Sunday, November 29, 2009
Way back when life was first starting to collect cells, there was a point when organisms started being able to detect light. These organisms - probably a Hydra or “living jelly” - had no eyes, no lenses, no cerebral lobes devoted to interpreting the data of photons. Instead, they had molecules, specifically proteins, within themselves that would agitate when hit with light. In darkness these proteins would go about their business interacting with other molecules the way they were built to do. But when hit with the energy of a photon, these molecules would take in the energy in the light and get energized.
Now the organism had a way to tell the difference between light and dark. But at first, light and dark would have no meaning. The experience of light for the Hydra was not illumination and focus. Objects were not revealed. The original experience of light was simply an excitement in the presence of something unknown.
It might have taken generations for any advantage to come of this. The proteins originally reacted to photons not because they were seeking enlightenment or even a hunting advantage. These proteins were simply following physical laws; their bundled atoms - just energy themselves - absorbed the incoming energy of the photons because they chanced to be arranged in a way that made absorption inevitable. At first, this reaction just existed on its own. It wasn’t tied to any action in the organism. The Hydra didn’t do anything because its proteins got excited by photons.
But eventually, a Hydra did do something in response to the light. It may have taken thousands of generations for a Hydra to link the feeling of light to the feeling of movement by a water flea, but when it finally made that connection, it started catching a lot more fleas…
Scientists have discovered a link between the temporal lobe of the brain (the part behind your ears) and experiences of the divine. People who have temporal lobe seizures often describe feeling deeply connected with every living thing or report that they understand the grand plan of existence. The scientists are, of course, very careful not to make any claims regarding the existence of g*d (whatever that is) although many theorize based on the assumption that g*d doesn’t exist. This leads to some illogical reasoning.
The reasoning goes that because experiences of the divine are triggered by things like seizures and human manipulation, the brain isn’t really experiencing something “real” meaning “outside the brain”. Because some experiences of the divine through temporal lobe activity are caused by means we can easily comprehend, the divine itself - the thing experienced - must be something that exists within the realm of human comprehension.
It is true that we don’t experience the “out there” world directly but always as mediated through our brains. We are awash with radio signals but can only hear the music once we have a radio. And our experience of the signals is affected by how good the radio is. Our bodies are our radio picking up whatever signals they have evolved the capacity to receive.
But we can also experience similar signals that arise from the brain itself. We can remember and dream of visual images even in total darkness. In open brain surgery, patients can be made to feel things on their skin or hear sounds that aren’t there for the rest of the folk in the operating room. Our radio can make its own signals and sometimes it’s hard for us to tell where the signal is coming from just by listening to the song.
Just because we sometimes get signals from the universe within our brains, doesn’t mean that the world “out there” doesn’t exist. We don’t argue that chocolate doesn’t exist just because we can make someone on an operating table taste it by zapping their brain. And so, if we have a whole section of our brain that seems to perk up around experiences of the divine, we could in fact argue that there very well could be something out there for us to sense.
Imagine what those early Hydra would have said if they could think and reflect upon their new ability to sense light. Imagine they could talk to other life forms that didn’t have the ability yet. What could our light sensing forebears say about light when all they could do was feel a sense of excitement about something they could not yet imagine even existed?
“I feel something, I’m not sure what it is, but every now and then I get the strangest sensation. There will be stretches of time when certain parts of myself are excited, I can feel a movement within me.”
And how would the unseeing sponge respond?
“How can you feel a movement within you from something outside? You're delusional. You cannot prove light exists. Why should I consider light as even possible when I have no proof that it exists? Stop talking about light.”
Sunday, September 6, 2009
Blow up a star.
The first stars started out as clouds of hydrogen. Hydrogen is a very simple atom, just a proton orbited by an electron. It is the most basic physical expression of yin and yang, of Binah and Chokmah. Clouds of this stuff were floating around in the dim afterburn of the Big Bang. When enough of these atoms collected, gravity took over and the atoms began to fall. At first, there were many directions to fall in, but eventually the forces of complexity sorted things out and a single center was found.
The hydrogen atoms fell faster and faster toward that center until they were going so fast they started to smash into other. Now realize, every atom has a defensive shield called the Weak Nuclear Force that normally operates to keep out protons and electrons from other atoms. But when atoms go fast enough, they overpower this force, crash through the defensive shield and achieve fusion. This fusion of hydrogen atoms is the most basic recipe for light.
This first recipe in the life of a star calls for four Hydrogen atoms. There are several steps involved. First you have to make Deuterium. Smash two Hydrogen atoms together to get a Deuterium atom, a neutrino, and two gamma ray photons. Let the neutrino and the photons escape. When you have two Deuteriums, smash those together to get a Helium atom and a bunch of energy. That energy is light and heat. It shoots out from the star and may eventually land in your eye when you look up at the sky. When this starts happening, we say a star is born.
Now, in order to make something out of Helium, you have to achieve much greater speeds than you did with Hydrogen. So at first, the Helium just falls to the center in darkness. But eventually, it too starts going fast enough to overcome its defensive shields and when Helium smashes into itself at the heart of a star it makes Carbon and Oxygen and Nitrogen, Sulphur and Magnesium, Calcium and Titanium. The recipes for these elements are more complex, but this is how the air you breathe was made as was the calcium in your milk.
These transformations produce a lot of energy that keeps the star from collapsing entirely. The star depends on this energy not just so it can shine in your sky, but also for its structure. The energy released by element creation escapes toward the surface of the star keeping it expanded through convection like a pot of boiling water. Stars are constantly boiling over into themselves.
Over the course of a star’s lifetime, it will repeat this basic motif, creating new, more complex elements out of simpler ones and using the released energy to fuel itself until it gets to Iron. Iron stops the chain. For whatever reason, if you want to make new elements by smashing iron atoms together, you have to add energy. So there is our star, going along happily producing new building blocks of existence and wham, suddenly, it cannot go any further.
When Iron starts to collect at the center, the star begins to lose its source of energy. The flame under the pot is turned off and the star begins to settle in on itself. What happens next depends on how big the star is. A small star will just collapse becoming a very dense Brown Dwarf. But a bigger star will do something else, and here’s where it gets personal. When a big enough star gets to the Iron stage, it too begins to collapse, but being so massive, the collapse reaches epic speeds and ignites a supernova.
