Saturday, December 24, 2005
I hate the holidays, or at least that is what I have been saying for the past ten years or so. The last time I can remember enjoying the holidays was when I spent Christmas with my then-girlfriend's family. They made me feel included, part of the family.
If asked, I could spend hours listing all the reasons I hated Christmas, most of them legitimate: commercialism, consumerism, hypocrisy, gluttony, and on and on. But the truth is that I was covering my real feelings.
I like the holidays. As a child, this was my favorite time of year, and not just because of the presents. I liked the decorations, the lights, the tree, the food, the attempt everyone seemed (to my young mind) to make to be cheerful, and all the Christmas cartoons on television (especially Charlie Brown). I liked that for a few days each year there seemed to be magic all around me. I even liked the Christmas Eve Mass, especially the one time I saw it done in Latin. I was eight years old before I quit believing in Santa Claus (and only last year discovered the horrible truth about the Great Pumpkin).
When my father died (I was thirteen), Christmas ended for my family. We still put up a tree and went through the motions. I assumed my father's role of making Christmas morning waffles. But it never again felt like Christmas. I never would have admitted it then, or even a year ago, but that loss saddened me.
We are exposed to so much propaganda in the media about how this time of year is when families are close and loving, no matter how tough the rest of the year might be. Part of me buys into that crap, even though I know it isn't true for many of us. Instead of allowing myself to wish I had a healthy, happy family at the holidays, I rejected the holidays, period.
This year, for the first time in my life, I have no family at all for the holidays. Both my mother and my sister died this past year. I have no extended family. Strangely enough, this is the first year that I have allowed myself to have some holiday spirit.
I got a small live tree and some decorations. I sent out the picture at the top of this post to my friends and clients. I bought a scented candle that reminds me of the holidays when I was a child (vanilla-cinnamon). I even wished my co-workers Merry Christmas before I left the gym on Friday. All these are things that I would not have done last year.
No matter how trivialized Christmas becomes in this country, the holiday still carries an enormous amount of archetypal power. This holiday represents the primacy of the child--the hope and redemption that comes with the birth of Spirit in human form. Whether you believe in the Jesus story or not isn't even relevant. One need not be a Christian to appreciate the power of the story.
During the darkest time of the year, a child is born who brings Spirit into the world. The child's birth is accompanied by signs and omens, all of which serve to highlight the auspicious birth. The fact that the child is born to humble parents who have no special status accentuates the child's role as one of the common folk, and the truth that we need not be priests or kings to become a leader, to embody Spirit.
The early Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus at this time of year in an effort to co-opt the pagan traditions that were being celebrated around the winter solstice. It was a perfect fit. Both traditions were about renewal and finding the light--the hope, the promise--always present even in the darkest time of the year.
This message is often lost amid sales, shopping, parties, and for some of us, depression. Many people suffer their worst bouts of depression during the holidays because they do not have the perfect "Waltons" family Christmas. Moreover, they do not or cannot connect with the deeper meaning of the season. I know because I was one of those people.
I think this reflects a deeper issue. We have lost touch with our mythic heritage. I am not advocating that we elevate mythic knowledge to some great transpersonal salvation. What I am advocating is a healthy Spiral.
Mythic awareness starts in the Purple Meme of the Spiral and evolves steadily until Orange begins to reject all that is not rational. Even Orange has its myths (think about the Faust story), but they are more intellectual than emotional. The myths from lower levels of the Spiral have a strong emotional core that anchors us in our body, and by extension, in our history as a species. We lose a lot when we lose that heritage.
Many of us have rejected these aspects of the earlier stages as prerational or prepersonal nonsense. Even those who are still anchored in a Blue Meme worldview tend to only allow the validity of their own myth, generally Christianity in this country. These people lose a lot in rejecting the rest of their mythic heritage.
It's only recently (since I started revising my Birth of a Poet lectures) that I have started to see how much I have lost personally in rejecting mythic consciousness. Allowing the holidays back into my life, even in a limited way, helps me in the process of reclaiming the parts of myself that I have lost or hidden.
