Archive for January, 2013

Apocalypse….now and then.

 “APOCALYPSE….NOW AND THEN”

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are,

Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end… The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth—that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbours, in our enemies, in all of us.”

  • Joseph Campbell, ‘Thou Art That’

Well, it passed us by without even the merest hint of a whisper. The Mayan Apocalypse that is. I never felt a thing, did you? I can honestly say that the Earth didn’t move for me. There was no earthquake, no tidal waves, no pestilence and I don’t recall the clouds opening up and the voice of an angry God booming out hell-fire and damnation. Nor do I recall any thunderbolts flying from the downward thrust fingertips of any deity and striking the Earth. Frankly, if I’d have handed over hard earned money for that, had it been a 3D ride at Universal Studios, I’d be asking for a refund.

But now that’s out of the way we have another dramatic ending to look forward to; the end of the year show. You know the one, that certain annual ritual we play that involves looking back over the past 12 months with warmth, sadness, regret, desire, longing, melancholy, wishful thinking, hope, a smile and a celebration and all those human emotions that we enjoy or inflict on ourselves in a yearly resurrection of a religious zealots desire to self flagellate ourselves with new year resolutions that we haven’t a hope in hell of keeping, as they are exactly the same ones we could not keep this year.

We mull over the conversations we had, the conversations we wish we hadn’t had. The people we met and the people we wish we hadn’t. The sex we had and the sex we had with other people too. The promises made and the promises broken. Decisions made for the better, for worse or not at all. That gym we joined and the gym we haven’t stepped inside of in six months. The friends we made and the friends we sometimes wish we had unfriended. The dates we went on that went OK and the blind dates we never made, turning back when we saw them waiting and cursed ourselves knowing we were right to have asked for photo’s first. The books we read and the other books we never because we were too busy fantasising about those other books we read; 50 shades of Grey. It’s that time when we look back and wonder where our life went, what we achieved, what we lost, gained, missed, won, lost, cried about, laughed about, loved , hated and maybe even learned.

So yes we’re still here, still rotating, still wending our way across the Universe and yes the Sun still comes up day after day, even if, (depending on your location) like the United Kingdom, it is shrouded in dark winter clouds and the rain those clouds hold and that we were promised years ago by climatologists, keeps on falling, enough to give cause to the idea that perhaps we ought, like Steve Carrell in ‘Evan Almighty’ who, under the commandment of God turns into a modern day Noah, run to the nearest book store and ask for a copy of “Ark Building for Dummies” and although I haven’t seen any lengthy queues forming outside the local hardware stores or burly bearded men gathering around architects plans and arguing over what a cubit is or is not, frankly that once unlikely scenario no longer surprises me.

I was tempted to write a small piece on this end-of-year-reflective-thingy that would sum up the woes of the world that we read about, all the horrors that we (that is the collective we ….unless you are reading this and you are specifically and currently the dictator or commander in chief of a country raining death down on certain chosen people, in which case you will probably want to pass on this) perpetrate or are perpetrated in our names. All that stuff that has been thrust on us (and that we seek out and share) this past year by the media, the newspapers and the internet, books, leaflets, documentaries and then too we pass our own versions on by word of mouth or wing it at the speed of light across the world by e mail, paste it onto web-sites or post it on one of the the numerous social media available and for which we are truly thankful…..sometimes.

But frankly I’m not going to go there. As misanthropic as I can be and as much as I would wish to cry Woe! Woe! and thrice Woe!, I will not. I refuse to add to the noise and clamour, the beating drums, the wailing and gnashing of teeth and the predictions of doom that have been heralded this past fifty years or so since the publication of Rachel Carsons “Silent Spring”. Good and wonderful lady that she was, I will not stand upon her slim but magnificent shoulders. For all of the warnings we have read, heard and seen are constantly being sucked up like water vapour and shaped into humongous mushroom clouds, huge loaded storms that build and build, layer upon layer, pressing down with so much pressure that it becomes physical to the whole human body, disturbing not just the soft machine, but the mind and the soul, until finally the sky can no longer hold, the heavens fall and relief comes only when the wrathful male sky subjugates the willing female Earth and the two lie in peace, sated and smoking and then the whole orgasmic process rears its head again, and again, and again.