These conflagrations of stars release so much energy that they can be seen on Earth. The Crab Nebula was formed this way and even though it’s 6500 light years away, Chinese astronomers saw the explosion in 1054AD. These explosions - and frankly I don’t know if you can still call them “explosions” when they are this big - are so massive that they smash atoms together with abandon, and in the process produce all the heavier elements on the periodic table, including all of the other metals of the Alchemists: lead, tin, copper, mercury, silver and - you guessed it - gold.*
And because we have all these heavy elements here on Earth, we know that our solar system is at least second generation. Earth was formed out of the remains of a supernova. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all the heavier elements only a supernova can make. Otherwise, life wouldn’t be here.
We are made of stars. And not just any stars, we are made of stars that transformed themselves, at least a small part of themselves, into gold. We have that history encoded in the physical fabric of our being. Not just in our cells or our DNA, but in the atoms that make those cells and that DNA. When Alchemists talk about transforming metals into gold, they are remembering the past lives of their own bodies.
*For those of you keeping track, the only planetary metal not made in a supernova is iron. Turns out, Iron is a gateway metal.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A. Loll (ASU); Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin (Skyfactory).
Saturday, August 8, 2009
You remember hurtling through space. That’s what you’d say if there were someone to tell. Hurtling through space with great purpose and destiny, only there was no way to tell really that you were moving at all. No air to blow against you, the stars so distant they never moved day after day. At first, you really didn’t think about going anywhere.
Slowly the darkness grew gray and thin, and even more slowly you realized this must be light. Then you spent some time hovering or hurtling through the light until you started feeling that maybe your were going somewhere. As if your thought conjured it, a faint breeze began to press against your cheeks, if you had cheeks, which is about as certain as the day.
The wind, however, doesn’t seem to care if it’s blowing against a cheek, or a meteor, or a wave of energy, or any of the other things you imagined you might have or be. The wind just blows stronger and stronger, pushing against your every contour like a hand pressing back and you get the idea that you have spent something like time imagining all the things that hand might be touching.
You are really moving now. You are getting someplace. And now the idea of a destination comes to you, a place where this hurtling will stop and this idea in you head makes the whole light around you shift so that you are no longer hurtling though space but are falling towards some ground. Just as you realize you are falling way too fast to stop, you hit something.
You look down and see you are wearing a long dress. “Princess dress,” you think wistfully.
“Oh bloody hell! We’re rescuing a princess?” exclaimed a horrified Rubeus. Sophie gave an exasperated sigh at the interruption. Hydra kept silent, turning her long beak from one side to the other. Chalydrus rolled his giant dragon eyes.
“You will not be rescuing anyone, Rubeus. You have other duties.”
“Then why am I here?” Rubeus stuck out his chin and Fowl Feng thought Chalydrus was going to blast him right there, but instead he just held Rubeus' gaze for a moment and then turned to Sophie. “Continue, dear maiden.”
Sophie was silent for a moment. Feng wanted her to continue because it seemed so important to her. He put his paw on her leg and said, “I’ve never rescued a princess. Might be fun?”
She reached out and rubbed Feng's ear. “Oh you are a sweetie, aren’t you Fowl Feng.”
“Um, no, actually I’m not. Bit of a bastard really.” He nosed around in the dirt for a moment and then said under his breath so no could hear. “I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten puppies.”
Sophie just smiled and turned back to the fire to continue her story.
Saturday, August 1, 2009
But to come into any relationship with the mountain, we must move in close, come into direct contact with the mountain, with the god. As we move closer to the mountain, the god looms and then disappears, breaks apart into meadows and lakes and forests and the innumerable details of its actual existence. We may identify the god in its entirety only at a great distance; we can only know the god a piece at a time. We must walk in this meadow, aware of these flowers and that ground squirrel and remembering the ridges and peaks and other places, as we smell the heather around us.
G*d (whatever that is) is whatever the sum of everything plus the knowledge of that sum and the ability to comprehend both the sum of the parts and the whole. It may or may not be what we were expecting. G*d (whatever that is) is represented in our minds by figures of old men, or women with a thousand arms, or a giant winged snake with the head of a dog that shoots lightening out of its eyes. (It could happen.) We may see g*d (whatever that is) as a force we call compassion or creativity. But whatever we point to when we say g*d is just a mountain at a distance. We cannot predict what the old man is going to look like up close. She may look much younger in places. We cannot yet know what g*d is until we walk through her meadows and breathe his air. And we can’t begin to do that until we are willing to let go of our nice perfect view of the mountain.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
What we do when we are down in the rot and ash is pay attention and let go at the same time. Whatever you pay attention to without force or attachment, will change on its own. The stuckness will dissolve at the very moment we let go of the need to make the experience mean something, when we allow our pain to just be its own thing in itself.
The kind of attention we need to bring is not something we are taught to do. In fact, we are often taught the opposite. We are taught how to turn away from pain and deny trouble. We are taught to believe that things don’t change and the only way to avoid pain is to pretend it doesn’t exist. But everything changes. And pain that is listened to changes into something else, something a lot like grace. To learn how to pay attention properly and effectively, we must first practice.
What you want at the beginning is a field of intention for a while. Science says about 12 minutes a day should suffice. The intention is to simply pay attention. Sit comfortably in a place where you can be quiet for about 12 minutes without people thinking you’re weird or asking whether you took out the trash. You want to be comfortable so that the effort to sit doesn’t become the issue, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep. Keep looking for places to sit until you find something that works.
The only instruction for the next 12 minutes is: pay attention to your out-breath. That’s the action that defines your field of intention and makes these 12 minutes different from just sitting around. So for the next 12 minutes, every time your remember to do so, pay attention to your out-breath. What follows is some advice for making this possible.
If all thought is a symphony, the out-breath is silence. Whenever your thoughts get too intense and loud, too dissonant to bear, you can just catch the next out-breath outta there. This may sound like denial, but it’s not because you’re going to return to whatever needs your attention. Right now, you are building up trust in yourself that if you get into the pain, you can ease up again.
Turn the attention to the out-breath and feel the silence. The out-breath is always there. It’s the release, a built in letting go that is always available, always ready to take a little pain away. As you pay attention to the outbreath and notice the light easing it brings, say thank you because it helps to practice common courtesy and express thanks for anything that helps.
