he comes to a book that screams into the night as soon as he opens it, and that drives him out of there, toward the place where a more potent image of self-discovery lies, which will engage his entire being. In his retreat from the images of intellect and the representatives of Authority (the caretaker Argus Filch and Professor Snape, who come looking for him), Harry encounters exactly what he needs to further his inner learning: the Mirror of Erised.

Mrs. Rowling leaves no question about what Harry is being presented with here: as many readers of the Potter stories have discovered, the inscription on the Mirror, read in reverse (ignoring the spacing) says, "I show not your face but your heart's desire." Harry looks into the Mirror and sees his family—several generations' worth of family :

The Potters smiled and waved at Harry and he stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness. (p. 209)

Harry abandons himself to this experience: in the following days, he shows no mind for food, physical comfort, games or sport, or even for his best friend, Ron (Harry drags him the next evening to the Mirror, in a rather imperious and evangelical display; then, after Ron retreats from the Mirror's danger, Harry's isolation becomes complete). Finally, Harry is even careless of external danger in going to the Mirror: on the third night, "he was walking so fast he knew he was making more noise than was wise, but he didn't meet anyone." The Mirror—its images, its presence, its identity—has become his very life, his obsession. Then, he is brought back to his senses by his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, who suddenly appears, armed with questions: "you've realized by now what it does? Can you think what the Mirror of Erised shows us all?". But Harry has not paused to question the real meaning or function of this Mirror; he believes that he has found his Answer, and only wants to immerse himself in its static but poignant images. But Dumbledore presents him with a new perspective on the Mirror:

It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.
The Mirror will be moved to a new home tomorrow, Harry, and I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live, remember that." (pp. 213-214)

It is no mistake that, a few pages after this lesson has been imparted and somewhat grudgingly accepted, Harry experiences (after a purgative physical workout on the Quidditch field) a coincidence which provides him the exact knowledge he'd been seeking in the library—the key to the meaning behind the name of Nicholas Flamel (as the possessor of the Sorcerer's Stone). This helps to illustrate a principle which can be experienced time and again in our own lives: inner clarity leads to outer accomplishment; because wherever clarity exists, expectation and projection are absent. The Cosmos is designed to deliver abundance that far exceeds the parochial boundaries of ego's projected desires. It is only ego, with its expectations, that promotes dependence and malignantly narrows the field of experience through the restrictive and oppressive weight of its self-images. This is the lesson that the Mirror of Erised brings to Harry; it is a lesson that we can benefit from today.
The psychologist and relationship counselor, John Welwood, has independently articulated Professor Dumbledore's lesson, in his book Love and Awakening:

When we are young, our parents reflect back to us certain pictures of who we are in their eyes. Lacking our own self-reflective awareness, we inevitably start to internalize these reflections, coming to see ourselves in terms of how we appear to others. This is akin to looking at ourselves in a mirror and then taking that visual image, rather than our immediate, lived experience of embodied presence, to be who we are…When seeing ourselves in terms of an image, we treat ourselves as an object. We become an object of our thought, rather than the subject of our experience. And this prevents us from knowing ourselves in a more direct, immediate way.
The problem here is that we take the reflections of ourselves in others' eyes to represent who we are, whether we like them or not…we fixate on these images, giving them more weight and credence than our own direct experience of ourselves. This makes them into soul-cages…we grow up seeing ourselves in ways that separate us from our true nature and its full range of powers and potentials. (pp. 36-37)

These false and limiting reflections, carried forward through our inner life into adulthood, become traps that close upon our true selves and keep us from the experiences we need to really grow. Worse still, when these conditioned self-images become what Welwood calls "the unconscious templates" in which relationships are formed and communication within them managed, then vast pools of inner resources are abandoned and left dry and poisoned, like the well in line 1 of Hexagram 48 in the I Ching. This is the time of estrangement, conflict, and divorce, when we have completely separated from the helping energies of the Cosmos through our own obsession with the wooden images of self. The poet Robert Bly, himself drawing upon metaphors from the I Ching, expresses this loss as follows:

The wagon behind bouncing,
breaking on boulders, back
and forth, slowly
smashed to pieces. This crumb-

ling darkness is a reality
too, the feather
on the snow, the rooster's
half-eaten body nearby.
("Visiting the Farallones," from The Man in the Black Coat Turns)

This is the wasteland of opposition, where so many of our relationships founder and die. Welwood refers to this dynamic as the "self/other setup", in which there is a dreary, stultifying swing between conflict played out in stereotyped, scripted noise and strife, broken by periods of withdrawal and icy fear. It is what happens when the fantasy-images of those old reflections so far repress our present experience of life that we may as well be dead—and indeed, we are. For Harry before the Mirror of Erised, this mood takes the form of that self-absorbed withdrawal into fantasy that is characteristic of the schizoid personality. Despite the instruction given by Professor Dumbledore, this mood will re-appear sporadically to Harry, in some form or degree, for years to come, as his learning unfolds. There is a certain learned rigidity—something like what Freud called the "repetition compulsion"—that tends to keep us locked in our "soul-cages." It is the images, and the narrow roles in which they imprison our true selves, that comprise the identifying noise of ego, where its societal and individual expressions intersect:

The ego can be heard as a voice within the personality, in the speech modes of the character or the role it is playing. Thus, when a person says to himself, 'I am a father,' he then takes on the role of the father in whatever way the idea of a father is defined by his group…So long as he identifies with the role, it dictates his life, for his inner voice is constantly checking to see if he is fitting the role, and whether others are recognizing him as such…All self-images are character-masks that live their 'lives' at the expense of the true self. The true self is thrust aside, gagged, and locked up in an inner prison cell, where it leads the life of a slave.
(Carol Anthony and Hanna Moog, I Ching: The Oracle of the Cosmic Way, p. 62)

For young Harry, the array of roles and images into which he has been, and continues to be locked is dizzyingly diverse. The repression of his true nature is thus reinforced via repetition: Harry's life often seems to be a Gordian knot of painfully iterative obligation and complexity. From infancy, the Dursleys filled him with images of unworthiness, dependency, and of his mere existence as a burden to others; from the point of his entry into the wizarding world, he has been fed self-images of the sacrificial victim turned survivor, the living miracle, the princely orphan, the magician, and that most destructive and confusing of all self-images, the hero. He is saddled with the relics of his parents' accomplishments and sacrifices, some of which exist even within the grounds of Hogwarts (such as the plaque in the trophy room which commemorates James Potter's heroics on the Quidditch field, and the stories told all over the school of his parents' heroic deaths). This cult of heroism, which distorts the true meaning of his parents' gift of protection, is what the magical objects and messages of the stories, along with the teachings of Dumbledore, are calling Harry to discard from within. This is a living, practical teaching, applicable to our own lives: whenever we are able to rid ourselves of the fixed and derived images of self and others, we are instantly freed to preserve and treasure the pure and abiding love of true nature—our own and that of the people we have loved and lost. This is the love that exists within and beyond the realm of death.

But Harry is particularly haunted by this image of the hero: he has been tabbed as the death-defying man-wizard, the vaunted defender of Good; he has been placed on a pedestal of fame and aggrandizement, from whose artificial heights he can only move by falling. Otherwise, he is frozen to the image, incapable of growth or exploration. Think of how often you have found yourself in this very predicament! Perhaps you have been trapped in the role of the ideal father or mother, the perfectly dutiful child, the flawlessly efficient or self-sacrificing employee, the straight-A student, the devoted, selfless, "unconditional" lover, or the faithful and submissive spouse: these are all heroic roles in which we are confined, and woe betide us should we place a toe across the rigid boundaries of their claustrophobia-inducing definitions. The further we become connected with these roles, the more vigilant must we become in supporting the connection, until the energy we pour into the effort of remaining balanced on that pedestal simply exhausts us, and we collapse into mute withdrawal, or the private hells of mental illness, abuse, chemical dependency, or perversion. Then, when our inability to sustain the image is finally exposed, we fall into disgrace and anonymity, with the all-too-frequent consequence of suicide. Once the true self has been effectively murdered, the act of physical self-destruction is a relatively small final step.

Sometimes, it seems we must come to the brink of such an extreme in order to realize that the outward-gazing fixation on the heroic, the god-as-other, can no longer be justified. Joseph Campbell recognized this, even in his own literary celebration of the mythology of heroism —he concludes this marvelous book by finding that the mythic hero of ancient, monumental spiritual belief needs to be pushed off the stage of our ever-diminishing, ravaged planet. At last, he calls upon each of us to recover the precious autonomy of inner life, "in the silences of his personal despair." He urges that the modern person "cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding." (p. 391).

This is the realization to which Harry Potter is led, through five books and some 2,500 pages of text: Harry, when read as a heroic character, is a literary dinosaur, as much a relic as the totem gods of antiquity. But when we see him as a person on the journey of inner discovery, as a spiritual child seeking the way to true growth through the identification and disburdenment of the acculturated self-images within—as a person, in Campbell's words, "through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected" as an undiluted self—then Harry has something to teach every one of us.

Meeting Lord Voldemort

At the climactic end to this first story in the Potter series, Harry once again encounters the Mirror of Erised—as indeed, Professor Dumbledore had obliquely predicted he would. This is also his first meeting with Lord Voldemort, the evil presence whose shadow looms throughout these stories, and who, as a fictional element, has been written off by some as a rather trite symbol of the anti-hero (or perhaps worse still, as the anti-Christ). Rowling, however, is not a trite author: to scratch the surface of Lord Voldemort is to gain an appreciation of the author's unique perspective on human nature and group ideologies.