Becoming integral is about becoming whole. I cannot be a whole person unless I reclaim the missing parts of my life and my identity--not in an ego way, although that is part of it, but in a soulful way. The life of the soul doesn't much care about developmental levels. It only seeks meaning and connection wherever it finds it.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Thursday, December 22, 2005
It may appear that linear and cyclical time are discrete, but that is not so. Cyclical time (in its trans-egoic form) can include linear time and causality; but linear time always to tries to exclude cyclical time. However, linear causation is ruptured by intrusions from cyclic patterns in every moment. We simply are not aware of this happening most of the time. This is explainable only through paradox: all of linear time is contained within cyclical time, and all of cyclical time is the immediate present (in both prepersonal and transpersonal forms).
Strangely enough, the best way to understand our current place in cyclical time is to look back through linear history. Beginning in the Renaissance, linear time and rational thought became dominant in Western culture. But just when the Age of Reason was at its height during the 18th and 19th centuries, various groups who were dedicated to pursuits directly opposed to reason appeared: the Romantics in England, Germany, and America; the Transcendentalists in America; the Symbolists in France; and more. These movements have had major influences on art and literature, but, until recently, not in the culture as a whole.
The yin-yang symbol can help explain this push and pull of forces: whenever one force is at its most powerful, the equal and opposite force is still present, though weaker (the white circle in the midst of the largest area of black, and the black circle within the largest presence of white). This is why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, the redeemer, only a few days after the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year.
Having recently entered the 21st century, rationality has reached its apex and is in decline. Ideally, a more integral consciousness would emerge to replace it, but that is not yet the case. Certainly many people are working toward a more integral awareness, but the culture as a whole actually seems to be regressing.
Rationality is being rejected on all fronts. Those who are interested in moving forward are looking for the integral path: rationality with heart and spirit. Those who are less brave are allowing themselves to be pulled back into mythic thinking--cyclical time.
We have also seen the re-emergence of cyclical time into the consciousness of our culture as a whole, as exemplified in the recent explosion of books in the fields of religion and angels, psychology/self-help, and personal spirituality. We know we have betrayed some part of ourselves in a wholesale reliance on reason, and now we are searching for just what it is that we have lost.
As always, the goal is to avoid regressive pre/trans assumptions. Still, we may need to regress in service of transformation. If we have used reason and linear time to cut ourselves off from our experience of cyclical time and our mythic heritage, we may have to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves if we hope to move forward into a more integral worldview. This is where I am in my life.
In the sixties, when cyclical time--with the aid of hallucinogens and other drugs--enjoyed a massive eruption among the youth of Western culture, a whole new group of psychologists emerged with an interest in exploring the potential of human consciousness. The West also discovered a renewed interest in the religions of the Eastern traditions, religions that seemed to offer a more personal experience than the largely static and sanitized Western traditions.
Both of these trends resulted in an increased awareness of cyclical time. Researchers such as Stan Grof and Charles Tart became deeply interested in the ways in which psychedelics provided access to deeper layers of the psyche. What often emerged from these sessions, and for recreational users as well, were vivid experiences of mythic patterns and motifs. Grof and others assumed the drugs were opening the mind so that the contents of the Jungian collective unconscious could be more directly experienced.
Others, such as Stephen Larson, Joseph Campbell, Michael Harner, and Jean Houston, among others, explored the mythic imagination as a way to heal some of the wounding so common to many of us. Following Jung's lead, many of these psychologists and anthropologists elevated prerational mythic thinking to transrational spirituality. The methods are good and worthy of our attention, as long as we keep in mind that the prepersonal myth is not a transpersonal spiritual experience.
On the other hand, religious scholars like Mircea Eliade, Houston Smith, and Alan Watts brought Eastern religion to Western seekers hungry for a new path. Zen Buddhism was also brought to American culture by the Beat literary movement, including Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, among others. Around this time, as well, Indians and Tibetans began coming to the West to offer their teachings, a direct result of the sheer number of Western young people who had gone to the East looking for new paths.
What both of the movements have in common is the re-emergence of cyclical time into Western culture. One of the powerful elements in experiencing cyclical time is that it requires the reduction of ego consciousness.
With drugs, ego consciousness is temporarily shattered, offering glimpses of possible higher states of consciousness (sometimes), or of lower level mythic consciousness (more often). Either way, the experience is outside of the ego, so it feels sacred.
With meditation, ego consciousness is eventually transcended, but before that can happen we can glimpse the egoless state, which can serve as fuel for the quest. Without ego, we do not experience linear time, which allows cyclical time to re-emerge. In this case, however, we do not a regress to a mythic experience of cyclical time, but rather a more integral experience of all time as one time. My own experience of this state (temporary in my case) is simply feeling outside of time.