Now, your mind will wander and miss a bunch of out-breaths, but so what? This is not the time to waste belittling yourself. That’s old and boring and you want something, anything, interesting and new. So instead of harassing yourself when your mind wanders, laugh gently.
Cultivate an appreciation for how silly the mind is, the way it gets bored, goes off on tangents, gets lost. It’s kind of adorable really. Like a young child or a little dog. It knows it’s not supposed to, but the mind just can’t help itself. It slips off trying not to be noticed, but you always do see it eventually, over there, not thinking about the breath at all. You catch the mind wandering and bring it back, gently, like an innocent child or a happy-go-lucky dog.
Getting angry does no good. Yell at the mind and it just yells at you because what exactly do you yell with inside your head? The mind. So if you are yelling at your mind, then your mind is yelling instead of paying attention. So instead of yelling at yourself, give a little knowing chuckle, a smile, see the thoughts your mind found to get in trouble with. Say to yourself, “thought” and watch the thoughts ripple into nothing. Laugh a joyous laugh at just how exactly, perfectly, predictably, your mind is behaving. And then you're ready to pay attention to the next out-breath.
And when you’ve gone through this however many times that feels good or worthwhile or somehow right, or when your timer beeps after 12 minutes, you’re done for today.
Do this enough, and you will develop a way to bring awareness to anything. And for right now, that’s all you need to do.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Saturday, June 27, 2009
The caterpillar shakes in time lapse like one possessed. It shrugs off its skin, like an overcoat, wads it up and sets it aside. You’d think you would be able to see it now, the real thing, the caterpillar naked, shorn of ornament and true, but underneath the mask of colored bands lies armor. We can never see the transformation itself: the rearrangement of cells, the shifting of body parts, the dissolution.
Inside the chrysalis, nothing has a name, but then, before the conscious idea of a form even emerges, the goo inside the armor aligns itself, the unnamed and unnameable cells have been shunted into a pattern and suddenly there is a body. The wings are carefully folded in on themselves, like a parachute ready for use, except that no one has folded them. Instead the cells have just arrived in their places to tell a story.
Once upon a time there were wings. We don’t even know what they look like yet, but we are becoming these wings.
The story breathes and the cells remember. And in remembering, they discover what wings are. The breath of capillary action moves through the wings and they become what they always were, what they were even when the caterpillar was scrunching along eating leaves. It could feel their presence, on another plane, waiting, whispering their story. As the imago emerges from its armor, the cells remember and slowly tell the story of wings.
What story do your cells remember?
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Have the fruit ready to eat the way you want to eat it. I once demanded to eat my banana "like a monkey" when my grandmother tried to slice it up and put it on a plate. But if you picked watermelon, you will probably want to slice it up. And make sure pets can’t get to it (I knew a dog once who loved grapes.) When you've got your fruit ready, go to a place where you can relax comfortably for a while without being disturbed, someplace peaceful. Hammocks are good, but it can be a yoga mat or lazyboy chair, whatever.
Get into a meditative space, breathe deeply, ground, do whatever brings you into awareness of your body. And just get a felt sense of your body. You don’t have to put names to whatever you’re feeling, but if words come, note them and let them go.
When you are ready, eat the fruit. Notice the taste, the texture. Feel yourself chew and swallow. Enjoy every moment.
When you are done, take a moment to notice how your body feels now. Allow all parts of your consciousness to notice the difference. Again, you don’t have to put words to anything, but if they come, notice the words and let them go. For the next while, however long that may be, just lie there and pay attention to your felt sense of your body.
You can fall asleep if you want, especially if you are in a hammock and the afternoon sun is filtering through the tree leaves. If you aren’t in a hammock, feel free to imagine that you are.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
“I am the Wisdom of the Ages, the companion of Adam before she was Adam,” said the small child with her chin lifted just a bit and her voice solemn, then she broke out in a smile and said, “But you can call me Sophie.”
The girl turned to the man next to her.
The man's skin was as red as a ruby, and his eyes were small and black. “Oh, are we giving out our names now? Shouldn’t we wear nametags? ‘Hello, my name is…’ and that sorta thing?”
He said this smiling, but he was looking right at Sophie and leaning toward her in such a way that Fowl Feng bared his teeth and growled, “I wouldn’t be saying that kind of thing what with you looking like a boiled lobster and me being rather hungry!”
From the other side of the campfire, the pelican shook its feathers and replied, “Don’t let him get under your skin Feng. It’s just his way. He’ll argue to the death but he wouldn’t actually fight.”
“Oh, I may just come over there and teach you otherwise!” said the red-skinned man.
“Of course you may,” said the Pelican, and turned to Feng, “You may call him Rubeus. And I am Hydra, the Augmenting Mother.”
“Nice to meet you all, I’m sure,” said Feng, and then because Rubeus was smirking at him, he swallowed his fear, tilted his chin up, and added, “And who are you, big guy?” to the hooded figure.
“Hmmm,” rumbled the figure.
Something moved a few yards behind the voice and then Feng made out more motion above. He shivered as he realized it was all the same giant form rising up into the sky just beyond the light of the fire. Feng was suddenly filled with a burning need to stammer an apology, but stopped as a face loomed out of shadow. The long snout was dead white, the eyes above looked blind with pearly light, and over them two gilded horns curved gracefully.
“Yeah, he’s a big freakin’ dragon,” laughed Rubeus.
The dragon turned to Rubeus and snorted, whipping the red man's clothes about his burly body for an instant.
“Hey, it was a joke!” yelled Rubeus.
“I’m laughing on the inside,” said the dragon. He turned to Fowl Feng. “You may call me Chalydrus.”
Fowl Feng hesitated then dipped his head, not sure what to say. He had a sudden image of himself, racing across a plain, the sky above blackened with the shadow of giant wings. He shook his head and forced his hackles down, refusing to look afraid.
Introductions over, the dragon turned to Sophie and said, “Child, now that we are all here, tell us why we have come.”