As we have seen, Lord Voldemort is portrayed throughout the series as a parasite—an essentially dead entity with no independent or autonomous existence. In Lord Voldemort, we see a derived, artificial reality, which is the inevitable consequence of the feudal and tribal religiosity of centuries—a seemingly formidable pyramid of lies, built to conceal the hollowness of inner death that lies within its walls.

The institutional group-lie is the symbol of death—the death of Nature and of human nature, the only death worth fearing. Voldemort's character as the authoritarian liar is revealed in his first conversation with Harry: he tells him first that "your parents died begging me for mercy," and then almost immediately reverses himself: "I always value bravery…your parents were brave" (thus the title of the chapter in which this scene occurs: “The Man with Two Faces”). In this encounter, he also announces his essential insubstantiality: "see what I have become? Mere shadow and vapor…I have form only when I can share another's body…but there have always been those willing to let me into their hearts and minds."

Meanwhile, the host to the parasitic Voldemort—Professor Quirrell—cannot understand the Mirror of Erised except as an object which appears to "contain" what he desires. This is a fundamental error of the cult of institutional ideologies, especially in religion: the reification of the metaphors associated with inner life and growth. When we mistake an image for an object—the object—of our quest, then what begins as a helping insight becomes monumentalized as The Truth; and every form of murder, depredation, and tyranny will be perpetrated in defense of this act of reification. Quirrell cannot appreciate the Mirror as a transformative device, because he is (quite literally, in this case) possessed by the institutional lie; nor can Voldemort connect with the Mirror as the instrument of inner alchemy, though he does suspect that Harry has the ability. So, unable to manipulate the Mirror's images to present him with the desired object (i.e., the physical reality of the Sorcerer's Stone), Voldemort directs his host to "use the boy."

Indeed, Voldemort is right: Harry has the stone, but only because he does not want it, and does not want to use it. This, as we learn in the epilogue to the story, is Dumbledore's act of magical protection that he endowed to the stone. This is a beautiful piece of narrative insight on Rowling's part, for it brings closure and completion to the vision of Desire-as-attachment, which is embodied in the very name of this Mirror: the only person who is able to receive the stone is the one who has no ego-desire for it. Dumbledore's earlier oral teaching has now been realized in the field of Harry's experience; this, indeed, is where true learning is fulfilled for all of us.

An Insight Meditation: Experiencing Invisibility

Throughout the Potter stories, Harry—often accompanied by his friends Ron and Hermione—is brought to increasingly deeper levels of experience and understanding with the help of his invisibility cloak. It is more than a facile narrative device on Mrs. Rowling's part; it represents an insight guide for her characters, to which they turn in times of challenge and crisis—you might say that it performs the role of an oracle. That's why it is so interesting to find the following text in the I Ching, from Hexagram 52, "Keep Still":

He keeps still
And is not taken captive.
They pass his house
And he is not seen.
He escapes harm.
(from the translation by Greg Whincup)

This hexagram (and, I believe, the image of the cloak in the Potter stories) is a metaphor that teaches us how we may effectively separate from the invasions of ego—especially from the ego-invasions of others upon our inner space. This is the meaning of "they pass his house," where one's "house" is the psyche or inner truth. When we are able to "keep still," we cannot be seen by others as an object, an enemy, an idol, or a hero; thus, our independence is preserved and protected (the meaning of "he escapes harm"). To "keep still" means to retreat from acting out of impulse or aggression (which would only feed negative energy to the individuals or groups that place themselves in opposition to us); what it does not mean is that we become frozen in a state of passivity. To keep still is to let inner clarity catalyze outer action; this is the experience that Lao Tzu describes as wu-wei, or unforced action. Once it is practiced and the results experienced in real life, one realizes that there is scarcely a more pragmatic approach to daily living. When we are able to "keep still" within, we hold to our center of being, as Lao Tzu expressed in Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching:

Each compressed form bears yin behind
And holds yang before it.
At the still point in the center
These complementary energies merge,
And harmony is thus realized.

Lao Tzu emphasizes the image of merging energies in this verse, to remind us that "keeping still" is not passivity, but simply action of a different and more subtle, comprehensive kind. Consider a pond, or even a glass of water: how still it appears, though we know that if we were to place a drop of it under a microscope we would discover a world of movement and energy. This is the stillness that the I Ching and Lao Tzu encourage us to learn and adapt, each to his or her own unique personality and circumstances. Like Harry's cloak, this stillness takes us out of the realm of opposites—"mind over (versus) matter"—and into the center of being, where death and life, yin and yang, male and female, self and other, are no longer experienced as opposites, but rather as complementary energies. This understanding is the "realization of harmony" that Lao Tzu describes in his poems.