For most of us, our identity is bound to our ego. Ego is bound to linear time. Therefore, our identity is limited to a great degree by our identification with ego and the constraints of linear time. We tend to focus our sense of identity on achievements of the self, accomplishments that set us apart from our peers. We seek recognition. In linear time, singularity of self is the mark of individuation and a healthy psyche.
Linear time seeks to separate the subject from the object. Cyclical time, especially in its pre-rational forms, seeks union and belonging. In the pre-rational variety of cyclical time, self-realization grows through participation with the group (clan, tribe, culture). Even for those of seeking an integral path, this mode of consciousness holds significant value that we should not ignore. Belonging is a basic human need. Even as we enter second-tier consciousness, we can benefit from strengthening our bonds with our fellow human beings, honoring ritual occasions, and recognizing important symbols along the path.
William Everson maintained that the poet must become familiar with cyclical time and learn its patterns. He had no real experience with Eastern disciplines, feeling the most affinity for Catholicism with a shamanic element, so he relied mostly on the mythic imagination as the realm of the poet. To him, the role of the poet was a sacred vocation. It derived sacredness from its ability to tap into cyclical time and bring back forms of truth unavailable to the ego in linear time.
All vocations have their source in cyclical time because all vocations, at their root, have a mythic or archetypal origin. If we want to find more space in our lives to experience the scared, one way to do so is to cultivate the sacred origin of our vocation.
If we want to cultivate the sacred in our identity, we need to cultivate the elements of our identity that reside outside the ego and, therefore, outside of linear time. Vocation is one way to do this.
Importantly, our vocation may not be how we earn a living. We may do any number of jobs, but our vocation is the thing that makes our soul sing. It is the reason we were born. It is who we are at the deepest levels of our psyche. It is our identity when the limitations of ego are stripped away.
As we transcend ego, even this element will also fall away. But few of us have transcended our ego, and many of us are ungrounded in our search for the sacred and the spiritual. Remembering our mythic past, seeking the vocational archetype, and holding as sacred the symbols that speak to us are ways to stay grounded as we seek higher levels of consciousness. A tree must have roots to reach the sky.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Then there are the stories about our government--perhaps the most corrupt government in our history. With the Republicans controlling the Congress, Bush is exempt from any responsibility no matter what he does, including spying on his own citizens in violation of federal law. He has systematically destroyed the environment, created the largest deficit in history, ruined our relationship with almost every major country on the planet, widened the gap between the rich and the poor in this country, given tax break after tax break to the richest ten percent of the population, lied us into a war that may never end, removed science from all decision-making in the federal government, and consolidated unprecedented power in the executive branch in violation of Constitutional intentions.
I could go on and on for hours. There is so much horrifying news every day. There are so many injustices perpetrated against the weakest and most defenseless among us. Compassion seems to be a missing quality in the world today.
Sometimes it feels overwhelming. I feel hopeless and impotent to do anything to make a real difference about any of the terrible things I see happening in the world around me. It hurts. The more I pursue the Shambhala path, the more open my heart becomes, and the more painful it becomes to be conscious of all that is happening in the world.
I used to just get angry at all the injustice I see. When I can get angry and rant and avoid what I am really feeling, I feel more in control. But that's the problem--an open heart is not about control. The heart of the warrior is not defended by anger and outrage--it is touched by pain and suffering.
Buddhism teaches that life is dukkha, and Shambhala teaches that our life is our path. Pema Chodron teaches us to walk into the fire--into our pain and suffering--rather than to flee through our defense mechanisms. We must work with our lives as the primary focus of our practice. To do this, we must not reject suffering and pain--we must embrace it and befriend it.
Knowing this and doing this are two different things.
Through meditation I am learning to hold my feelings without being freaked out and needing to escape, but I am also learning how to maintain a little more equanimity at the same time. For most of my life I have been a master of escape--first with drugs and alcohol, later with anger and rage, and of late with intellect and rationality. Walking into the fire is a new path for me.
How do you handle hopelessness and frustration? What allows you to care deeply about things without being overwhelmed by the challenge? I would really like to hear from readers. If any of you want to write a more extensive response, I'd like to put it up as a guest post--drop me a note through the comments.