Sunday, May 31, 2009
turn your eyes or mind
to a thing,
turn round, turn about,
constantly turning, as if to look behind
turned to gaze on something
a lion retreating
curve, twist, distort
of hair, curl
of a tree, crooked
of fir-needles, bent
turn about, turn round
put an enemy to flight
of a wild boar, turn
upon the hunter
go back and forwards
wandering over the earth,
turn to the place
of the sun, revolve
tossing, of a restlessness
renewed assaults of ills unnumbered
wheeling through a right angle
of ships, putting about, tacking
have a relapse
turn from error, correct,
exact, strict, severe,
be converted, return,
bring into action
of strands, twisting
of a bow, bending
of a river, winding
of a bay, curve
cause to return to the source
that by which all the revolving
spheres are turned
thus turned about, changed
returned to yourself
This is a found poem. I found its phrases among the examples given in Liddell & Scott, the preeminent dictionary of Ancient Greek, for the family of words that begin with epistroph-, the root for Epistrophia, one of Aphrodite's epithets.
Pausanias* tells us that Aphrodite Epistrophia had a sanctuary at Megara. In Pausanias’ passage about the goddess, epistrophia is translated as “she who turns men to love.” This is a translator’s best guess as to what the epithet means, but the family of words in which we find epistrophia has little to do with love and everything to do with turning. Aphrodite Epistrophia is “she who turns men’s minds,” and because the she who is doing the turning is the goddess of love, love has to be in the equation somewhere. We are, however, left with the question unanswered whether she is turning minds to love or with love.
Epistrophia \eh-'pis-tro-fee-a\ She who turns.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Many species of animal can live quite happily in captivity. Wild boars, for instance, are often glad to give up a little room to roam if the fence keeps the hyenas away. Some species, like Red Tails, thrive in captivity. Well, it’s not exactly captivity when you let the bird off the tether to hunt. You are literally setting the bird free all the time. And Red Tails will come back. They are a lot like cats, another top predator species who really doesn’t mind someone else doing the hunting.
But Ferruginous hawks belong at the other end of the spectrum. Ferrugs live their lives assuming that once they’ve fledged, they will always get their own food or they will starve. Something in their biology makes it very difficult to accept or trust help. They barely like members of their own species, hanging out with their mates only to raise the kids high enough to kick 'em out of the nest. In captivity, ferrugs' gut instincts scream to get away, but the jesses (the leather ankle leashes used in falconry) keep them tethered and they must override their terror repeatedly. It wears on them and usually they frazzle out after just a couple of years of being cared for.
So when Tiresias was swept up in the invisible storm of a windmill and smashed down hard enough to literally have his eyes knocked out, he and the rest of the natural world assumed he would just die with no one to care.
But humans are a strange bunch. And the one who saw Tiresias fall brought him to the hospital at the Lindsey Wildlife Museum where the medical staff cleaned his wounds and drained his now empty eye sockets, gave him fluids and left him in blessed solitude overnight to pass out of this life as peacefully as possible.
Hawk brains are almost entirely devoted to the sense of sight. Hawks can generally hear pretty well, but they hunt so high up that smell is irrelevant. Really, sight is the way they get their information about the world. For Tiresias, the wide world from horizon to horizon that he had always known was now shrunk down to the physical limits of his body and the sounds of unseen people approaching. What we know of Tiresias is that his body was built for self-reliance and sight, and he had lost both completely.
We also know that for some reason he chose to live anyway.
Not only did Tiresias live, he recovered his ability to fly. His wings worked perfectly. If he’d been able to see, he would have been released back into the wild. But the one thing left of his original being was denied to him because of his blindness.
This didn’t stop him from trying. Staff members found him restless on the glove. He could hear spring and it made him stretch out his wings. We don’t know who had the idea originally, but at some point someone took Tiresias for a short glide in the park next to the museum. It took the hawk a few tries to test the limits of the long jess, but eventually, Tiresias learned to be flown. To do this, he had to trust the human at the other end of the jess not to fly him into a tree or a wall.
Tiresias lived at the museum for many years beyond the span of most ferrugs.
All life pushes against the limits of time, the current moment; we are all at the cutting edge of evolution. From the amoeba to the human, the physical vehicles that allow life and consciousness to come into being are all the very latest models. And in all of them, the possibility exists to push past the instincts and habits that arise from one’s physiology to become something more than just physical. We can look at our limits and see our own opportunities for adventure into the unknown.
Picture Credit: © 2006 Louis-M. Landry. [Alas, this is not a picture of Tiresias, himself. It is a different Ferrug and also how I imagine Tiresias looking as he hunts in the Summerlands.]
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Scientists have shown that the frontal lobe governs the conscious control of emotion, abstract thought, the appreciation of humor, the awareness of past and future time, and the ability to imagine the mental processes of other beings. The frontal lobe allows us to wax nostalgic about what might have been and use the subjunctive past perfect to communicate that nostalgia to our friends - “If I had gone to New York that summer, I would have been able to shed my mediocre suburban existence and write that gritty novel about struggling artists and rent control!” - then laugh about the whole thing and write the novel anyway.
If you read the literature on the frontal lobe in neuroscience texts, you’ll hear a lot about how this lobe makes humans unique and extra-super special among living things. In other words, the frontal lobe contains the current wunderkind abilities that we are using to console ourselves for being so separate from the rest of creation. In fact, it’s the abilities of the frontal lobe that allow us to imagine we are separate in the first place.
In Jewish and Christian myth, this process is described as a fall from grace. The feeling of separateness is understood as being kicked out of a garden. Because they ate the apple of knowledge, Adam and Eve now have to work for a living. And that’s an interesting way of looking at things because we wouldn’t be slaving in the fields all day if we couldn’t plan for the future in the first place.
But more often in creation myths, we find that the development of frontal lobe abilities is seen as a way humans have been gifted to talk with the gods. In Greek myth, we have Prometheus coming down from Olympus bringing fire and foresight. Sure, Zeus was angry, until the laws of ritual sacrifice were laid out and a means of relating to the gods was established for humans. In Chinese myth, Nuwa created humans because she wanted someone to talk to.
These creation myths are a certain kind of description of something that is biologically real. (Which is not the same thing as saying that myths aren’t true. All myths are perfectly true. They just aren’t centered in Malkuth. Myths interact with the biological in some way that mystics come to understand and devout atheists continue to deny.) When we started developing the neural structures in the frontal lobe, we hominids starting going where no one had gone before: deep into our own personal existences.