Here, then, is a brief meditation to help you in "putting on your invisibility cloak." This meditation has many benefits, which are best discovered through experience rather than suggestion, but one that deserves to be mentioned is the way it assists in re-balancing energy within the body, creating reduction where there is excess, and replenishment where there is scarcity. In terms of one of the more difficult physical problems faced in our current time and culture, this meditation may be considered helpful to those who wish to "lose weight" (a misleading and inaccurate expression for restoring energy balance). For those who wish to realize this particular benefit from the meditation, I would recommend doing it for two sessions per day—morning and evening—at 20 minutes for each session. For working through psychological distress, this meditation has been found helpful in overcoming anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia, with its terrible symptoms of panic, in which the line between physical and psychological suffering becomes thoroughly erased. Finally, as an aid to concentration, emotional balance, and that clarity, discussed earlier, which is fundamental to successful action, this meditation will provide benefit even if practiced for a few minutes per day.

Begin by getting in touch with your body. Take a comfortable position in which you are relaxed and aware; if you are sitting, feel your spine become straight yet without stiffness, and your shoulders relaxed. Sense the weight of your body where it contacts the floor, chair, or cushion that you're sitting on; feel the connection between your feet and the floor. Note the sense of the clothing on your skin, the feel of the ambient air around you, any sounds that reach you in the moment, and the light and images before your eyes (whether they are open or closed). Feel each of these sensations in turn, and then the movement of your body-breath, in and out, without making any attempt to control or direct the experience.

Now begin feeling yourself—your whole being—as energy. From this point, let the experience become uniquely your own: see which of the following sensations or metaphors brings you the most benefit.

♦ You could feel an "invisibility cloak" passing over your body, and let its aqueous material reveal your light-body. As the cloak covers you, feel the transformation of your body from matter to energy.
♦ You may find that a feeling-image of movement is helpful: nebulae in motion, wind blowing through trees or high grass, microscopic cellular activity, radiant heat, clouds moving across the sky, osmotic movement between cells, an aura or energy field; or you may have a flowing sensation, as of moving water.
♦ Remember that the basic idea is to experience yourself as energy—activity, motion, formless, kinetic being without any particular material reference point. Consider the "stillness" referred to by the I Ching in Hexagram 52, and by Lao Tzu in his teaching poems. You are living the experience of your body in its vital and enduring Cosmic presence—as a dance of complementary energies, the yin and the yang commingling formlessly, effortlessly, and timelessly in a harmonic that Lao Tzu compared with the coalescing flow of the breath of lovers.

The variations, again, are seemingly infinite: one client of mine who regularly watched "Star Trek" found herself either in the "beam-up" energy transfer mode (matter to light) or as "becoming" (or sometimes simply feeling) the soft, blue light emitted by the "tricorder" mechanisms in those stories. You may find that any of these images, a combination of them, or still another not mentioned here that best suits you, will bring you the feeling of energy-presence, and the accompanying practical benefits.

I do not want to project anything onto your personal experience of this meditation, so I'll add no more about what I or others have experienced in this practice, except to note, in general, that most people have found this to be refreshing, insightful, often transformative, and always—in the spirit of Black Elk—a fun meditation.

Looking into the Mirror of Erised

Often, Mrs. Rowling depicts things in a grand size when she wishes to point up the metaphorical association between some of the objects in Harry's world and the monumental distortions of group ideology and its institutions. This seems to apply in the case of the Mirror of Erised: the mirror is enormous—it is said to reach all the way to the ceiling, and thus would be at least seven or eight feet high (maybe more, considering the general spaciousness that pervades at Hogwarts). Its size and magical qualities would seem to make it an intimidating presence indeed—especially to an eleven year old boy—yet it is, after all, "just a mirror." Professor Dumbledore helps to bring this point home to Harry: "the happiest man on earth," he says, "would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror…" Later, Dumbledore adds that, when he looks at himself in the Mirror, he sees himself "holding a pair of thick, woolen socks…one can never have enough socks." The Mirror, then, merely reflects us as form; what we project onto the reflection is another matter entirely.

The notion of looking into a mirror as an insight practice is not at all new or unusual. The Tibetan spiritual teacher, Akong Tulku Rinpoche, describes such a practice in some detail in his book, Taming the Tiger. He describes a very helpful meditation which you may wish to try for yourself. It involves looking into a mirror and allowing images and emotions to arise from within, and then "moving" these into the mirror on one's every out-breath. He then asks that we perceive the negative and positive qualities, traits, and emotions that pass into the mirror and then "take back" those we wish to keep within ourselves. While this approach will undoubtedly have value to many, I personally prefer a more loosely-structured practice, and I do not see the need to "take back" anything, since whatever is intrinsic to our true nature will never leave us or be lost. Now with that said, I think there is considerable benefit available to those who would give this practice a trial on a reasonably regular basis (Akong Tulku recommends 15-20 minutes, twice per day, but I've found that just ten minutes of focused effort on the exercise, a few times a week, brings plenty of insight and benefit). So here is Akong Tulku Rinpoche's "mirror exercise", adapted to the context of the inner work described in this book.

