Cycles,Gyres, and Yugas, Part 1

Turning and turning in widening gyres

Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of cyclical time, time without beginning or end, as opposed to the view time as linear, which implies a start and an ending.

Time as a never ending series of cycles is a core feature of eastern cosmology, but has also shown up in the west.  The Greek deity, Aion, representing “unbounded” time, was associated with the Hellenistic mystery religions.

Time without beginning or end is also feature of more recent western esoteric groups, such as The Golden Dawn, a secret society founded in the 19th century, that sought to restore the knowledge and practice of western mystery traditions. W.B. Yeats was an initiate, and his visionary poem, The Second Coming, (1919) gives a vivid picture of time as a rising and falling series of spirals, or “gyres:”

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 tone of The Second Coming is consistent with all sources, eastern and western, that deal with time cycles. They are unanimous in saying this is the dark time, the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, and in Buddhist terms, the time of “Five Degenerations.” Continue reading

The War on Beauty

I was in grade school during the height of the cold war, the decade of duck and cover hydrogen bomb drills and Nikita Kruschchev pounding his shoe and promising to bury us. But what I feared most from the “red menace” wasn’t nuclear incineration. It was life in a world like the Life Magazine photos of Moscow: grey, cold, barren, and devoid of beauty. Two things brought this to mind recently.

The first was an article in the New York Times, How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution. Charles Darwin believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake,” and behave accordingly, in ways that far exceed the utilitarian requirements of survival and reproduction. Mocked by his peers, this aspect of his theory was neglected – until now. A new generation of biologists believe that “Beauty…does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”

The other news that brought the barrenness of 1950’s Moscow to mind was anything but a delightful story of exuberant animals. It was an account of how, with open gates but furloughed rangers, some visitors have been trashing our National Parks. I was particularly saddened to read of the vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park, a place with great meaning for me.

Joshua tree cut down by vandals. NPS photo, Public Domain

Visitors have cut down trees, graffitied rocks, driven off-road vehicles over fragile desert soil, and camped under rare trees. Scientists say the Joshua trees face possible extinction by 2100 due to loss of habitat to climate change. In October, Park Superintendent, David Smith, told National Geographic, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” The willful destruction during the shutdown is simply accelerating the destruction of a magnificent desert refuge the size of Delaware.

You have to wonder why, unlike in every previous government shutdown, the current administration chose to leave the National Park gates open even as personnel were furloughed. Were they simply stupid? Or was this a move that parallels their attack on so much else that makes life for the vast majority of us worth living: clean water, clean air, education, health care, and so much more?

Although Trump is not capable of strategic thinking, some of his puppet masters are, and I often wonder if they don’t want a world like the photos I saw of life in Moscow in the 50’s – a dispirited, sick, hungry, uneducated peasantry, obliged to work until they drop, for beggars pay at meaningless jobs.

James Hillman said the lack of beauty in contemporary public life is pathological. I would add that it’s part of a cluster of pathologies, that pass for sanity in minds of many of those with plenty of greed and lust for power, but no imagination.

A high school friend, a poet, didn’t hold back in a piece he published in the school literary magazine, with this description of our dean, which I’ve never forgotten:

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

During the ’60’s, a time of excess as well as exuberant celebrations of imagination and beauty, Phil Ochs, one of the best protest singers of the era, wrote a poem for the back of his last album, with a line that read:

You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty,
Ah but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.

That is a beautiful hint and instruction!

An End of Year Blessing from Anam Thubten

I wrote a number of posts about Anam Thubten in the early years of this blog. Not so many lately, though that may change in the future.

I’ve followed his teachings for the last dozen years – via his books, his daylong retreats in Sacramento (which happen about once a year), and his recorded talks on the Dharmata Foundation website.

His profound gift is his ability to present some of the oldest and most revered teachings in Tibetan Buddhism in clear and accessible terms to audiences around the world.

In this interview, posted on Buddistdoor.net on December 20, he shared some of his suggestions and hopes for the coming year:

As we bid farewell to 2018 and move into the New Year of 2019, Rinpoche deeply wishes that we all meditate, regardless of spiritual belief or affiliation, and to commit to looking inward. “There are lots of wonderful teachers. And they can be regular people…as long as they have a good heart.” 

The world is in a new period of uncertainty, and the energy of the globe is shifting unpredictably. In this context Rinpoche believes that the words “optimism” and “pessimism” are not helpful. “I wouldn’t say that we should be optimistic in the sense we try to shut off our minds and tell ourselves everything is hunky-dory. Yet too much pessimism leads to paralysis, and is an excuse for inaction. What we need is hope, an attitude of transformation and dealing with the urgent issues facing us. I’d like to have hope and faith in humanity rather than optimism.”

Who and What Divide Us?

Embed from Getty Images
A Camp Fire evacuee plays with an abandoned dog, Chico, CA, Nov. 15

Daily updates on the deadliest fire in California history are almost too horrific to take in. The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road, has destroyed the town of Paradise. This is a beautiful part of California, just a few miles east of Chico where Mary and I once lived.