For some reason, our species embarked on a path that has brought us a lot of interesting times. Knowledge has certainly brought us some wonderful things, but the level or horribleness we’ve been able to achieve has led us to rationalize our evolution as a break with the divine. We came up with the Golden Rule and the Inquisition. Martin Luther King and his assassination. We can now build a fire to cook our food and burn our witches. Our ability to gather and retain knowledge sets us apart, and in that separateness we can do amazing and horrific things because now we can imagine that the person lying next to us is not actually having our experience, but their own, and we can’t ever know exactly what that is. Sure, we can always talk to them and try to learn something about it, but they could lie, or not want to talk and then what’ll we do?
Welcome to divinity.
[What's your favorite creation myth?]
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Each of us holds a piece of the world, our very own hand on the elephant. We have our own experiences. Well, I have my experience. And I’m assuming you have yours. You, on the other hand, have your experience, and must assume I have mine. This is the real faith necessary for eternal life.
Over and over again, the things that are important in life prove to be impossible to know by a single individual. We can learn our perspective of the thing, but we can only begin know the thing itself when we start to listen to each other. The universe is made this way for a reason.
If you love that elephant and you really want to know what it is, then know that every person has their hand on it somewhere. And that person has a gift for you. Only they can tell you what that part of the elephant is like. You just have to listen.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
In Alchemy, that’s just the beginning. There are two ways to start an alchemical process. You can either burn things up or let them rot, but either way, you can't stop now. You’ve got all the Work in front of you.
The burn is called calcination. You blacken with a dry heat, sucking moisture out while making the soul dance like its feet are being shot at. Meanwhile the rest becomes brittle and breaks apart. You lose everything before you know it and are left with ashes. This is the dry way.
Signs that you are in calcination: you have lost something, maybe a lot of somethings, that you thought you couldn’t live without. Maybe you never imagined they would be taken from you. You spend your time trying to explain why those things are gone. Sometimes you blame yourself, sometimes you blame others. Exes are prime targets as are parents.
The rot is called putrefaction. You blacken everything by breaking it down to the point where you can’t tell what anything used to be. This process can be so slow you don’t realize it’s happening until you look around and don’t recognize your life. You’ve let things go and now they seem worthless and stink a bit. This is the wet way.
Signs that you are in putrefaction: You don’t know who you are anymore, and looking back, you cannot tell when that happened. The things that used to seem important to you, things you once believed would always be important, look a bit gross. You spend your time feeling weighted down by the past.
In both these cases, the process is the process. You can’t stop it once it starts, but you can waste your time complaining about it. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with complaining. And a good righteous indignation at the unfairness of life is a sweet little chocolate on the tongue during hard times.
But complaining or looking for blameworthy scapegoats or stalking your ex - while highly entertaining - can only get you so far. And eventually the feeling of knowing you were wronged gives way to wanting to do something different. If you want to get out of the beginning and on to something else, you’ve got to pay attention.
And remember, this isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
People who are inclined to physical directness tend to gravitate toward the hard science-style physical descriptions. They build stills and ovens, are careful with their crucibles, and their glassware collection is something to see, but not necessarily drink out of. (John French, in his treatise on distillation goes so far as to describe a method of mending cracked glass with beaten egg whites.) Something about seeing a metal go through a process of sublimation allows them to open to the mysteries of the universe. The way some metals change colors during redox reactions is a kind of proof that the Laws work outside of any lamentably subjective human perspective.
Others find that the processes described in alchemical texts make more sense if understood as colorful descriptions of psychological processes. In this approach, the idea that alchemists are trying to create some kind of physical stone through primitive chemistry seems a bit silly, and psychological alchemists are quick in defense of their favorite writers. Of course the ancient alchemists were not so naive as to think they could actually turn lead into gold, they laugh. That wasn’t the point of real Alchemy at all! The writers who talked as if they were actually making a stone were either real alchemists being metaphorical or pretenders too afraid to integrate their shadows into a more fully actualized Self.
Still others find that the truth of alchemy lies in the body itself. The process of digestion is the ultimate act of transformation. The work is to transform the Self, usually considered to be the mixture of the fixed (physical) and the volatile (spiritual) together through the taking in of food. We eat the dumb cow and turn it into human flesh. In this view, psychological alchemy is woefully incomplete and physical alchemy is merely a diverting illustration of principles.
Each of these approaches has its hand on the elephant. In this case, the elephant is a holographic universe in which any piece contains a picture of the entire universe. The problem with holograms is that although you keep the whole image no matter how tiny you make the pieces; the smaller the pieces, the fuzzier the picture. If you’ve only got the one hand on the elephant, you may get a view of the whole universe, but it’ll be hard to make out what anything is supposed to be.
What you can always have your hand on are your psychological processes and your physical well-being. Those are two pieces of the elephant and for now, the psychological and physiological are all you need to start seeing what the universe is like. All that is required is your conscious attention.
Homework: learn about fermentation by allowing yourself to veg out watching t.v. all day while eating homemade kimchee.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
When you have satisfied your sweet tooth and tire of jumping to your death, you must do the impossible. Take one step to your right. Now walk forever.
When you feel like stopping, keep walking. You will hate the walking. That won’t change anything. You can hate the walking so much your heart breaks, so much you would throw your mother in front of a bus, so much you would give the job to a small child who doesn’t know what she will become at such a tender age.
There will come a point when you know you can’t keep walking. At that moment, when you want nothing more than to set your burden down, you must - and this is very important - keep walking. This is a good time to start begging. Begging the universe for a rest area won’t change anything, but it’s something you can do while you walk.
You will always be walking. You will tread over every kind of land. You will not pay enough attention to find your way back. You may not even remember all the places you have been or even care. The walking just means you are alive. It is not something to pay attention to. If you spend your attention on how much walking sucks, you will never do anything else but walk and hate walking.
When we begin to allow pain to just be, we begin to live. Accept that pain is simply a part of being alive and let it go. It doesn’t make the walking any more bearable to blame your shoes, or the sky, or the people walking next to you.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
FOWL FENG IS DEAD! KILLED BY RARELY THERE! LONG LIVE FOWL FENG!
Fowl Feng found himself surrounded by moonlight that faded after a moment until he could barely see. He was walking on a path, but he couldn’t tell where. He stopped and looked behind him. This was not his city. The dirt scar of a road just cut through darkness until it disappeared in the distance. He decided to keep going.