Sunday, December 18, 2005
It was three years ago today that my ex-husband died.
When I found out he was sick, my response was, shall we say, less than charitable. My first thought: “Thank God he’s not my problem.”
Because he was a problem, ever since the divorce. (The phrase I most often used to describe him was “a real dick.”) He fought paying a rational amount of child support (he earnestly explained to me that $35 a week for two kids was enough because, after all, Rogaine was costing him $75 a month “and I need to start a new life.”)
Did I mention he’d been officially diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Back then, I had no idea what it meant; I do now.
Let me put it this way. Getting mad at someone with NPD is like being angry with the shark that chomped off your leg and left you to bleed to death: pointless. Are you mad at the shark for not being a puppy? Of course not. It’s not a shark’s nature, after all; their nature is to feed.
I didn’t want to take him to court; I knew he’d punish the kids for it. So I talked him into going to mediation. After eight one-hour sessions, they told him, no, you’re not paying enough, yes, you can afford more and no, you don’t deserve a rebate because you have the kids half the time – you make twice her salary.
He stood up, said, “I don’t have to listen to this,” and walked out. So I had to take him to court anyway.
At first, I took him at his word that he’d make timely payments. (Hah.) What that really meant was, too late for me to pay my bills on time, but not so late that he’d get arrested. Finally, I went back to court and got his paycheck attached. There was relative peace after that.
Of course, there were still the assorted women, all of whom were a lot nicer than he was. The kids were expected to understand they came second – except when he was in between relationships. Then, he was Dad of the Year. He always seemed to need an appreciative audience.
He got diagnosed with multiple myeloma shortly after the woman he was then involved with gave birth to their daughter.
I still remember the day he called to tell me that, at 52, he was going to be a father again. (The mom was 48.) After I stopped laughing, I needled him. “Guess you slept through that part of biology class,” I said. “I can’t help but wonder what your response would be if one of our sons called you with news like this.” (Two days later, I made an appointment to get my tubes tied. No point in tempting the karma fairy.)
He was so maddening. He never put anybody else first, not even when he was sick. “You need to straighten things out with the kids,” I’d tell him.
“I’m going to beat this thing,” he’d say, more out of denial than optimism.
“And you could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” I’d say. “No one can assume how much time they have left.” (I’d had my own cancer scare a few years before.)
He left a lot of loose ends dangling. But that last week, I felt bad for him. His daughter was now living in upstate New York, our kids didn’t really want to see him. His exes didn’t, either. His brothers had families of their own (it was the week before Christmas) and ironically enough, all he had left was me.
Me? I was unemployed again, somewhat suicidal (Adderall withdrawal) and pretty damned cynical about his worth as a human being. But there was no one else to help. And as the hours turned into days, I began to soften. He was just so damned feeble, so helpless, it seemed like overkill to hate him – or even resent him. So I kept him company; I fought with the nurses and doctors, I even held his hand the night before he died. I swear, there were times he looked at me and I could read the actual thought balloon above his head: “What the fuck is she doing here?” Knowing the way he was, he probably thought I was angling to get into his will.
I knew better than to expect anything. I did it for my kids; I didn’t want their father to die alone.
I always try to do the right thing but sometimes it’s harder than others. It’s a lot easier to be spiritual in the abstract than it is to actually forgive people – especially when they just don’t deserve it. The thing is, if you’re really honest, very few of us deserve it. So you shouldn’t keep score that way. If you want to follow the same path as Christ, Buddha, the Dalai Lama (you know, those guys) you have to find the compassion within.
Although I do usually get there, the trip is never pretty. I curse, I rail at the universe, I say really, really mean things. I tell myself I shouldn’t have to be nice to an asshole. And really, I don’t. (Unless I want to be spiritually and ethically consistent, of course. God, I hate that.)
The day he died, I took my oldest son to say goodbye. I remember being surprised at how warm his father still was, and that I brushed the hair from his eyes. The resuscitation tube was taped to his mouth and his eyes were slightly open, as if he was watching us. So sad, I thought. Such a waste. It could have been so different – that is, if he were a puppy and not a shark. But such are the mysteries of life.
I remembered loving him at one time, in a very specific and personal way. But I couldn’t recall the feeling; all that remained was a sort of weariness at all the harm he’d inflicted and a hope that he was finally at peace.
I still wish that for him.
