What Rough Beast?

William Butler Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911

I posted William Butler Yeats’ best known poem, The Second Coming five years ago. Its time has come round again. Yeats (1865-1939), one of our greatest English language poets, had an abiding interest in the mythology and folklore of his native Ireland.

He was also a member of The Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to western esotericism. The Golden Dawn developed a series of visualizations and meditations designed to awaken subtle areas of consciousness. Yeats presented The Second Coming as a breakthrough of visionary experience, framed within his personal theory of  “gyres,” or cycles of time, analogous to the eastern idea of “yugas,” or ages.

Written in 1919 and published in 1921 The Second Coming was naturally read at the time as a reaction to the horrors of World War I. But the archetypal imagery Yeats brought up from the depths cuts deeper than specific personal or historical issues. It speaks as clearly to our own times, as if the forces that break and end eras and empires and civilizations are not exhausted in a decade or two. And though we can all identify our own Rough Beasts du jour, that doesn’t answer the key question of where the forces that drive such men to loose the blood-dimmed tide may come from…

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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The Crazy Wisdom of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers and fan in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” this summer’s biographical film about Fred Rogers, he says “Love – or its absence, is all that really matters.” The sincerity and quiet strength of the man, an ordained minister who chose to express this philosophy through the medium of children’s television, is one of the reasons the movie won a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As I watched Rogers’ interaction with children, the only comparison I could think of was clips I’ve seen of the Dalai Lama with young people. Both men – bodhisattvas by any reckoning – never lost their connection to the wonders and terrors of childhood.

I also thought of Saint Francis during the scene of Fred Rogers with Koko the Gorilla, who watched him on TV and was a fan.

At the end of the movie, we see a world that is changing for the worse. In a clip from a Fox News broadcast, commentators condemn Rogers for teaching children that they are all precious and lovable just the way they are. Let that sink in for a moment!

After his death, protestors gathered across from his memorial service to condemned him, not because they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), but because he accepted gays. One child in the crowd who looked miserable – in contrast to the children on Mr. Rogers’ show – held a sign reading, “God Hates America.” If Rogers had been there, he might have reminded the child and his parents that Jesus’ response to everyone he met was, “Neither do I condemn you.”

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired 50 years ago this summer. Watching this movie, I thought of the voice-over during the opening scene of Gandhi: “People of the future will find it hard to believe that such a man existed.”

Fifty years ago, America felt like felt like a nation torn apart: an escalating war in Vietnam; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed; the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic convention, were punctuation marks in a year of one bad headline after another. Frightening times, yes, but no one living then would have ever imagined a summer in which we’d see children caged in concentration camps as a fascist administration, emulating the tactics of 20th century dictators, tries to stir up anger and fear at a people convenient to scapegoat. Fred Rogers would have been heartbroken!

What would he have done?

The movie showed Rogers’ testimony before a congressional committee that seemed determined to gut funding for PBS. With quiet sincerity, in a brief speech, he convinced them to do otherwise. He would have certainly found a way to speak before congress.

Beyond that, it’s impossible to say, but it seems that those who behave as heroes in the face of naked evil – people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and others, find ways to avoid growing numb in the face of repeated outrage, while keeping the anger alive, but under control, so it can be harnessed as energy.

One thing Mr. Rogers would have certainly told us is this: in the 2014 midterm elections, only seven states saw a voter turnout higher than 50% (source: The United States Elections Project). He would have made certain that every child in the audience understood how important it is that this November be different.

Now that Rogers is gone, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves!

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A Buddhist Statement on the Separation of Families

“Whatever the legal status of those attempting to enter the US, separating children from their parents is a contravention of basic human rights. Parents seeking asylum make long, dangerous and arduous journeys in an attempt to find safety and well-being for their precious children. Ripping these vulnerable children from their parents is cruel, inhumane, and against the principles of compassion and mercy espoused by all religious traditions…

Separating children from their parents and holding them in detention inflicts terrible and needless trauma and stress on young children that hampers and damages their development, causing long-term damage. This policy being employed on United States soil is morally unconscionable. That such egregious actions be employed as a deterrent for families seeking entry and/or asylum in the U.S. – using the sacred bond between innocent youth and their parents – is unjustifiable on any level.”

