Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 2 – Why Do We Fight?

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

In the previous post, I discussed the current “dark time,” or Kali Yuga, from the view of time as a series of ascending and descending ages, without beginning or end. The post ended with video clip from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, where a young man asks, during a brutal civil war, “If the times are hopeless, why do we fight?”

Past critical turning points in history, involving the rise and fall of nations and empires, often hinged on battles. “Why” may have been the central question then, but now, as climate change marks an inflection point for the whole planet, we also face the questions of “Who (or what) do we fight?” and “How?” For us, these may be even more difficult than why, although that is the issue I will consider first.

As a college freshman, working my way through The Iliad, I had to get a handle on the concept of arete, meaning virtue or honor. Because this was the epic of a decade long war, in The Iliad, arete meant martial courage and prowess. The Vietnam war was raging then, and arete sounded too much like the prattle of those politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag to drum up dwindling support for a war that was a horrible mistake.

Now I understand arete from a wider perspective. The word meant “‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential..” 

Arete means seeking to do what is right in every circumstance.
Continue reading

Last night I dreamed Roy Rogers died…

Roy Rogers was my first boyhood hero. For a time, around the age of three or four, I refused to answer to “Morgan,” insisting that my parents call me Roy.

Me as Roy, probably age 4.

No matter that any residual appreciation for him collapsed during the Vietnam war, after he came out as a hawk – Roy Rogers was the first person who carried for me, the imagination of what a life well lived might look like.

Upon waking, it seemed strange that I should dream of his death as a present day event, when it happened 20 years ago. Not so strange, after a moment’s reflection, as the nation watches, in real time, the complete collapse of any remaining shred of heroism among our ruling class and their paid minions in Washington. We still live in the world T.S. Eliot described in “The Waste Land.”

There is no way this ends well!

For 20 years, I followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a Hindu master who moved to this country in 1920, to found an international organization that teaches the core unity of all religions and gives instruction in meditation practices to enable people to make this discovery for themselves.

In May, 1940, he gave a talk that was later published as a pamphlet called World Crisis. In it, he said:

“a great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America I see one beautiful sign; that no matter what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It is not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.”

I remember in college, how I used to marvel at the tragic heroes and their flaws, in Greek Tragedies and in Shakespeare – how their every action to escape their fate led them deeper into the jaws of the trap. We are seeing in real time, how a nation can tread the same course to disaster.

Last night’s dream reminded me of the discussions one of my latter day heroes, Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyer’s in the mid 80’s. In their dialog on the “Heroes Adventure,” there was this exchange:

MOYERS: “Given what you know about human beings, is it conceivable that there is a port of wisdom beyond the conflicts of truth and illusion by which our lives can be put back together again? Can we develop new models?”

CAMPBELL: “They’re already here, in the religions. All religions have been true for their time. If you can recognize the enduring aspect of their truth and separate it from the temporal applications, you’ve got it…One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”

MOYERS: “Not the first cause, but a higher cause?”

CAMPBELL: “I would say, a more inward cause. ‘Higher’ is just up there, and there is no ‘up there.’ We know that. That old man up there has been blown away. You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

No single suggestion seems more relevant for our times: “You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

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 Summer of Love, Repression, and Stuff.

USA. Washington DC. Seventeen year old Jan Rose Kasmir, confronts the National Guard outside the Pentagon during the 1967 anti-Vietnam march. This march helped to turn public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo gave birth to our nation, and has been part of our heritage every since. Fifty years ago this summer, this undercurrent burst into the loud and colorful limelight as 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury with mottos like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”

I was a high school kid in San Jose, wearing torn jeans and love beads, reading the literature of discontent by authors such as Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, and Nathanial West. After Saturday excursions to the head shops on Haight Street, with their incense and posters of Lakshmi and Ganesh, I bought a copy Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a book I still have, and one which, fifty years later, I more or less understand, because doing so became one of the core priorities of my life.