Last year's winner was George Bush. It looks as if Time decided to atone for naming an emblem of evil last year by this year naming people who are doing good in the world.
From the AP article:
"For being shrewd about doing good, for rewiring politics and re-engineering justice, for making mercy smarter and hope strategic and then daring the rest of us to follow, Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono are Time's Persons of the Year," the magazine said.
Time praised the Gateses for building the world's largest charity — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a $29 billion endowment — and for "giving more money away faster than anyone ever has" in 2005.
The foundation has saved at least 700,000 lives in poor countries by investing in vaccination programs, has donated computers and Internet access to 11,000 libraries and has sponsored the biggest scholarship fund in history, the magazine said.
Time said Bono's campaign to make rich countries address the debt of poorer ones has had an equally impressive impact on the world.
In 2005, "Bono charmed and bullied and morally blackmailed the leaders of the world's richest countries into forgiving $40 billion in debt owed by the poorest," the magazine said.
Bono has earned a remarkable number of political allies around the world and in Washington, where he has courted politicians from both major parties, Time said.
"Bono's great gift is to take what has made him famous — charm, clarity of voice, an ability to touch people in their secret heart — combine those traits with a keen grasp of the political game and obsessive attention to detail, and channel it all toward getting everyone, from world leaders to music lovers, to engage with something overwhelming in its complexity," it said.
Even archconservative former Sen. Jesse Helms had praise for the Irish singer.
"I knew as soon as I met Bono that he was genuine," Helms, who has allied with Bono on AIDS awareness, told Time.
Bono, who first met the Gateses in 2002 to discuss their mutual interests, told Time that the Gates foundation is the second enterprise for Microsoft founder Bill Gates that has changed the world. "And the second act for Bill Gates may be the one that history regards more," the rock star said.
Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience? Isn't it clear
that black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I'm alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky--as though
all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.
[From Dream Work, 1986]
Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. Oliver briefly attended Ohio State University, but she took her degree from Vassar College. Her 1984 collection, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize, and her 1992 New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award. She currently teaches at Bennington College.
Oliver's work is known for the relative absence of human characters. Quite often the poems find her alone in nature seeking a sense of otherness--or the answers such an experience might offer to distinctly human questions. Just as often, she is the container through which nature passes, opening herself to experience the mystery within her own consciousness.
In many ways, I find Oliver's poetry to be an updated variation of Emily Dickinson, which is not to say that Oliver is derivative. Oliver's voice is uniquely her own. However, the presence of Other in nature that so often captured Dickinson's attention is also a primary focus for Oliver. Both women fall into the great tradition of Romanticist nature poets. And both women have an evolved Christianity at the heart of their quest for Other.
However, in Dickinson, I seldom sense that she finds what she seeks within herself. With Oliver, I find that she feels in her animal flesh the connection to nature that holds for her the mystery of Spirit.
I also find in Oliver a knowledge that it is through her heart (what might be seen as bodhicitta, "wisdom heart," to a Buddhist) that she gains access to the sacred elements of the natural world. For example, in the poem above, she states, "if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead." This simple statement carries the weight of an entire philosophy of life: to live with an open heart is the most important thing.
It is through our open heart, our emotions, that we have access to the energies of the body. And it is through the body that we are related to the earth. Our minds cannot make that connection. Our thoughts distract us from the truth of our animal nature. But the soul understands, and through it we maintain an open heart, the tender heart of the warrior bodhisattva.
The above poem ends with the image of crows taking flight at dawn. Oliver muses that it seems as though the crows had spent the night dreaming the life they would want to live--a life of flight on thick, black wings.
By extension, the speaker, too, can dream her life and make it true. The entire poem, from the moss to the black oaks to the crows, reveals the lessons we might learn from the landscape around us if only we keep an open heart and allow the mystery to touch us.
This poem reflects the approach Oliver takes throughout the impressive body of her work. She honors the interior and exterior individual as well as any poet ever has. She is devoutly Christian without being preachy. She is a Romanticist without succumbing to Whitmanesque extravagance. She is a nature poet without losing sight of human concerns.
Many of her poems are available online. If interested, check out the following sites.
Mary Oliver: A Solitary Walk: An interview for the Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 1992, by Steven Ratiner.
Some online poems at Modern American Poetry.
Poetry Connection has 87 Oliver poems online.