Sorry, was that too much?

I am being flippant…of course. I know only too well that these things are happening and we do stand at the precipice of the sixth extinction and species are disappearing faster then a husband bolting towards a store for a life-saving bottle of perfume for his vexed wife who is still waiting for a gift worthy of the dinner she slaved over on Christmas Day. Climate change we are told and I would contest, we are witnessing, is moving off into mysterious and unknown patterns of behaviour that surely will (and surely are) inflicting on us changing weather systems which we will either adapt to, or not.

But I don’t wish to add my thoughts to that thorny subject.

Then there is the all consuming financial crisis and the politicians and other establishment figures and organisations in whom we have placed our trust and sometimes turn out to have feet of clay, the governments of the world and their austerity programs that are crushing certain countries seemingly into a compressed box that may turn to tinder. There is too our continuous exploitation and consumption of our planets resources that drives huge conglomerates to ravage the planet without due thought and respect for the effects they are or may be having at some future time, or at the very least they are reckless in their actions. The continuous demand for oil, for palm and engine use, which is pushing back the sacred forest boundaries inch by inch, collapsing our Earths lungs, capillary by capillary and extinguishing the opportunity to discover the glorious breadth of life that supports us all and that from this we may reproduce such drugs from close study that may cure the most ravaging of diseases. Kinda neat that one, we cry out for a longer healthier life, yet diminish the chances of finding cures by destroying the very thing which may help us.

I could muse on that, but I’m not going to talk about it.

There is too the seemingly inevitable reduction and breakdown of the Arctic Ice, until that beautiful blind white continent that steadies the suns output will affect us somehow, some way and unpredictably so, and for the UK may well disrupt the warm Gulf Stream waters and give us,…now is it hotter summers with more rain and/or more severe and colder winters…I’m not sure….neither are they, but change it will. It looks like that in the process we will lose that most dangerous of animals that threatens us so, the Polar Bear. But there may be hope in that sad situation. I can, with my most fantastical eye, envisage a scene whereby all the worlds cameras, all the worlds press, in fact all the world is watching in the biggest reality TV show ever broadcast as the last and smallest piece of Arctic Ice slips and sails by the collective crowds of New York and the flotilla of ships that surround it, watching and waiting in horror and anticipation as atop the Ice is the the last known family of Polar Bears. And as they look at us and we them, we remember those fine words writ large on Ms. Liberty’s statue,

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”

and just before the iceberg slips from view to melt and the commentary tells us we are watching the last of a species a little child watching asks “Father, mother what will happen to them?” and are told “Well, I don’t know, I guess they may die” and all the children of the world begin to cry as one.

But then from somewhere in the crowd a voice cries out,

Wait, wait, they are us and we them”

and a shout goes up and someone lands an anchor on the ice, halts it and it is hauled in, now saved and perhaps we begin our slow climb back to a better humanity.

But its just a story, and I won’t repeat it.

There are the drones that intend to pick off terrorists but sometimes miss and claim the lives of the innocent neighbours next door, the brave hunters who at their pleasure pick off the few remaining wolves left in the Western world , an entirely fair contest of course, one side happy to employ their little guns and bullets and those naughty little traps to hold them oh so gently before they are ‘relieved’ of their breath, whilst on the other side, those devil in disguise creatures that have Satan granted gifts of stealth and wisdom, four legs of course and the awful habit of claiming the odd cow or deer in order to feed their ‘families’ and to play their part as a keystone predator in an ecosystem which is part of a whole. An entirely fair contest wouldn’t you agree; teeth against lead.

But no sir, I’m not willing to comment, I would not dream of it.