• Take a few minutes to position yourself comfortably as described in the beginning of the energy field meditation described above. Remember to have a small mirror available. You can do a little centering and relaxation with your eyes open or closed before you begin working with the mirror.
• Then, look into the mirror and begin to work with the images—those that arise from within and those that appear in the reflection (they will tend to coalesce after a time). Just stay within your own body and avoid the temptation to "get at" the images or the emotions you encounter in contemplating the reflection (in terms of interpreting, judging, or otherwise projecting upon the image before you). Nothing genuine can be taken from you, nor can anything be "lost to the mirror"—the images that we project are the ones we need to get rid of; everything that is unique and true to our personality is safely preserved. If you feel or see something in the image that you "want back," just look deeply into your reflected face and ask questions: "do I really need this? Is it really a part of my true nature? Or is it something I've been taught or programmed to be, a mask I've been told to wear, for the benefit of others or a group?" T.S. Eliot wrote that "there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…" He was talking about the masks that are worn in society, which prevent others from seeing us as we are, and which inhibit our self-realization. This is why, in the following lines from the same poem, Eliot describes "the works and days of hands that lift and drop a question on your plate…" I am encouraging you not to wait for Fate or trouble to intervene, but that you be the one to "drop a question," so that you do not wind up living behind the mask, while every day you make "a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of a toast and tea." The ego, with its capacity to steal our inborn creative energy, has devised a number of masks for all occasions—there is the corporate mask, the parental mask, the mask of piety, the mask of patriotism, a mask of asceticism and sacrifice—the list has been steadily growing for a few thousand years. If you see or otherwise sense any such masks in your contemplation before the mirror, ask for help from the Cosmic realm in firmly dispersing them from your psyche, and use the "inner No" method described in the earlier chapters to help you further in releasing this inner excess.
• I am now going to take you a little beyond Rinpoche Tulku's instructions, and ask whether you may need to apply some destructive energy to the task at this point. If you feel uncomfortable with this, by all means refrain, and continue to ask questions instead (of your feelings of hesitation, fear, or revulsion, for instance). Masks and images, after all, must be destroyed. Let your feelings guide you in the process, and allow spontaneous perception to lead you from there. Some folks decide to see the masks burned; some "shoot them" with the weaponry of disburdenment; some simply throw the self-images of ego out a "Cosmic window" where the dissolving and healing energies of the Cosmos can completely clear them from the field of consciousness—in effect, "kill them." This is the activity of what Robert Bly refers to as "the interior warrior."
• Finish by separating from the mirror and its contents (what you saw in it). As Tulku Rinpoche says, it's important "to realize that what you see is not at all solid." Let it become a pane of glass once more, and ask the Helper of Meditation to call you back to your center once more. Then, as always in completing a practice of your inner life, thank the Sage, the Cosmos, the helping energies of transformation, or whatever personal metaphor you invoke in your conversation with the invisible realm, for the help and insight you have been led to in this experience.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Horcrux: Kill the Image, Recover the Soul

"Well, you split your soul, you see," said Slughorn, "and hide part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one's body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged. But of course, existence in such a form...few would want it, Tom, very few. Death would be preferable."

But Riddle's hunger was now apparent; his expression was greedy, he could no longer hide his longing.

"How do you split your soul?"

"Well," said Slughorn uncomfortably, "you must understand that the soul is supposed to remain intact and whole. Splitting it is an act of violation, it is against nature."

"But how do you do it?"

"By an act of evil—the supreme act of evil. By committing murder. Killing rips the soul apart. The wizard intent upon creating a Horcrux would use the damage to his advantage: He would encase the torn portion—"

—from Chapter 23 of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling

The impulse to kill another follows directly from a pre-existing act of inner suicide. When we look around us at the principal murderers of our world—George Bush, Osama bin Laden, Dick Cheney, and Tony Blair come to mind—we find that such people act in a preternatural isolation, either on behalf of themselves or their group (a nation or an ideology). The more followers they appear to have, the lonelier and more desolate is their essential condition.

J.K. Rowling reveals Lord Voldemort's absolute isolation repeatedly throughout the Potter series, even as she gives him a cadre of adherents ("death eaters") who display toward him the most superficial and passing loyalty (when Voldemort is powerful and ascendant, they cower before him; but when he appears defeated, they scatter like cockroaches after the bathroom light's turned on).