After a short time or a long time, the darkness opened up and he came to a campfire surrounded by a startling collection of individuals. Nearest to him was a man with red skin. You been sitting too close to the fire, thought Fowl Feng. The man chuckled. On the other side of the fire was a big bird of some kind. Feng had seen them at the beach. Not a gull.
“A pelican,” said the bird, and Fowl Feng realized something else was going on.
A third figure, off to one side said in a deep voice, “Come Fowl Feng. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Fowl Feng cringed and his fur stood straight up. He tried to see who was speaking, but the firelight didn’t seem to reach that far. Feng could only get a whiff of something metallic overlaid with the scent of decaying leaves.
He was about to run when a small child sitting next to the red man said, “It’s okay, Feng. You can sit next to me.”
The child had black skin and looked just like any other child, except that from her back two large, green wings arched over her head. She patted the ground next to her and Fowl Feng walked to her and lay down.
Sunday, March 29, 2009
But it's not that simple. We breathe in molecules; oxygen, nitrogen, carbon. We eat all sorts of atoms. We don't know where all they've been. And those atoms of unknown origin are what our bodies use to repair cells, distill neurotransmitters, concoct enzymes, and cook up hormones.
Each of our cells has membranes that allow only things as small as a molecule in or out. You eat something, like a banana, and it gets broken down in your gut into molecules that pass through the wall of your small intestine into your body. Those molecules get passed around from cell to cell as needed. If one cell needs potassium, it sucks some in. If a cell has too much potassium, it pushes some molecules back out through its membrane. Eventually, some of the potassium molecules that were once part of a banana, and more recently part of you, get sent packing completely to possibly fertilize a banana tree if you live where banana trees grow.
Your whole body is made up of molecules borrowed temporarily from the rest of the world. What you add to those molecules is your own style of consciousness. You can tack on a bit of energetic feeling to those potassium molecules. What will you give to the banana tree? That feeling of disgust as you look at your flabby tummy and smell the sweat you’ve built up coming home on the bus after a day working a job you hate? Or something else?
Breathe in and feel whatever you feel. Breathe out and thank all those molecules heading off to other bodies, wish them well, for all the cells they touched.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
When we last left our bodies, they were falling. That’s what matter does. It settles. Matter is just energy slowed down to stillness. It gets stirred up by the eddies of time and space either chancing to move toward the source it can never forget, or dropping helplessly back down to the bottom. It cannot move. It can only remember.
To move we need something else. Whether it’s the breaking of carbon bonds, the flush of love, the roar of anger, or the fusion of hydrogen, to move we need more than matter. How are you different from a table? You can move yourself. There is a spark within you that allows you to move faster than chance.
And it is so tempting to want to separate that wonderful spark. In depression, the body is such a burden and source of pain. We could just loose that spark from this leaden body and be free at last.
But-you knew there’d be a catch-that spark doesn’t know the way home. Set it free of the body and it will splutter around the astral planes like a burst balloon until it slows, falls, and becomes a body bereft itself, finally remembering in that stillness just where it came from.
For this whole life thing to work, that spark has to be in a body, the body remembering the way and the spark getting the body off its ass. We can call this volatilizing the fixed and fixing the volatile. That which is determined and still, locatable in space and time, is fixed. That which is known only by its velocity is the volatile. When we bring them together we get life. Alchemy is all about the different ways to do this.
One of my favorite ways is Earth Wind & Fire.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
But sometimes the finger, itself, is worth looking at.
Hermes has some wonderful epithets. He's the Thief, the Watcher, the Whisperer. (An epithet is a descriptive phrase that can substitute for a name. In the US these days, only wrestlers and career criminals have epithets, and each usually has only one for branding purposes. But back in the old days, gods could have several epithets and if you were too foolish to figure out that the Whisperer was also the Thief, well, whoosh! there went your lunch money.) My personal favorite is Polutropos.
Polutropos \pol-'ew-tro-pos\ Many-turned, much traveled, versatile, wily, manifold.
Polutropos often means “well-traveled,” and if you've ever had the joy of going on a long trip, you'll know this meaning well. Every unexpected set-back leads to either the most amazing memory you'll keep or total disaster. To deal with the kinds of twists that happen while traveling, one must become versatile, able to do a little of this or that as necessary depending on what fate has done to the trains. This kind of versatility can make one wily. You begin to see the next twist before you’ve reached the border patrol and are already working out exactly what to omit from your reason for entering the country.
The part of polutropos that holds all this together is that final entry: manifold. With many folds.
In Ancient Greek, some interesting things could be manifold: vicissitudes, actions, fate, desires, sacred rites and, um, kaka. (Kaka is Greek for “bad things”-and you thought it was just a childish word for crap.)
Our desires are what bring us vicissitudes. We can work with our desires through sacred rites (ritual becomes sacred when you want it to) to realize the connection between our actions and our fates and thus begin to lessen the kaka inherent in desire.
It’s nice to see this collection of intangible things as a family, all clearly sharing some essence while each is distinct and sometimes wildly different from the others at least on the surface. It’s also important to see that the shared resemblance, the secret mark that proves each one has a right to attend family reunions, is the nature of having many folds, seemingly random turns, switchbacks, loopdeloops. How quickly one’s desires turn into a source of sorrow. How often do we seek to rid ourselves of some trouble only to have our bane reveal itself in the next act to be our heart’s desire? This is the polutropos shape of the universe. It is the way the Laws work when they aren’t merely hanging around being theoretical, the form they take the moment we step onto the path and begin our travels.
Hermes Polutropos is that part of divine wisdom that is well-travelled. He’s the part of g*d (whatever that is) who knows that whether it’s rainy or sunny, he’s gonna need a hat.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
The two dogs fell upon each other all slaver jawed and writhing mass, each aiming for the throat and twisting out of reach at the same time. These were dogs whose ancestors had been bad ass alley monsters for generations. They got down to business.
“You’re some well-brushed monkey’s leash bait, you are!” yowled Fowl Feng.
“Your mother suckles cats!” snarled Rarely There.
What had been red-hot rage turned brilliant white as both dogs found purchase. But Rarely There’s was just that much closer to the vein. He turned his head to stare into Fowl Feng’s yellow eyes as he let his rage clamp down. The alley turned silent as the life left Fowl Feng. The beaming eyes dimmed and faded, and he fell to the alley floor.