And finally, you’ll be glad to hear, I am not going to mention the human beings that wound each other in anger and wrath, rage, jealousy, or for gain and greed and I will not talk of the little children who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and will never live to see both our indiscretions that we may learn from and our highest moments that come to fruition and then will never get a chance to ‘follow their bliss’ and add their beauty and spirit to the sum total of the consciousness of the human race.

As much and as great a loss as is their life to those who bore them and raised them, every time a child dies prematurely in an act of violence, it is what that child may have grown to be, there is the loss to humanity. Maybe an Einstein vanishes, perhaps a Beethoven, perhaps a humble girl or guy who simply grows and gives back to his community. A local hero. Who knows, perhaps a future mother who may give birth to a president or a king who will sense our precarious situation and arouse the rest of the world into action that will arrest us and then entice us and begin a dance that leads us to a higher consciousness and we finally come to terms with who and what we are. Well, perhaps.

But, as I say, I absolutely refuse to talk about any of this stuff, I’m not even going to go there………

There is more, too much more and the size and scale of these difficulties bearing down on us are on a scale so huge as to be sometimes truly overwhelming and in the end the overload of information can become so great that I think that most of us, if not burying our head in the sand, tries to file it away or put it to one side, not because we are inhuman or unfeeling, but perhaps because we feel it too much and yet our lack of empowerment at being able to do something about it is so great, we simply go back to what we know. Living. Living for today, for now and someone somewhere will solve the problems for us, or not. We live on in the hope for a better tomorrow, for us and for our children.

I suppose we think ourselves so small as to not be effective in being able to confront these frightening situations and threats and even when on those occasions we are able to mass support and make a difference, the rate of change we are able to make barely seems to scratch the surface of the huge rock that is rolling downhill and is seemingly powered by forces that we know not where they truly lie nor how we can begin to arrest it.

Never mind that actually, we need to get our shoulders in front of the rock to slow it down, we find ourselves riding it like a circus performer who balances on a large ball, appearing to be in total control, but when we load the performer with more and more trappings, it’s only a matter of time before he comes crashing down and the ball remains, either to roll under its own momentum or fatally, to come to a stop. But then many of us play out our daily lives like Sisyphus, compelled to push a rock up hill every day, seemingly for no purpose, only for it to roll down under its own steam and we repeat the whole process again and again and should we fail, there is someone else who will replace us without much hesitation.

Sometimes, often, perhaps, one wonders what all this pushing and shoving and chasing and grunting and effort is for. I suppose we have to step outside of ourselves for a while and try to take a longer and more expansive view at who we are. But where to find this view?

Imagine a travelling spaceman, …OK please bear with me…..had developed an eyesight which was only able to see things as energy, not unlike an infra-red sensor detects heat, and he approached our planet and stayed in orbit long enough, he would over a period of time, see the interwoven, intertwined systems that have evolved naturally and the one our industrialised society had developed this last 200 years or so. What he would see if you could strip away all else, are solitary creatures and groups of living things, each one pursuing that which keeps them alive, energy. He would see billions of energy ‘cells’ roaming and chasing all over the world and un-seen to him they would be exchanging ideas, currency, bullets, language, faith, but to his eyes, in film terms that is just the text, the sub-text is that we do it to gain energy that allows us to live, longer now than ever, and to raise our children, and to do all that we do. Be alive.

Animals and plants have been doing this ad infinitum, except they have ‘learned’ to become part of the natural cycle of life, living lives that have a circular form, they have a built in recycling systems that, if left alone will take care of itself and life flourishes. Maybe once as monkeys we too were happy to fit in with an eco system, but someone or something granted us a power to step outside of the box, learn to think, expand our consciousness, and come up with a wonderful system of living that raises our whole being, but by virtue of its very methods, drives us all down a path which is linear, ploughing a deep unstoppable furrow that casts aside that which we regard as waste or by products. We have created an energy system that is out stripping the ability of the planet to soak up our indiscretions fast enough to keep a balance or equilibrium. I can only imagine that our alien friend would see energy transferring from one or more animal and plant to another in an act of giving that replenishes itself and appears to be a closed and complete system, but he would see that our own modern systems has no similar structure and our energy goes to waste and lies dormant and wasteful in the earth, sea an sky, and lies waste too in our own consciousness. And we know it and detest that part of us which we go along with for it gives us the lives we so cherish. A conundrum indeed.

