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?

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

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

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!

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

The White Snake – An Enigmatic Tale from the Brothers Grimm

Illustration for “The White Snake” by Walter Crane, ca. 1886, Public Domain

I once had a professor who made an extensive study of world folklore and said the greatest predictor of success for a fairytale hero is winning the help of an animal guide. Most often, the helpful animals are mammals, like Puss-in-Boots or talking horses.

“The White Snake,” a story from the Brothers Grimm, alters this pattern in startling ways. The helpful creatures are far more primitive, and the hero actually kills his horse – yet things come out right. The story has stayed with me since I first encountered it, as a wisdom tale centered on the theme of knowing the right thing to do at the right time, even when it violates norms and expectations.

Commentary on myth and folktales is a recent tradition that arose after the old ways of absorbing these stories, around hearth and campfire, disappeared. We can imagine earlier listeners holding the stories in imagination, letting the magic sink in over time, as we do with favorite novels and movies. This is a great way to experience a story, and we’re fortunate to have a good eight minute recording of The White Snake, accompanied by the text from the Brothers Grimm.

I suggest you read and listen to the story if you don’t know it, for the rest of this post will simply be my reflections on a few of the key questions The White Snake raises. Continue reading

A Fake World

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allen Poe

The world’s spiritual traditions tend to agree with these words Poe wrote in 1849, the year of his death. To Hindus, this world is “maya,” meaning “a magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem.” (1)

Buddhists call it “samsara,” a Sanskrit word for “wandering through, flowing on, aimless and directionless wandering,” signifying the involuntary cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we grasp the true nature of appearances (2).

Jesus warned his followers that this is not the place to store up riches. In 1999, the Matrix reframed the appearance/reality question for the twenty-first century.

Being spiritual, doesn’t give anyone a pass on consensus reality. As Ram Dass put it, “We have to remember our Buddha nature and our social security number.” 

Navigating samsara has never been easy. Truth is hard enough to discover when we are sincere, let alone when we are not. That’s one reason why Buddha placed a special emphasis on truth as a core value. Not lying was one of his Five Precepts. He said, “When anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, they will not do” (3). Continue reading

What would James Hillman say about all this?

James Hillman (1926-2011)

James Hillman, a genius in the field of psychology, is largely unknown to the general public. Only one of his many books, The Soul’s Code (1997), is widely known, and only because Oprah featured it. Hillman’s long time friend and editor, Thomas Moore, wrote a tribute and summary of his life after his death in October, 2011. Moore said, “Jame’s books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated.”

Hillman, who was, for a time, director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, founded “Archetypal Psychology,” an extension of Jung’s thought, centered on the poetic, imaginal basis of psyche or soul: “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all. Every single feeling or observation occurs as a psychic event by first forming a fantasy-image.”

He criticized most 20th century psychologies as materialistic and literal, giving no space to soul. With journalist, Michael Ventura, he co-authored We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World Is Getting Worse (1992). He was vehement in his condemnation of the exclusive “inward” bent of most psychotherapies, which deprive the world of our outrage and our energy. He gave the example of a man who works eight or ten hours a day at a meaningless job, at an ugly, uncomfortable desk, under flickering florescent lights. When he goes to a therapist for relief from depression, he’s likely to be asked how he got along with his mother… Continue reading