Rarely There stood over Fowl Feng in triumph. He felt the blood of his ancestors rising up through his paws. It was good to be victorious.
He looked up to realize the day had passed. He hadn’t thought that any dog could fight a whole day! This had been a glorious battle. He would find his pack and tell them of the death of Fowl Feng of the Yellow Eye. He would tell how he had fought an entire day to rid the city of… He looked down at Feng’s lifeless body. Rather small, really. And it looked like he hadn’t eaten in a while. Well, that just made him "Feng the Ravenous," didn't it? And Rarely There was pretty sure he had heard that Fowl Feng killed puppies. Yes, he knew it was true. So he had killed, no, he had destroyed the Puppy Killer, the ravenous Puppy Killer. Yes. They had fought the entire day, and Rarely There had prevailed!
He turned to leave the alley and found the Moon, full and round, rising up over the distant mountains. She was singing.
“So many dogs,” she sang. “So many alleys, dark and fowl. My children, my children.”
Rarely There listened to the song, at once so sad and sweet. It pushed all other thoughts from him and he sat down and howled. The Moon sang with him.
“So many ways, so many songs.” And the song changed. It became a lilting, traipsing song, a song that made the roads stretch toward the mountains.
Rarely There jumped up and ran from the alley.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Our bodies, the physical parts with all the excesses and things exuding out, all the odors and tics, everything that drives you up the wall, everything that embarrasses you at parties or public speaking engagements or first dates, that's what is most in love with the divine (that means you.)
To really love, you must allow your body to teach you how.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Poison leaves you some trouble that must now be overcome, an antidote must be found or the effects must be waited out. If you make it through the poison, you will have proven something to yourself. You will know more. You will have developed a skill or an ability you didn't have before. And now that you have the skill the poison gave you, you'll be asked to use that skill. Be warned; skills learned from poison are rarely for nice situations, although once I did learn embroidery from a poisonous relationship. If you use your skill well and wisely, you'll find you have changed some small part of the world, accomplished something more difficult than you thought you were capable of. And if you let yourself appreciate that, you will find peace.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
On the day that Fowl Feng faced Rarely There in battle, the morning sun came in on blazing clouds, hustling the stars out of the sky to look upon the great booming day. Fowl Feng took one look at Rarely There's mangy coat of piebald wire and hated the dog deep down in his empty belly. Rarely There returned the favor, immediately harboring a deep disgust for Fowl's wild yellow wolf eyes. The two squared off. The city around them would have hushed in anticipation, but it had two car chases, a wedding, an apartment fire, and an indie-rock concert to contend with. As the adversaries circled each other, a current built up between them, raising their fur and making their jaws ache and slaver. In the sky, a bird banked sharply to the south like a flag being dropped. Both dogs fell upon the other.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Our ability to grow has been labeled original sin and used to shame us. We fall down. We fail. We hurt others and ourselves. And sometimes we imagine that because we have done some bad things, we can never become better. Or that if we were good enough for greatness to be possible, we’d already be there. But that’s not how it works. We get better by the downfalls. The things that can shame us can also change us.
One useful symbol for getting handle on all this in the Green Lion. The Green Lion is our urge to perfection. It is that which moves us to grow, to push past pain, to struggle forward. It assumes that we aren't all there yet. We haven't completely arrived. We've started something, but it ain't done by a longshot. In mystical terms, we've discovered there's a way out of our misery, but we're still looking for the door.
Like a lot of alchemical characters, the Green Lion is shown eating something. Alchemical characters are often eating. Dragons devour each other. Snakes eat their own tails. Wolves devour kings. Fathers eat their children. Hermaphrodites eat coconuts. (Okay, I made that last one up.) Eating is a communion with the rest of the world. In the case of the Green Lion, he eats the Sun.
The Sun is the underlying source of all energy on this planet. (And that's true of all the other planets out in space as well. Different stars, same Sun.) On a nutritional level, plants use sunlight to build carbohydrates thus forming the basis of the entire food chain. On a spiritual level, the Sun is taken into the soul and fixed as part of an individual. We are all part sunlight.
So eat a plant. A big green leafy thing like chard or beet greens. (And notice how much our culture hates leafy greens. Aren't they just the hardest to get into your health conscious diet? There's a reason for that.) Find a leaf you like, but go as dark green as you can. (We're keeping things simple here, but other dark colors work too so if you really like purple cabbage, go for it.) And as you eat it, know that you are eating the Sun. Be a Green Lion.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
There is a school of thought in Qabalistic circles that the Tree of Life originally had just four sepira. It was perfect. Nothing moved. Nothing breathed. Nothing died. Nothing loved.
And that was just too unbearable. So we cracked it open, dropped the bottom out of the whole shebang and came up with the universe. All sorts of things happening now.
What was the sound of the Tree falling at the beginning of time? It was the sound of a billion billion particles of light bursting out of a singular point of possibility. Duh.
We call the stuff that fell furthest “matter” and some people believe that's all that's left of the Big Bang. These materialists can't tell you why the Big Bang happened nor anything about what happened right before, but they will think you are awfully silly if you think there's more to the universe than this far-flung stuff.
Other people believe that this far-flung stuff is eeeevil. Flesh is evil, sex is evil, eating is evil. They call the distance we've fallen a sin and work to flee towards the center by leaving all this shit behind.
But every bit of stuff, no matter where it landed, was once part of perfection. So what really fell? G*d (whatever that is.) We did this. We the people, and the animals, the plants, the minerals. Thoughts had a hand as did hunger, beauty and sorrow.
The story goes that the journey back to the perfect source is actually amazing. We can't always tell because we're too caught up in it. And it's not really a journey back because we are what we came from and by journeying we are changed. But whatever...
The stuff that fell furthest is the stuff that has the longest journey. It's the stuff that believed in the plan the most, leaped off the cliff with the greatest trust and the biggest YEEHAW! Let's get this incarnation party started! They say that's why Malkuth, the lowliest sepira, the kingdom of Earth, looks up at Kether, the Crown, and blows kisses.