The ever-changing toll stands at 71 people known dead, more than 1000 missing, and as many as 12,000 buildings destroyed. Fifty thousand people have been displaced. Breathing the air for a day in San Francisco, 150 miles away, is equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes. (1).

At the same time, stories of generosity emerge as vividly as the deadly statistics. A former NFL linebacker, who lived through the Santa Rosa fire, paid for three large truckloads of bedding and similar goods to be sent to those in shelters. Individuals and businesses throughout north state are doing what they can to help. There are stories of people displaced by the fire spending their days sorting donated goods to benefit others. Here is another dramatic account from the LA Times on November 12: Continue reading

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?

No Is Not Enough

Klein’s new book, “No is Not Enough,” will be released on June 13. http://www.naomiklein.org/main

James Hillman (1926-2011), who I regard as a mentor, always sought the fantasy, the imagination that underlies the literalism of what we take as facts. Quoting Jung, he said, “The psyche creates reality,” (Revisioning Psychology).

The Buddhist teachers I’ve met would agree. Here is an important discussion of some of the fantasies which underlie our current climate crisis, from an interview with Naomi Klein called “Capitalism versus Climate,” which appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of Tricycle, The Buddhist Review.

Klein (b. 1970) is a Canadian author, climate activist, and critic of global capitalism who looks underneath the current climate debate. She was invited to the Vatican to give input during the formulation of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change.

In the Tricycle interview, Klein traced our current crisis to the western view of nature as an inert resource to be exploited for human convenience and profit, an outlook that emerged from the confluence of the Age of Reason and the first wave of industrialism. Climate change ultimately results from a false narrative, says Klein:

“It turns out that all this time that we were telling ourselves we were in charge, we were burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that were accumulating in the atmosphere. So now comes the earth’s response of climate change, which is a delayed response but a ferocious one that, frankly, puts us in our place. The response is this: ‘You’re just a guest here, and you never were in charge.’”

The vicious cycle that results from our sense of separation creates an insatiable hunger that can never be filled. We see it daily in our headlines. “Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.”

What can turn things around? Only a major shift in values and worldview, says Klein. Climate change is “already a moral catastrophe. We’re already writing off island nations because their GDP isn’t big enough. We’re already basically saying, Sub-Saharan Africa can burn.

Within that sacrifice zone mentality, it’s really easy to imagine the fortressing of our borders. Easy to imagine how our nations will seal themselves off from climate refugees. Climate change is not just about being afraid of sea levels rising. It’s not just about the weather. It’s about how an economic system that glorifies individualism—and one that is based on an often unstated but very real hierarchy of humanity—will respond to heavy weather. And it’s that cocktail that scares me.”

At the same time Klein says she’s hopeful:  “What powerful forces fear most is not what we do as individuals, like changing our lightbulbs or going vegan. They fear what we do when we act together as organized and mobilized groups. As groups we can go after the legitimacy of their profits. This is what the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement is doing, and it has these companies pretty panicked. They care when we come together to block their pipelines. They care when we demand that our governments build the infrastructure that will get us to 100 percent renewable energy.”

Naomi Klein

I’ve already pre-ordered her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

I’ve also added Naomi Klein’s website to the FirstGate blogroll – her’s is a voice we need to hear at a time when the ruling party of the United States offers only a steady diet of lies.

Changes

2x2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

2×2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

Almost four years ago, I posted Change is the Only Constant, a discussion of the December, 2012 report of the National Intelligence Council, a consortium of the 16 major U.S. intelligence agencies. Since 1997, they have issued comprehensive reports on future trends after each presidential election and posted the reports online. We can expect the next installment this winter.

The 2012 edition, which predicts alternate futures for the year 2030, outlines some things that are certain, like aging populations in the developed world; some which are possible, and some “black swans” – potential surprises for good or ill. Here are two key predictions.

  • The rate of change in all areas of life will continue to accelerate and will be faster than anything anyone living has seen.
  • World population will grow from 7.1 billion (in 2012) to 8.3 billion in 2030. Demand for food will increase 35% and for water by 40%.

Keep this in mind as we look at a some current events.  I should preface these comments by saying I’ve long had a rule of thumb: never trust a politician who says, “I have a plan to create jobs.” Both presidential candidates have said those exact words this year.

The fantasy is that by pulling the right levers – cutting or raising taxes, threatening or cajoling China, building a wall at our southern border, and so on, we can restore whatever American golden age our imagination conjures. Maybe the 50’s, when we were the only industrial nation not ravaged by WWII. Maybe the 90’s dot com boom, when even your Starbucks barista had stock tips to share.

We all know that’s not going to happen. The truth is even harder to face than any elected or would-be elected American official has yet been willing to share.

On May 16, the BBC reported that China’s Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, where Apple and Samsung smart phones are made, replaced 60,000 workers with robots.  Chinese manufacturers are investing heavily in robotics. So much for bringing jobs back from China.

For an article in the August 1 issue of Time, (“What to do about jobs that are never coming back”), Rana Foroohar spoke to Andy Stern, a former head of the Service Employees International Union:  “Stern tells a persuasive story about a rapidly emerging economic order in which automation and ever smarter artificial intelligence will make even cheap foreign labor obsolete and give rise to a society that will be highly productive–except at creating new jobs. Today’s persistently stagnant wages and rageful political populism are early signs of the trouble this could generate.”