“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” sang Grace Slick, and in the explosion of new music, art, literature, and the ideas of change embodied in The Whole Earth Catalog, there was a sense of expansion, a sense that we could stop the war, and we could leave the world of ticky-tacky houses, and create a nation where Peace and Freedom would reign as supreme values.

We didn’t understand our own shadows. We didn’t knew that Charles Manson was roaming the Haight during the summer of ’67, winning friends and influencing people with techniques he had learned from Dale Carnegie’s book, which he studied in prison. We didn’t know that “Do your own thing” was a double-edged sword, and that we would see bitter fruits of that motto fifty summers later.

*****

When I turned 40 in 1990, I was halfway through a Masters program in Psychology, which I’d entered in part because in the wake of the Summer of Love, I’d discovered Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Tolkien, and I couldn’t get enough of that stuff. And also because, the ethos of “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” doesn’t really work very well.

Yet when in that course of study, we came to look at the psyche’s defense mechanisms, most of us thought repression was a bad thing, inhibiting self-expression and individuation. I gotta do my own thing, man!

“Don’t be so fast to put down repression” said the instructor. “It’s one of the glues that holds a culture together.”

I’ve thought of this statement many times since then, never more so than when I read a woman’s letter to the editor in the local paper sometime in the mid-nineties, reporting on an incident she’d seen at a local multiplex. For whatever reason, no one was behind the concession counter, so some of the patrons clambered over the counter, help themselves to popcorn and drinks and then dash into the theaters.

That’s not quite what we meant by “Do Your Own Thing,” but it’s a pretty telling, canary-in-the-coal-mine kind of snapshot of the kind of societal breakdown parading through our streets this summer.

One of the four major functions of a living myth, according to Joseph Campbell, is “the sociological function,” which teaches us the norms of living together. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Other roles are more dicey – gender and class roles for instance. These get rigid as times change, and are then modified by pioneers or movements, or in extreme cases, by revolutions if leaders are really stupid and tell their starving masses to eat cake.

Perhaps with enough acts of popcorn theft, large and small, because we feel entitled and we want what we want and we want it now – perhaps the kind of president we have was inevitable. Sooner or later, just as inevitably, he’ll go.

What will we do then? Will we be sickened enough by current events to turn in another direction together? What does a culture do when it’s fragmented by so many contradictory stories that Campbell’s sociological function of myth has completely broken down? What will it take to restore a genuine sense of “us” in our national life, a sense that we’re all in this together? The most obvious and frightening answer is a shared disaster.

Ironic to realize that the youthful idealism that brought us the Summer of Love, and two years later, the high water mark at Woodstock, carried the seeds of its own demise, partly because of the self-righteous sense of “us and them” that still drives our national life. And yet, it is profoundly valuable to review those youthful ideals, that sense of a better world within reach. Without such dreams, we are left with little better to do than rail at each other on social media.

“It’s been a long time coming,” sang Crosby, Stills, and Nash. “It’s going to be a long time gone.” It will come around again, sooner or later, but the question is, how long a time will that be?

Notes on Truth, June edition

The Washington Post reports that Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, has assembled a team with expertise in fields ranging from constitutional law to money laundering. This suggests that the just-announced criminal probe of the president for obstruction of justice may be only the beginning.

This is clearly bad news for the president, a congenital liar, and the GOP, which has risen to power by enabling him. Too bad their mothers never told them what mine did – that lies eventually get found out. My mother was not into philosophical subtleties with the truth. When she asked if I’d pulled the head off my sisters doll, I couldn’t duck the question by citing “alternate facts.”

It’s still a tossup whether our Liar in Chief and his minions will manage their corporatist takeover of the government, or whether our constitutional protections will bring them down first.

This effort means much more than simply removing a malignant leader from the helm of our once-great nation. It will be even harder to restore a respect for Truth in the public sphere. Politicians have always lied and voters have always know it it, but in a culture which values truth more than greed, liars are punished when discovered.

The natural world doesn’t care about our opinions. “Truth will out,” as Shakespeare said. Melting glaciers, rising seas, extreme storms, fires, and droughts don’t listen to climate change deniers.