That's the story, anyway.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
My friend and I had gone down to see another friend in a stage production of Clockwork Orange where Alex and the gang are women. Total horrorshow! Who wouldn't want to see that! But we got our times mixed up and ended up getting to the theater about seven hours early. Fortunately, the Rosicrucian Museum was just across the street and rather than lament the missed play, we decided to enjoy the museum.
The museum has replicas of all sorts of ancient artifacts from statues of Bast, to perfume jars, to a full scale Rosetta stone*. It even has a passageway built like a tomb. And for a small museum, the bookstore was great. There was a Bast statue that would look fetching on the Altar of Strife, a large selection of Egyptian themed refrigerator magnets, and an extensive collection of books written by members of the Rosicrucian order such as "Rosicrucian Principles for Home and Business," by H. Spencer Lewis and "Great Women Initiates, or the Feminine Mysteries," by Helene Bernard.
And did you know that rich Egyptians used to insure they'd get out of working in the afterlife by placing “shabtis” or “Answerers” in their tombs. This figures were expected to volunteer for duty if any gods came recruiting for hard labor. I want my own answerer.
*(One of the heartwarming moments of the day was when a young girl of about eight or nine stopped dead in her tracks upon spying this. Her jaw dropped and she whispered, “The Rosetta Stone.” That's what we need to be teaching our children, not how to get out of doing anything useful in the next life.)
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
I'm getting too heady and theoretical. I need to bring this whole subject back into the real world. So I'm going to focus for a moment on something that may seem at first to have little to do with whatever you've read before about Alchemy. But this has everything to do with Alchemy. It's Alchemy taken out of the laboratory and done right here and now, every minute.
Depression is unlike anything else. It is its own thing. And we don't have much in the way of language to talk about depression. This makes depression even more isolating. It's impossible to tell someone your experience when they've only ever been sad. So to understand what depression can be like, we have to liken it to other things.
Depression is, in some ways, like diabetes. If a diabetic's blood sugar gets too low, all sorts of bad things, including death, can happen. Diabetics have to learn how to avoid doing things that will bring their blood sugar down too low. They have to eat well, test their blood levels regularly, measure their insulin accurately, and understand what might make their blood sugar levels irregular (like coming down with a cold or being under a lot of stress at work.)
People who are prone to depression–either those who are in a major depression or those, like me, who deal with the continual state of dysthymia–will find that lots of outside things will bring on depressed symptoms. Eating the wrong food, seeing the wrong movie, failing, succeeding, falling in love, getting in an argument, can bring on depression just like too much insulin can bring on low blood sugar.
Depression, like a diabetic low blood sugar, can be fatal. Depression is a delusional state (whether it's any more delusional than happiness is another matter.) When our sense of well-being drops too low, we become delusional and capable of really hurting, even killing ourselves. Just like a diabetic with low blood sugar may struggle against eating, a depressed person will struggle against whatever might help them out of that state. It's really, really important to remember this when you're severely depressed. Just like a diabetic must just eat something, a depressed person must just do what they've learned will help.
Eat blueberries. Get some exercise. Look at uplifting images. Listen to happy music. Make these responses to depression a medical treatment; think of these activities as tools. They are not the end in themselves. They are the way. Doing them will physically change how your brain is working. You can calm your amygdala and invigorate your basal ganglia by doing certain simple things.
You will have different things that lift your well-being. When you are less depressed, look for these things. Collect them. When you get depressed, do these things, even if you feel they can't possibly work this time. (That feeling is part of the delusion. Simply deciding to do something and following though will be enough to get some wiggle room.)
Like a diabetic must learn what drops their blood sugars, you must learn what drops your well-being. Well-being is a feeling of aliveness, of optimism. It is the sense that we can plan for a future we desire and take steps that move us toward that future. We experience ourselves as beings who can affect change in our lives and in the world. We sense our deep connection to other living things.
When we are not feeling this, something is dropping our well-being. It's okay to arrange your life to include enough good stuff to keep your well-being up. It's okay to exclude those things that drop your well-being. It's more than okay. It's what you need to do to live.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Hermes has always traipsed through history and the advent of Christianity didn't even slow him down. He is master at putting on thin disguises that never quite cover him completely but somehow manage to conceal him long enough that he can slip by without alerting the authorities. In Ancient Egypt, he wore a monkey suit to play cards with the the Moon, winning just enough days in the year so that Nut could give birth to the new pantheon. In Ancient Greece he dressed up as a baby to steal cows. In more recent centuries, he's been seen dressed as a centurion delivering express mail. (Seriously, a centurion delivering the mail. That's funny!) He's been Thoth, Hermes, Saint Expedite. And whatever role he's played, he's always been something more. He's neither Oz nor the man behind the curtain. He's not even the wind that blew everyone off course. He is that which takes advantage of the wind, of deception, of whatever he finds.
And that leads us to his role in Alchemy. In Alchemy, he is Hermes Trismegistus, otherwise known as a fraudulent scholar who wrote a book pretending to contain ancient wisdom. While other gods were getting their temples destroyed, Hermes proclaimed himself Three Times Great! and got himself a book contract. It takes a special kind of genius to flourish as Hermes has done.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
But unlike coconuts, carbuncles themselves are rarely funny. They are either beautiful or painful. You see, "carbuncle" has collected a pair of the most mismatched definitions ever. A carbuncle can either be a beautiful gem, such as a ruby, or a skin wound that oozes pus.
A carbuncle is something that can be beautiful and priceless beyond measure, coveted and killed for. Or it can be that painful thing which makes others reel back is disgust. We all have our own carbuncle, and at times it can be difficult to see the ruby in the boil because it's not just a matter of perspective. When the carbuncle hurts, it is not a ruby. We can't turn it into a ruby just by knowing it could become one. We have to work to make it a ruby. And that's hard to do when you're in pain and don't really believe carbuncles can be rubies.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
In the Western Mystery Traditions, Alchemy is just plain weird. Sure it’s got dead women having sex with giant snakes, but can Alchemy really speak to modern people?
Of all of the various practices and philosophies that make up the spiritual apparatus in the West, from Qabalah and Christian Mysticism to Wicca and the various Reconstructivist movements, Alchemy gives us a process, a practical guide to the direct experience of the universal reality underpinning all mysteries. It is the Western version of Tantra, Taoism and Ayerveda. And it just may involve having sex with giant snakes.
You never know.