In a Common Dreams article published last week,  You Can’t Handle the Truth,  Richard Heinberg, steps back for a much longer view of our situation and says:

“We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

“And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

“All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

“All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)”

“…any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast. Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution.” (emphasis added)

The last major decline of empires, he notes, resulted in World War I. The US and the rest of the world are, in Heinberg’s words, “sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm.”

“…Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

“I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

“But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation…”

Heinberg’s conclusions aren’t easy to digest, and are tempting to deny. Keeping attention on even a few of the significant points in the articles referenced here leads to disturbing conclusions.

If 16 US Intelligence agencies are anywhere near correct in their numbers, in 14 years, 8.3 billion people will be competing for 40% less water and 35% less food (in this case, living up to their name, the intelligence agencies don’t waste anyone’s time denying the effects of climate change).

Can we imagine “global efforts at resource conservation” in which nations co-operate, and at least try to send relief where it’s needed?  Like after tsunamis or the earthquake in Nepal? Or are we headed toward a survivalist wet dream?  Futures aren’t set in stone, said the NIA. It all depends on how we behave (sinking feeling in the gut…).

I can see it both ways. Speaking of our current election, someone recently said to me, “I haven’t felt this bad about things since 9/11. Maybe it’s even worse.”  Maybe so. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were a nation and a world largely united in awareness of our fragile humanity and revulsion at senseless suffering.

It strikes me that communities often pull together in the face of disaster when our leaders and governments won’t. That is Heinberg’s conclusion as well. Given our lack of competent leadership at the top, how can we build “local community resilience?”

I wish I knew. But since Iceland has more sense than to open it’s doors to American refugees, I’ll have time to think it over!  Meanwhile this quote from the Dalai Lama comes to mind:

“We can live without rituals. And we can live without religion. But we cannot live without kindness to each other.”

Changes are certain but futures aren’t set in stone…

Notes from the Wasteland

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Talk of drought in California isn’t uncommon.  Normally it means lower levels in reservoirs and thinner snowpacks in the Sierras.  Bad news for skiers, and boaters, and farmers, perhaps, and an earlier start to the fire season, but’s it’s January, and for those who don’t ski, or boat, or farm, it’s easy to ignore until summer. But this time it’s different. This year it simply will not rain.

Even in “dry” winters, you see warnings that river currents are cold and swift.  This year the river’s so low there is no visible current.  Half of the local lawns are brown, and those that are green invite visits from the “water patrols” the districts threaten to form.  They say the reservoir from which we get our drinking water is at 17%; that image isn’t easy to forget.

A year ago, I posted a report from the National Intelligence Council.  Every four years, the NIC, representing every US intelligence agency, collaborates on a summary of the world situation to give the incoming president.  They post the report online for anyone to read.  After the last presidential election, the NIC gave the administration a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:

Click for the text of the whole report

I discussed the report in detail in a post in December, 2012, but it’s worth reviewing one of the four “Megatrends” the report identified.  The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and the 13 other agencies that compiled the report do not waste time debating climate change; they accept it as a given and factor it into predictions, saying that by 2030:

Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle-class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so.

What gives you pause is their conclusion:

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.

At this time, if we have to depend on our “policymakers and their private sector partners” to be proactive, we’re screwed, but there are different ways to look at our situation.  As usual, I try to relate literal “truth” to archetypal patterns, and in this case, the obvious mythic story is that of the Wasteland.

The story relates how Camelot fell apart.  How the rift between Arthur and his queen threw the land into ruin.  How the ailing king sent his knights in search of the Holy Grail, the one thing that could restore the barren world.  Those who reached the Grail Castle found another mysterious king inside, wounded through the testicles, in constant pain but unable to die.  His only relief by day was to float in a boat on a lake near the castle.  For this reason, he was known as “The Fisher King.”  He could only be healed by the right knight arriving at the castle to ask the right question.

Antecedents to the story are ancient and predate the Arthurian tales, perhaps by thousands of years.  In writing his poem, The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot relied on an anthropological study, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, who in turn, drew on The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazier’s study of sacred kingship.

In the mythic cycle Frazier explored, the earthly king was “married” to the Goddess of the Land.  His potency and the earth’s fertility were one.  When he became old and infirm or impotent, the health of the land suffered.  He was ritually killed and a new king selected.  We find echoes of this in Arthur’s estrangement from Guinevere, though of course by then, the era when monarchs submitted to sacrifice was past.

We aren’t ruled by kings anymore, but if we consider “governments” alongside the word, “impotent,” and if we ignore what Viagra can fix, we find these meanings: “weak; ineffective, powerless or helpless; having no self-control.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad, and that is a theme I plan to explore in a series of posts exploring the Wasteland.  For one thing, the Grail hides there and nowhere else.  For another, the old stories never suggest that rulers can save us.  Renewal comes from the outsider, the dummling, the fool, Parsifal the rustic youth, or a carpenter from Nazareth.  

There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.  I plan to discuss a few of their stories here.

“Arming the Grail Knights” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1890’s, public domain