A Statement on the Separation of Families.

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The Crazy Wisdom of R. Mutt

In the first of this series of posts, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, I spoke of Picasso’s leap of vision and imagination in 1942, when he sculpted a bull’s head by swapping the usual positions of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Nowadays we call such creations “found object sculptures,” but Picasso and other artists of his time called them, “readymades,” a name coined by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Marcel Duchamp 1952 (Photo by Eliot Elisofon//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Though Picasso gained more notoriety, Duchamp was the more revolutionary artist, and shaped the course of 20th century art more profoundly. “By challenging the very notion of what is art, his first ‘readymades’ sent shock waves across the art world that can still be felt today…Duchamp is generally considered to be the father of Conceptual Art.” (1)

Duchamp, who was even better at mathematics in school than art, rapidly lost interest in art that appealed to the eyes only. “Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” (2)   Continue reading

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Reflections on Crazy Wisdom

So far in this 21st century, much of our conventional wisdom has failed us. Crazy times demand a matching wisdom, and these are crazy times. That made it all the more strange that I couldn’t seem to write a followup piece to my last post, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, which I thought would be the start of a series.

I’ve come to believe it’s because Picasso and the others I’d planned to feature were exemplars in their fields, people we think of as “special,” a breed apart from the rest of us. This is the opposite of the real point I want to make. The modern concept of “genius” was born in the 18th century. Of far more use to us now is the original meaning of this Latin word:

Genius of a family. Roman, 1st c. Photo by Luis Garcia, 2009. CC-by-sa-3.0

“In ancient Rome, the genius (plural genii) was the guiding spirit…of a person, family, or place. The noun is related to the Latin verb, genui, genitus, ‘to bring into being, create, produce’, as well as to the Greek…word for birth.” [1]

The genius of a man, or Juno of a woman, was similar to our modern idea of a guardian angel – a protective spirit as well as a creative guide to our individual destiny  and life’s meaning [2].

From this perspective the difference between you and me and the great creative spirits of history is not that they have a genius and we don’t. It is more a matter of degree – “The Force is strong in that one.”

Since none of us really believe that some white-hatted genius is going to ride into town and save us from ourselves, it is more important than ever for as many as possible to find their genius or juno within and begin to listen and cultivate its wisdom. Continue reading

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Crazy Wisdom is No Bull!

Bull’s Head, 1942, by Pablo Picasso

“Crazy Wisdom” is an attribution given to certain “unconventional” holy men in eastern traditions, but it applies equally well to some of our western saints. Saint Francis preached to birds and wolves, while Aquinas, after a lifetime of scholarship, had a vision at the end of his life that caused him to declare that all of his writings “were so much straw.”

“Crazy Wisdom” is not some rarified, exalted state of mind, accessible only to the gifted few. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master with whom I have been privileged to study, says that when a person is able to cut through conditioning and begin to connect to their Source, their Inner Wisdom, one typical reaction is flexibility and freedom from our own “knee-jerk” reactions, as well as from cultural conventions that have lost their meaning or usefulness. No one said it better than Emily Dickinson:

Much Madness is divinest sense (620)

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail – 
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain –

I know of no simpler and better illustration of how this works than Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” a found object sculpture he created in 1942. He was looking for “ready made” objects in a junkyard, and saw a bicycle seat lying near a pair of disconnected handlebars. In that instant, the Source of creativity within him saw a pattern no previous artist had.

Why Picasso but none of the bicyclists or sculptors before him? Tenzin Wangyal would say that he was present, fully aware, with a mind empty of other concerns. He wasn’t focused on what he was going to have for lunch or any of the other myriad concerns that occupy most of our waking hours.

Again, this vision of new connections is not reserved for famous artists, but is available to anyone who can find a way to clear their vision and mind and tune into the moment. Nothing, nothing, nothing may be more important at this time, when “the starkest Madness” rules our land.

