Friday, November 17, 2006

Friday Reflection: Demolishing the Medieval

One reason why I occasionally post long book excerpts such as yesterday's is to encourage the notion that the transformation of society starts from within the self. It's not enough to say, "fundamentalism is bad, and there should be separation of church and state." That's a damned good start, but it doesn't go far enough to change much.

One problem with such an approach is that it externalizes the demons, which are in reality very much within us all. But something that we assume is outside ourselves becomes distant, strange, and even threatening. We have seen this attitude demonstrated by our leaders of the free world these past five years. I can recall the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in the wake of 9/11, asking Americans to look inside themselves, and to clear away there the hatred and arrogance that had attacked us, before striking out externally.

I knew, of course, that the advice was doomed to be ignored at best or, at worst, bludgeoned with resentment. In fact, it took heavy doses of both treatments. People couldn't understand at the time that Hanh wasn't telling them to blame themselves for what had happened; he was simply asking them to get to know the enemy a little better before loading up the bomb bays and the aircraft carriers. And indeed, from Sun Tzu onward, every capable military strategist has said essentially the same thing: know your adversary by first finding him within yourself.

We made no such effort, and paid the price for our ignorance. Our government turned the entire experience into something out of a Superman comic book, and our mass media zealously endorsed this infantilism. Fundamentalism was simply given a fresh and redirected energy: instead of planes soaring into commercial buildings, we saw white phosphorous melting the skins of women and children—all in the name of truth, justice, and the American way.

Most of us, unfortunately, have been bred in fundamentalism of one stripe or another: the myth of human supremacy; the belief that God is either violent, distant, randomly unpredictable, non-existent, prejudiced, or some combination of these; the notion of guilt and the insufficiency of the individual to live successfully and decently without the support or authorization of some group or sectarian command post; the belief in a hierarchy of worth, which is ordered by an elite class whose primacy is unquestionable.

We also have a self-destructiveness bred into us through conditioning; even a suicidal impulse that Freud, among others, assumed was put there by Nature. I remember sitting in a Zen class one evening, when the teacher asked if anyone there had ever seriously contemplated suicide. Of about 20 people in the room, something like 18 hands went up. It was not surprising.

Given all that, wouldn't it be quite natural to examine the effect of these beliefs and tendencies within ourselves, and discover their true sources, before we sought to exterminate others affected with a similar sort of conditioning? That's what my piece on 12 Grimmauld Place was meant to be about: finding the medieval roots of terror within ourselves, amidst our past, so that we could clear it away and thereby drive it out of our society.

Let's say you're a Catholic, and you are open to such a process of self-examination (in spite of what your group tells you about it). You open your news reader, and find this story:

the average age of priests is well over 60 and in many countries new recruits to the priesthood, inhibited by the celibacy rule, are not coming forward in sufficient numbers to replace the older generation of Catholic clergy.

You also know that the foulest and most destructive forms of perversion exist, and have long existed, within the Catholic priesthood for a very long time; and that women and gays are either ignored, oppressed, or demonized (or some combination thereof) within the Church. Well, then, go inside yourself first and find the delusions that linger there, like pre-cancerous cells; and then disperse them. Then, perhaps you could go to your local priest and tell him that he must either do something about this or lose you as a parishioner.

The main point here is this: You cannot be forced to live a medieval life just because the leaders of your religion, your government, your media, and your culture at large are themselves trapped in the 13th century. The Pope, Bush, Cheney, Osama, and all their ilk, are in the same inner place as Kreacher the house elf and the house at 12 Grimmauld Place: they are caught in a regressive evolution, a time warp of such destructive proportions as now threatens the life of future generations on this planet.

It cannot be allowed to go on. So, no matter what doctrine, group-belief, or corporate serfdom happens to infect you and lie within the body-cells of your past, identify it, examine it, and dispel it. You needn't use the meditations offered in yesterday's piece, and you certainly shouldn't follow the dictates of a self-professed guru or doctor or priest. All you have to do is spend a few minutes a day, looking inward, asking questions, and calling, sincerely and urgently, for help—from yourself and your cosmic origin. If you discover truth, show it; if you receive answers, share them; if you are helped, be grateful. There is no institutional or sectarian solution to the threats and miseries that plague the world; there is only the response of each individual, connecting from the loving receptivity of sincerity to the source of all being. Try it for yourself, in your own way.


The banner quote for this week comes from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which we have quoted once before. Here is some more of Hoffer, on the topic of fundamentalism and self-sacrifice:

He who is free to draw conclusions from his individual experience and observation is not usually hospitable to the idea of martyrdom. For self-sacrifice is an unreasonable act...All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ...To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs.

Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity, or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is. (pp. 79-80)

For every individual who questions that "effectiveness" of doctrine, and seeks to recover his or her uniqueness, the medieval house of Grimmauld Place is a little further weakened, a little further diminished; and the world steps a little closer toward a transformative healing.

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