However, our rise to the top of the energy chain is seen by some to be the active act of Nature giving birth to a consciousness of the planet, meaning we ourselves are the living breathing self of this large round thriving ball of life. If the earth were a human being, then we are the brain and the consciousness of that body, able to play a huge and distinct part in the governing of that body, for better or for worse and we know that the brain working in order and with creativity, empathy and sympathy can do wonderful things and then this past few weeks we see what happens when brains work in a manner not in accord with those human qualities and we can do untold harm and suffering.

Human beings the consciousness of the planet? Is he serious?

It may not be new thinking or perhaps you never thought of us in that way and yet a few human beings have had the privilege of being able to look down on our Earth from space a little like that imaginary alien and see ourselves for what we are.

Neil Armstrong and the guys who went to the Moon.

Go back to those late sixties and early seventies and the photographs of earth form space and consider their thoughts and comments on what they saw as they mused over their home and the reality of our existence and how fragile it is. They did not see countries and boundaries, they saw a planet whole and as one. Now with the advancement of the Internet, we can perhaps connect with that thought and see what they saw and we can now think and talk and discuss and we can come together in a manner and speed that was never previously possible and if you imagine all these connections as similar to the wiring in the brain of our own bodies, it is not a big leap to see from space this vast web of internet connections as a brain or consciousness of our planet , with that same ability to alter it in ways for good or for bad.

We have a consciousness of our own and we have a collective consciousness that is real, functioning and immensely powerful. We have only to recognise this and perhaps there we have a wilful means of at least making change possible. Everything around us began with a thought, then that thought was translated into action, yes. But it is the thought that counts. Without ideas, no action. We have the makings of a machine that can undercut governments of all persuasions, global corporations, financial institutions and though we cannot direct the play entirely, we can play a part in it.

It’s hard to chose the moral high ground. I would not wish to offer advice. There are no simple solutions, particularly in a world that has seen the emphasis put on the independence of the individual and his or her right to pursue that most elusive of qualities; happiness. Man was born to spread his wings and inhabit the planet, it is our nature to do this, whatever the eventual outcome of our existence. But surely now it is time to take the next step, the next leap forward in our evolution, a change of consciousness.

I remember as a small boy, just about my pre-teens, my father, for some reason, brought home an air pistol. It fired metal pellets and darts that would hit a target and stick in the timber they were pinned to. I suppose that some boys go through devilish times and wish to test the boundaries of what they can do. I think I can remember this time, I think it was a willingness to experience doing something wilful and not necessarily desirable, to test whoever and whatever was out there and see what consequences would come about from these actions. I think boys explore ‘badness’ and we test the limits from an early age. I remember loading the air pistol up with pellets and hiding in a den a short distance away from small sparrows landing close by to peck at the bread I had thrown out. I aimed and fired the birds. Did I hit them. Well, they all flew away, maybe I was a bad shot. I hope so. I remember too, deliberately surrounding ants with boiling water and I guess a few died. It was like discovering a power, perhaps the beginnings of choice, good versus evil. I don’t know. Nothing too serious you may say, not worthy perhaps of a thunderbolt striking a young boy down or a visit to a confession from a priest. Though in many cultures I can imagine the same boy being instructed in his waywardness and being taught the consequences of his actions. I never went on to shoot , stab or even be physical with anyone or anything. But what I do remember is my father digging over the garden to plant potatoes and other plants, his attempt to save money. But as he dug I would notice that ants and bugs and such would get caught up in this minor maelstrom in the earth and that some would die, get injured. Not something most would contemplate for too long, its just the natural order of things, it’s just the way things are.