Voldemort is well aware of the danger occasioned by this interpersonal arrangement: followers who cannot be relied upon to be true in bad times or ambiguous circumstances must be used, and occasionally killed. And when people fail their ruler, or when followers stray from their God, objects must be relied upon as the vessels of power.

Voldemort does this with the horcrux, a magical investment of personal energy into an inanimate object such as a ring, locket, book, or chalice. The object must be precious and unique to the eye of the tyrant who will invest himself in it; in order for there to be power, there must be the image of power in the thing itself. Thus, gods and the other demons of institutional religion are given halos, crowns, and other object-marks of power; a Pope wears sacred robes and a miter; and a President is given a seal of power, a gleaming White House, and $45 million inauguration rituals as his anointment, his horcrux.

But the horcrux metaphor in the Harry Potter story is, I suspect, meant to extend beyond the realms of religious or cultural power. I feel a more immediate and personal meaning in Rowling's symbol of the split personality that has sold its integrity, its natural wholeness, to the images of self defined by a collective ideology. I think that the author is asking each of us to look within ourselves for our own horcruxes, our own acts of inner sacrifice to an object or image of self that has, or is likely to, break us up into disconnected pieces of soul.

I am currently working on a new chapter to my book, The Tao of Hogwarts, that will delve more thoroughly into the metaphor of the horcrux and its potential meaning within our lives. For me, this is another phase in the journey of learning from these remarkable stories that have transfixed readers in every part of the world. My goal, overall, is to help reveal the unique metaphorical values embedded in the Hogwarts tales that have enabled their enduring and seemingly boundless attraction. There are psychological and spiritual lessons contained in these books that most readers can feel but not always articulate for themselves. Thus, in The Tao of Hogwarts, I am simply proposing an opening for an inner dialogue that each reader can take uniquely forward from there into his and her life. To read more excerpts from my book, you can look here or here. As always, I welcome feedback, questions, criticisms, and ideas—just add a comment below.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Into the Pensieve

You can't write a blog about politics and culture without appreciating the contribution made to progressive thought and insight by an impoverished single mother from Great Britain back in 1997, when she stepped meekly and without fanfare onto the literary stage of the world, with a children's novel called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Since then, of course, J.K. Rowling has become a literary phenomenon without precedent in the history of letters. She became the first billionaire author; sold more copies of her books in more languages than anything or anyone this side of the Bible; saw her work publicly burned and demonized by right wing Christian fundamentalists (a sure sign of popular and artistic success); and has singlehandedly erased (or at least blurred) the dividing line between art made for children and for adults.

"Exit polls" of readers at bookstores selling the fifth tome in the Potter series (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) revealed that 40% of folks taking that book home were adults (who bought it for themselves); and this trend has ramped up even higher in favor of adults for the latest book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, released this past July. You know there will be plenty of grownups flocking to see the fourth film this weekend: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Some of them might even have children escorting them.

For some six years now, I have been an unabashed adult Potterphile, both because the stories have been pure fun and because they've taught me a lot about myself. So much, in fact, that I wrote a book about it. This week, in tribute to Mrs. Rowling and her extraordinary creations, I thought it appropriate to offer some excerpts from my book on Harry Potter and transformative practice, The Tao of Hogwarts. Here is a piece from the chapter in which I discuss "The Pensieve".

A shallow stone basin lay there, with odd carvings around the edge: runes and symbols that Harry did not recognize. The silvery light was coming from the basin's contents, which were like nothing Harry had ever seen before. He could not tell whether the substance was liquid or gas. It was a bright, whitish silver, and it was moving ceaselessly; the surface of it became ruffled like water beneath wind, and then, like clouds, separated and swirled smoothly. It looked like light made liquid—or like wind made solid—Harry couldn't make up his mind.
—from Chapter 30, "The Pensieve" of
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In one of Rowling's more finely placed and crafted scenes within the Harry Potter series, Harry finds himself at another turning point in his young life: he is soon to face the third and final task of an elite wizard's triathlon, which had been designed exclusively for the participation of students much more advanced than he, but to which he has nevertheless been magically called. There is a deepening mystery surrounding him, which began with a troubling dream, followed by a foreboding display of group violence at a major professional sporting event, and continuing with Harry's selection for the "triwizard tournament." Harry's situation has now been further darkened by an attack on one of his fellow competitors, along with the brief appearance of an apparently psychotic man who had once been a vaunted official within the wizarding government. At the moment of the story where we now join Harry, he has come to the headmaster's office to see his mentor, Professor Dumbledore, for help and advice with another violent and ominous dream that had awakened him from a nap during Divination class. But Dumbledore is preoccupied with an inspection of the site of the aforementioned attack, so Harry waits for him, pondering this odd container with its "light made liquid."