To again quote Buckminster Fuller, in the previous post: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

An added benefit is that this kind of thing drives literalists nuts. Beancounters and most politicians can’t deal with this sort of ambiguity. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” sang Bob Dylan 50+ years ago, and it may be even more true now.

So go out and have some fun and be subversive – find some connections you’ve never noticed before!

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A change coming

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Arthur Hughes, 1870, public domain.

I’ve been enjoying the recording of a discussion at a conference with James Hillman and Michael Meade on literal, psychological, and mythological modes of understanding.

Hillman, a former director of the Jung Institute in Switzerland, has been the most prolific and influential of post-Jungian thinkers. He spent his life as champion of psyche, soul, and imagination in a world that has too few such champions. Hillman took particular aim at literalism, which he called “an idol that forgets it is an image and believes itself a God, taking itself metaphysically, seriously, damned to fulfill its task of coagulating the many into singleness of meaning which we call facts, data, problems, realities.” (Revisioning Psychology).

When I think of literalism, I recall the last lines of a poem a brilliant young poet I knew wrote about his high school principal:

His triple-breasted chin, arranged in folds upon his chest,
He blunts my life with a technicality.

Hillman also takes aim at much psychological thinking in books like The Soul’s Code. In this conference, he points to the 20th c. understanding that “The Gods now live in the psyche,” as a core statement of one of our greatest collective problems: the world and nature have lost their connection to the divine, and as such, are ripe for exploitation by greedy men who have traded their souls for profit. If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all,” Ronald Reagan famously said when he was California’s governor.

Michael Meade noted that one of the hallmarks of myth is a sense of abundance. The current miasma of scarcity thinking – that there isn’t enough to go around, so you better get yours while you can – is a clear indication, if we need it, that we have no myth, no shared stories of who we are as a people. Continue reading

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Must We Remain A Nation of Small Ideas?

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula Le Guin died on January 23, at the age of 88. I first encountered her writing in the seventies. After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I was hungry for more heroic-quest fantasy novels. There were plenty of them, but the only one I remember is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972).

At a time when science fiction and fantasy were viewed as escapist genres, decades before YA become a lucrative fad, and before we knew about Jedi, Ursula Le Guin gave us the coming of age tale of Ged, who becomes a powerful wizard only after learning that his most powerful enemy is himself.

Many of this week’s online tributes and memorials have included excerpts from her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It is worth emphasizing this passage from her six minute address:

URSULA LE GUIN: I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

Le Guin’s call for creative artists, and by extension, all of us, to imagine more life affirming ways to live on this planet underlines the poverty of our current public discourse, which confines our national imagination to ever more narrow ruts. We suffer not from fake news but from trivial news.

The last three administrations have spent $5.6 trillion on warfare since 9/11. We’ve killed more than 200,000 civilians (as of 2015) and lost more than 5,000 of our own troops (as of 2016), but none of us feel any safer. Where is our national debate on what we hope to accomplish and the nature of our exit strategy? It is non-existent. Instead, we argue on Twitter about whether football players taking a knee is disrespectful to troops…

The day Ursula Le Guin died, Amazon opened the prototype of an automated grocery store that doesn’t require cashiers. Two days later I saw the picture of Norway’s prototype, zero emissions, automated container ship, that will be entirely crewless by 2020. Panera and McDonalds are trying out order kiosks that could eliminate cashiers and – the list goes on and on. Where is the national debate on strategies for the near term, when automation eliminates millions of jobs before new technologies open up ways to replace them? That, conversation too, is non-existent. It’s more politically expedient to blame foreign nations and foreign nationals for “stealing” our jobs…

We can think of many more essential debates that are not taking place because of the cowardice of our leaders. Le Guin, of course, would shake her head at the notion that today’s politicians or CEO’s are remotely capable of being “the realists of a larger reality.”

Her legacy is a lifetime of visioning other worlds and other ways of living in this one. It’s up to people who care to move that vision forward. Sadly, it seems increasingly certain that the world we would wish to live in is one more thing that will not be “Made in America…”

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