But therein lies a difference between my actions and my fathers. As Wendell Berry said in his Jefferson Lecture this year “It all turns on affection”

Man lives by killing, as do many species and yes I know that that idea in itself is changing with many people moving away from meat, but this is not a treatise on meat versus vegetarianism. Man lives by killing and there is a sense of guilt connected with that. There is a kind of covenant between the animal world and the human world and within the animal world too. The animal gives its life willingly with the understanding that its life transcends its physical entity and will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration.

There is a reverence a respect, but we have largely become disconnected from these rituals. Killing is not simply slaughter. Eating is not just consumption. Our work is not just a task. Our relationships are not just convenience. Our children are not just additions to the family. Our purchase of goods is not just one-up-man-ship. Our minds are not just machines. Our hearts are not just pumps. Our emotions are not just feelings, they are us.

We have transformed portions of our lives from a ‘thou’ into an ‘it’. The ego that sees a thou is not the same ego that sees an it. I wantonly killed the ants. My father killed the ants yes, but the digging and turning of the soil was a ritual. The planting of the seeds was a ritual. The care of the seeds into food was a ritual. The gathering in was a ritual. The food on the table was a ritual, and so the circle was complete.

And so must we now not re apply these principles to our lives, our whole lives and treat all with reverence and as a thou not an it? We have the capacity for change but our will is seen to be lacking, often. The vestiges of our ‘monkey’ brain still clings on to basic desires and ways of acting that impels us towards systems of living that insist we must compete more than co operate and frankly, it may be killing us. It is not that we do not possess a caring nature, a generous and empathetic side, but somewhere in our lives we have allowed these 200 year old systems to be the new Gods we worship, all becomes an it not a thou.

Having fun (and working and life itself) doesn’t mean turning playing fields (or workplaces, business) into battlefields. It’s remarkable, when you stop to think about it, that the way we teach our kids to have a good time is to play highly structured games in which one individual or team must defeat another.

 

Consider one of the first games our children learn to play: musical chairs. Take away one chair and one child in each round until one smug winner is seated and everyone else has been excluded from play. You know that sour birthday party scene; the needle is lifted from the record and someone else is transformed into a loser, forced to sit out the rest of the game with the other unhappy kids on the side. That’s how children learn to have fun in the world.

 

Terry Orlick, a Canadian expert on games, suggests changing the goal of musical chairs so children are asked to fit on a diminishing number of seats. At the end, seven or eight giggling, happy kids are trying to squish on a single chair. Everyone has fun and there are no winners or losers.

 

What’s true of musical chairs is true of all recreation (life); with a little ingenuity, we can devise games (lives) in which the obstacle is something intrinsic to the task itself rather than another person or team.

But how to change?

A butterfly in metamorphosis.

It goes like this: A caterpillar crunches its way through its ecosystem, cutting a swath of destruction by eating as much as hundreds of times its weight in a day, until it is too bloated to continue and hangs itself up, its skin then hardening into a chrysalis.

Inside this chrysalis, deep in the caterpillar’s body, tiny things biologists call ‘imaginal disks’ begin to form. Not recognizing the newcomers, the caterpillar’s immune system snuffs them as they arise. But they keep coming faster and faster, then linking up with each other.

Eventually the caterpillar’s immune system fails from the stress and the disks become imaginal cells that build the butterfly by feeding on the soupy meltdown of the caterpillar’s body.

It took a long time for biologists to understand the reason for the immune system attack on the incipient butterfly cells, but eventually they discovered that the butterfly has its own unique genome, carried by the caterpillar, inherited from long ago in evolution, yet not part of it as such (Margulis & Sagan, Acquiring Genomes 2002).

If we see ourselves as imaginal discs working to build the butterfly of a better world, we will understand that we are launching a new ‘genome’ of values and practices to replace that of the current unsustainable system. We will also see how important it is to link with each other in the effort, to recognize how many different kinds of imaginal cells it will take to build a butterfly with all its capabilities and colors.

Normally I’m against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” – Pete Seeger.