This idea – that natural law wins in the end – brought to mind songs and stories from many traditions that echo that theme. I have only a vague recollection of most of them, but I am motivated to go on a search for two key reasons:

First, the old stories and songs reflect our collective experience, shaped by the wisdom of generations. They are comforting, like stones worn smooth, and it’s good to remind ourselves of what our ancestors knew for generations – lying doesn’t work in the end.

My second reason for digging into these stories is that it is likely a healthier pastime than checking social media morning and night to see what fresh outrage the Republican party has done.

I already have in mind a first example, one of my favorite old ballads that Garrison Keeler once called, one of the gloomiest songs ever written. That makes it just right for one of the darkest times our nation has ever endured.

Notes on Truth

George Washington and the cherry tree

One time when I was four or five and caught in a lie, my parents admonished me with the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. I do not know if they thought the event really happened. I suspect they did, although historians have long known the story was invented by Washington biographer, Mason Weems.

Such stories are part of the fabric of the myth of American exceptionalism, and here I use the word “myth” as Joseph Campbell did. One of the four main functions of myth for Campbell was the sociological view,”supporting and validating a certain social order.” At their best, such myths can inspire us to greatness.

Many sociological fictions are not benign, which motivated Time Magazine’s current cover, and its cover story, “Can Trump Handle the Truth,” by Michael Scherer (Time, Apr. 3, 2017, pp 33-39).

Scherer says, “Trump has discovered something about epistemology in the 21st century. The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better.”

Except when it doesn’t…

As a sometimes writer of fiction, I remember a news report from the seventies, when “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a popular TV series. A five or six year old boy jumped off the roof of his home, believing that if he sustained serious injuries, he’d receive bionic limbs and implants like Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) in the series. The news report said the boy was in traction, but expected to make a full recovery. He discovered something our president and many politicians have yet to learn – that physical reality enforces it’s own truths.

The most important truths of life, truths of the spirit and truths of the heart, are non-material and non-visible, yet to enjoy them, we need to survive, and this involves understanding the truths and laws of a material universe:

If we jump off a roof, we’ll get hurt, and no one will spend six-million dollars to make us bionic.

Oil pipelines leak, and oil trains sometimes explode. Climate change is not a Chinese hoax. The US just killed at least 112 civilians in airstrikes in Mosul.

The man who used the “birther” lie to launch his career in politics does indeed seem incapable of appreciating the truth, and as a result, is propelling this nation, at breakneck speed, into the very “loss of greatness,” he promised to turn around.

Notes from 2017 – Time to save Big Bird again!

46-bb-nest

Last week, the New York Times reported on administration plans to cut popular domestic programs, including funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The move would save $500 million a year, about 0.016% of the federal budget.

Said Heritage Foundation economist and presidential advisor, Stephen Moore, “I think it’s an important endeavor to try to get rid of things that are unnecessary.” 

Here are some of the things Mr. Moore considers unnecessary:

Sesame Street
Downton Abbey
Ken Burns “Civil War”
Ken Burns “Jazz”
Sherlock Holmes (several versions)
Poirot
Cadfael
The Midsomer Murders
Ken Burns “Baseball”
Shakespeare plays (many)
Victoria
The PBS Newshour
Nova
Masterpiece Theater
The Antiques Roadshow

These are just a few of my favorite programs, past and present. Add yours to the list

Politicos periodically try to defund PBS. Remember the rumor that one of the Teletubbies was gay?  But I think the real reason is apparent in this dialog from The Power of Myth series, one of the most popular television programs of all time. The conversations between mythologist, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer’s, which first aired in 1988, are as relevant as ever today:

Joseph Campbell on "The Power of Myth" series

Joseph Campbell on “The Power of Myth” series

BILL MOYERS: Would the hero with a thousand faces help us to answer that question, about how to change the system so that we are not serving it?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I don’t think it would help you to change the system, but it would help you to live in the system as a human being.