Sitting alone in the headmaster's office, Harry feels his inner strength and poise return. All the elements of his inner truth are symbolized by the aura of Dumbledore's space, and the objects it contains. There is the phoenix, and there the sword and the sorting hat, which had come to his aid in overcoming the dragon-snake known as the basilisk just two years before (in Book Two). He is entering a realm of hidden resources and deep strength, where inner truth connects with Cosmic energies; within this realm, Harry will find protection as well as insight. In every story of the spiritual quest, these two functions coalesce and support one another, furthering the seeker's growth in an expansive dance of light and dark, yin and yang, retreat and advance. We all have the ability to draw on such resources: their presence is accessed through such means as meditation, the awareness of dreams, the use of oracles, and transformative practices such as can be discovered in the hut of the shaman or the office of the psychotherapist. All such practices relate fundamentally back to the same simple trust in, and attention to, the invisible realm of being, where feeling-consciousness transforms difficulty and transcends suffering.

But, as we all know, inner life is not a pool of perfect stillness: it is often a journey through choppy seas and hidden depths, especially for those who are new to the seeker's voyage. By the time we encounter him in the Pensieve scene, Harry has had many experiences of the quest; yet he is still but fourteen years old, and there is much learning yet to be experienced. Indeed, the journey is never over, and is continually reaching new depths of discovery and regeneration. Frequently, these depths are encountered in memory, where the path of inner growth is entered upon through the doorway of the past. Mrs. Rowling understands this, and so she takes us, and Harry, beyond the comfort of prior achievement and into more mature depths of inner experience. We often approach a path of inner growth with a conditioned position of distrust, suspicion, or outright malice; or we may find the prospect of inner learning to be filled with mystery and a kind of esoteric holiness. Either perspective is, of course, erroneous, and must be discarded before any seeker on the psycho-spiritual path can make true progress. Harry initially approaches the Pensieve, this magical basin and its glistening contents whose diaphanous light draws his attention, with a cautious combination of attraction, suspicion and awe:

He wanted to touch it, to find out what it felt like, but nearly four years' experience of the magical world told him that sticking his hand into a bowl full of some unknown substance was a very stupid thing to do. (
Goblet of Fire, p. 583).

 Then Harry decides to test the silvery substance with his wand, and things begin to happen. Once he initiates contact with the mist within the bowl, the silvery substance clarifies and takes on a crystalline transparence. This is the symbolic opening of inner clarity, the point at which understanding is synergized with commitment, in which an encounter with the past can point us forward. It is a breakthrough point in the quest, where the silvery cloud of Mystery clears within us, and transformative practice then becomes as natural and effortless a process as eating or going to the toilet—and no less rewarding. In the Zen tradition, it is that moment where "the mountain is again just a mountain," where wonder merges with acceptance to give birth to "ordinary mind," and the quest becomes a natural part of daily life. This is the point at which we, like Harry, are drawn in—"pitched headfirst", as Rowling puts it, into the Pensieve of inner growth.
Harry enters the Pensieve when his nose—the organ of the most primordial and feeling-oriented of our senses—touches the silvery mist within the bowl. We, too, are meant to approach our inner life with our feeling-senses heightened; the seeker's journey is led and nurtured by the aspect of being that is the most commonly repressed or neglected by our culture. When we approach the invisible realm of being, we must discard, or at least suspend, that conditioned obsession with rationality which has been programmed into us by our culture: in turning within, we can no longer "be reasonable"—we must "follow our nose." Healing and growth—the twin goals of all transformative practices—occur when we are able to engage ourselves and our past with all the intuitive and noumenal capacities of our total being.

As in the first Potter book, where the encounter with the magical "Mirror of Erised" brings Harry face-to-face with his personal ancestry, or in Book Two, where Harry is pulled through an enchanted diary into a distant but living past, the outer action of the story is suspended for a moment of reflection, in which perspective is obtained and insight added upon what has gone before, to inform what is to come. Here, in the scene where he encounters the Pensieve, Harry's consciousness again is drawn into an unknown past, which he must clearly perceive in contemplation before he can be ready to undertake the challenges that lie ahead. Error will be a part of this process, just as it was for Harry when he obsessively studied the images of his family in the mirror of Book One, or when he misinterpreted the scene of his friend Hagrid's past in the diary scene of Book Two. Once again, after his encounter with the Pensieve, Harry's perception of the past will lead him to the experiences that will help to complete his understanding—even if his initial perception is clouded by error. For error, when it is led by humility and the insight of recognition, becomes the spiritual seeker's true guide; it is only when error is ideologically hardened into Sin, or else is completely mistaken and labeled "Truth" or "Reality", that it becomes or leads us into what is known as Evil. This, in essence, is the understanding that Harry achieves within the Pensieve.