Maybe in the end our changes come from inside, inside ourselves and if enough of us change in the same way then the forces overwhelming us cannot resist and change becomes inevitable.

I recently watched the film “American Beauty”, some years after its release. Its a black comedy about a dysfunctional family and within it the husband (Kevin Spacey) transforms himself, leaves his former self behind and just for a short time begins to see beauty in all the madness of his life. A motif for the film which shows up here and there is a small plastic bag caught up in a little ‘dust devil’, a swirling wind that plays with the bag as it floats and spins and twirls. Like us it moves at the behest of bigger forces, but there is beauty in our lives and like the butterflies transformation it comes from inside ourselves and the beauty of our change is seen by others and may infect change on them too. Life reminds us of beauty all the time in the smallest of ways.

Driving back from a long hard day at work I saw a blackness in the sky, a dark swirling mass sweeping over the factories to my right. Starlings, swooping in ever-changing shape-shifting flight and I couldn’t take my eyes from them. They had a hypnotising effect and I just drove slowly by and let myself be amazed and be in wonder.

The day after, instead of walking from my place of work to a café after getting off a bus, I stood for a few seconds and waited. I waited and wondered. I was rewarded. The bus I had got off passed by, and the extraordinarily beautiful woman that had got on was there and she saw me looking at her (we have encountered each other several times previous, no words though) and she responded with a smile. I was hypnotised again, by beauty, though this time it was my head that swirled and swooped and I was amazed and in wonder again.

Simple beauty. A smile.

We place so much emphasis on the symptoms of ourselves and our society, surely now we must learn to approach the cause of our ills and ‘teach our children well’.

So how and where to begin. Well there are many paths and we each must make our own and find our own way home. Here is one path that leads to many.

Many years ago in Thailand, there was a temple that was called ‘The Temple of the Golden Buddha’ and there was a huge statue of a Golden Buddha there.

Word came to the village and the monastery that an army from neighbouring country was about to invade.

And so they came up with the brilliant idea to cover the Golden Buddha, which is quite large, with mud and concrete so that basically it looked like a stone Buddha and the army would perceive no value in it.

And sure enough the army rolled in with its caissons and weapons and as they passed by the monastery, they saw nothing but a big stone Buddha and they had no reason to plunder it.

Well, years passed by because the army continued to occupy, until there was a time when no one in the monastery and no one in the village remembered that the Buddha was golden.

Then one day, a young monk was sitting underneath the Buddha meditating and as he got up off his knees a little piece of the concrete happened to crack and fall off the Buddha and the young monk saw something shiny underneath.

He realised that there was gold under the concrete and so he ran to his fellow monks and said “The Buddha is golden, the Buddha is golden!”.

They all came out and realised he was telling the truth and so they took their picks and hammers and began chipping away and eventually they unearthed the Golden Buddha

Now, what is the metaphor here?

The metaphor is that each of us is golden by nature, we are born golden, we were born high, we were born knowing, we were born connected to our bliss, we were born knowing the truth, we born knowing everything every great spiritual master has ever said, we are at one with the Christ, with the Buddha, everyone.

But then, we went to school and in life too they said you have to dress like this and this is what boys do, this is what girls do, this is what black people do, this is what white people do and on and on and on.

And so we develop a casing of stone and concrete over the Buddha to a point at a young age, maybe 4, 5, 6 or 7 where we BELIEVE that we are the stone Buddha not the Golden One.

And then something comes along that cracks open our casing, maybe its a serious injury or illness, a divorce, a financial crisis, a governmental change, something that really scares us and bugs us and knocks off a piece of our armour and only in that moment of the armour being knocked off do you get to look inside and see the gold.

And let me tell you friend, that the moment you see that gold, the armour and the concrete will never satisfy you and at that point you truly answer the hero’s adventure, and all you want to do for the rest of your life is pick away the stone because the gold is so much more fun.”

Happy New Year

(“Golden Buddha” story taken verbatim from the DVD “Finding Joe” as told by Alan Cohen.)

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