BILL MOYERS: By doing what?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, like Luke Skywalker, not going over, but resisting its impersonal claims.

BILL MOYERS: But I can hear someone out there in the audience saying, “Well, that’s all well and good for the imagination of a George Lucas or for the scholarship of a Joseph Campbell, but that isn’t what happens in my life.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You bet it does. If the person doesn’t listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life, and insists on a certain program, you’re going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center; he has aligned himself with a programmatic life, and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. And the world’s full of people who have stopped listening to themselves. In my own life, I’ve had many opportunities to commit myself to a system and to go with it, and to obey its requirements. My life has been that of a maverick; I would not submit.

BILL MOYERS: You really believe that the creative spirit ranges on its own out there, beyond the boundaries?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, I do.

By now it should be obvious – this year’s crop of would-be overlords, like all of their kind, want “a world…full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.” It’s up to ALL of us to deny them the pleasure!

We know the drill by now…when this budget item comes up, call and write elected representatives. Make #SaveBigBird go viral on twitter. It worked last time an administration tried to evict Big Bird, and it will work again!

Ken Burns, Downton Abbey, Sesame Street, and Joseph Campbell cut across party lines. They invite all of us to listen deeply to ourselves. They remind us not to let others drown out the still small voice of our souls.

The Soul’s Code by James Hillman

the soul's code

James Hillman (1926-2011), a prolific post-Jungian psychologist, thinker, and cultural critic, wrote more than 20 books, but The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (1997) is probably his best known work.

In a head-on attack upon the reductionist nature of both the nature and nurture camps of western developmental psychology, Hillman proposes a view of individual destiny based on Plato’s Myth of Er. Are we nothing but helpless products of our mothers in the first year of life or our luck-of-the-draw genetics? Or is there a deeper meaning to how we grow and unfold?

Hillman proposes an “acorn theory,” arguing that each acorn holds the pattern of the oak it may become, just as each soul that enters the world may bear a destiny shaped by intelligence rather than random chance: “what is lost in so many lives and what must be recovered [is] a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.”

Hillman expounds his theory in a number of biographical sketches. He writes of Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of 20th century Spain. As a child, he was sickly and frail. “He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.” Then, at the age of 11, he became fascinated with bulls.

Current psychology theory would hold that Manolete chose a macho vocation to compensate for his mama’s-boy childhood. Hillman wonders if somewhere deep inside, was “the acorn” that realized his destiny was to face down charging, thousand pound bulls, including the one that gored him to death at age 30. Of course that was too frightening a vision for a boy of 8 or 9 to hold!  Of course he held tight to his mother!

Hillman also discusses the childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the 20th century’s most influential women. As a child, Eleanor was “funny,” as well as “sullen, stubborn, spiteful, [and] sour…She lied; she stole, she threw antisocial tantrums in company.”

She lost her mother, a brother, and her “playboy father” before she was nine, but all the while carried on a vivid fantasy, “the realest thing in my life,” in which she lived with her father in a large household and traveled the world with him.

Psychotherapy would have regarded her fantasies as delusions and prescribed psychotropic medications to try to return her to normal. But what of the possibility that her visions meant something? What if her fantasies were “invented by her calling,” Hillman asks, and “were indeed more realistic in their orientation than her daily reality.”

“Imagination acted as a teacher, giving instruction for the large ministering tasks of caring for the welfare of a complex family, of a crippled husband, of the state of New York as the governor’s wife, the United States as its first lady, and even of the United Nations. Her fantasies of attending to “Father” were a preliminary praxis into which she could put her call, her huge devotion to the welfare of others.

Hillman is always provocative, inviting us to look deeper into, or “see through” the ideas that limit soul and it’s individual expression. Psychological literalism is often in his crosshairs, as when he says, “Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.”

James Hillman, 1926-2011

James Hillman, 1926-2011

The Soul’s Code is a challenging book, but valuable as it sheds new light on many unquestioned assumptions about development, the individual, and destiny that need to be questioned.