Good writers seem to have a way of tilting received truths and thereby giving them new life; Rowling's treatment of Harry's "regression" within the Pensieve is illustrative of this principle. This is a transformative moment of learning for Harry, yet he does not explore his own memory in the Pensieve—he instead enters the memory of another, his mentor, Albus Dumbledore. In this context, Harry's experience moves past the conventional setting of modern psychotherapy and into a deeply personal and primordial realm. He is not receiving treatment, but initiation. But it is not initiation into a particular culture or ideology, but an introduction to his unique destiny, through a lens upon the past. This is the induction of the youth into manhood, in which he finds his place within his world through the teaching memory of the elder—this is the moment of the encounter with the sacred spring that Robert Bly describes in the story of Iron John. The Pensieve, with its crystalline depths, runic decoration, and magical allure, is Rowling's version of that sacred spring: it is where Harry experiences the interior transformation that will complete his outer life, and support him through the challenges that await. Just as the boy of the Iron John story discovers his true nature through contact with the spring's water (the metaphor is of his hair and finger being turned golden through touching the water), so also does Harry receive a glimpse of his destiny through being immersed in the Pensieve. In the following chapter, he will enter upon the third and final task of the triwizard tournament, a journey through a maze which will end in his being transported to the graveyard-realm of Lord Voldemort. There, the insight that he received within the Pensieve will serve him well, for it is in the courtroom-flashbacks of Dumbledore that Harry is presented with a vision of the fundamental weakness of evil.

The well of memory that Harry falls into within the Pensieve is of a series of trial scenes, in which alleged "Death Eaters"—the accomplices of Lord Voldemort—are brought before a court of justice. They are guarded by black demons, known as dementors, and indeed a demonic consciousness fills this courtroom, infecting both the accused and their judges. In a montage of scenes, Harry is presented with a convict who turns informant against certain members of Voldemort's circle, then a popular sporting figure who parlays his celebrity into an acquittal, and finally a group of criminals that includes the chief justice's own son. The rot of decadence, like the breath of the dementors, is seen to waft between the condemned and the righteous: Harry is given a visceral illustration of the ambiguity of evil, its incapacity for clarity and its obsession with the noise of appearances. Indeed, the scene ends with the chief justice's son screaming for mercy, another of the condemned declaiming evangelistically that "the Dark Lord will rise again!", and the chief justice himself, in a spitting fury, bellowing condemnation upon them all. It is a scene played out today in real life—in our courts, our media, our workplaces, our centers of government, and our homes. Evil cannot hear the quiet voice of insight, because it perpetually shouts it down—sometimes with the self-righteous shriek of human justice.

Harry is led, through the insights drawn from his time within the Pensieve, to the very center of his psyche, where he finds the resources that enable his escape from the demonic consciousness represented in Voldemort and the Death Eaters. The Pensieve within our own lives can be a practice of meditation, a therapeutic experience, a particular creative activity, or any deeply personal psycho-spiritual practice that alchemically merges past and future in the crucible of a continually transforming present. This is the moment of eternal childhood, in which the process of inner growth can freely play ("re-create"). Shunyru Suzuki called it "beginner's mind." It is no wonder, then, that the work of a "children's author" should have so much to teach us here. Throughout the Potter stories, Harry learns that he can safely discard, or separate from, whatever is false to his personal journey—the attachment to the images in the Mirror of Erised, the distortions of a magical diary, the fabrications reported in the wizarding newspaper ("The Daily Prophet"), or the instruments and symbols of Power. In this respect, both Lao Tzu and Professor Dumbledore have the same crucial lesson to teach, which is the way of inner disburdenment:

Pursuing knowledge: daily accumulation.
Following Tao: daily unburdening.
Decrease, diminish, deprogram:
Continue in this till power is dead.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 48

"I sometimes find...that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind....At these times," said Dumbledore, "I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form."
Goblet of Fire, p. 597

This is the process that is spoken of in many spiritual traditions as "detachment." If the seeker's way is, in essence, a process of revealing incipient truth through the disburdenment of error, then in order to know true progress in our lives the only thing we have to learn is how to unlearn. Detachment or disburdenment is simply a matter of independently examining all the received beliefs that have seeped into consciousness from childhood onward, and as Dumbledore says, "siphoning the excess." This is how delusion is discarded, and how the mist that clouds one's personal truth is burned away. As Harry discovers throughout the five stories published to date, this movement from group-dependence toward individuality does not mean that we are divorcing ourselves from society, just as "learning to unlearn" does not mean that we are spurning our intellectual gifts; what it does mean is that we are making a commitment to draw upon all of our inner resources in living our lives. When we join Harry Potter in this process of opening ourselves to all that is real and invisible within ourselves and Nature; when we play freely, joyfully, in the field of consciousness, the quest is fulfilled; the past informs the way forward, and we are perpetually made whole.