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 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

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

100 Years Ago – The Battle of the Somme

Cemetery at Poziers, France, in the Somme River Valley

Cemetery at Poziers, France, in the Somme River Valley

“I’ve never met a grandson of someone who fought on the Somme, or a granddaughter, who hasn’t said to me, ‘My grandfather never recovered.'” – Sir Martin Gilbert, historian.

One hundred years ago this morning, at 7:30am in northern France, 150,000 British, Canadian, Australian, and French troops went “over the top” to attack German trenches along a 40 km. front in the Somme river valley. Six months in planning, the assault was designed to break through the German lines and end the war in the west.

When the battle ended four and a half months later, more than a million men on both sides lay dead or wounded. British and French troops had gained just six miles of mud, strewn with corpses, many of which had lain unburied for months.

“The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.” – Lloyd George, on the Battle of the Somme.

When the first day’s casualty reports – 19,240 dead and 38,230 wounded – reached British headquarters, the high command assumed the figures to be mistaken; the battle plans, in the making for six months, were foolproof – they couldn’t go that wrong! The generals ordered the attacks to continue.

British Field Marshal Douglas Haig had launched a massive artillery barrage through the week before the assault to destroy the German trenches, not realizing that during the months of stalemate, the Kaiser’s troops had worked tirelessly on their fortifications. Some trenches were 30 feet deep in the chalky ground, reinforced with concrete and steel, with electric lighting, running water, and ventilation. An estimated third of the British shells fired were duds, and many that did explode were the wrong kind of shell – shrapnel rather than high explosive charges, which failed to damage the trenches or cut the barbed wire as planned. Quality control had suffered during the British effort to ramp up production of war material.

A few minutes before the attack began, the British detonated a series of mines that engineers had tunneled to place near the German lines. The effects were limited and not worth the clear signal they sent that the attack was about to begin. The craters soon became killing fields as the British troops struggled to cross them, with no cover, under fire from German machine guns placed along the eastern rims.

Many of the British troops were new volunteers and draftees.  On the assumption that to keep order, the inexperienced troops needed to march in close formation – and assuming the artillery barrage had cleared the barbed wire and dispatched the German defenders – the infantry was ordered to walk, not run, in close, shoulder-to-shoulder formations, carrying 70 pound packs which made dodging and weaving impossible anyway. Nine out of every ten men in a Newfoundland battalion were cut down in the first 40 minutes of the assault.

The units that fared best were those with young commanders, who ordered their troops to drop the packs, duck, and run forward.  Before the day was over, German gunners in the center of the lines, where the carnage was the worst, shut down their guns, unable to keep firing. They simply watched in silence as the British retreated with as many wounded as they could carry.

“When we started to fire we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. – German machine gunner.

Somme-film-ad

July 1, 1916, was and remains, the worst day in British military history. A generation later, during the Normandy invasion, it was a full 20 days before the combined British and American casualties would equal those of the first day of the Somme offensive.

One of the inexperienced members of “Kitchener’s army,” at the Somme was a young second lieutenant named J.R.R. Tolkien. Fortunately for millions of book lovers, his unit was held in reserve for the first week of the battle. Although he saw action and served to the best of his ability, he survived, unlike most of his school and university friends.

In October, Tolkien was struck down with Trench Fever, a serious illness related to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also carried by ticks, fleas, and lice. This was likely a godsend. He was evacuated to Britain weeks before Haig broke off the offensive. While recuperating in a hospital in Birmingham, Tolkien began a story about three mystic gems called the silmarilli in the first age of a place called Middle Earth.

While celebrating Tolkien’s survival, we can only wonder how many other gifts we have never seen because those who might have given them died in France.

The first American casualty of the first world war was Alan Seeger, a 28 year old poet. Seeger graduated Harvard in 1910, spent two years in Greenwich Village, and then moved to Paris, where he thrived in the bohemian atmosphere of the Left Bank. When war broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion to defend the land he loved so much.

In his last letter, dated June 28, 1916 Seeger said:

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave.  I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems.”

Seeger did not advance with the first wave; his regiment was held in reserve until 4:00 pm on July 1, then ordered to advance on the village of Belloy-en-Santerre.  His friend, John Keegan, wrote in his diary:  “How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .”

These prophetic lines are from one of Seeger’s last poems, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.”

Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

From “I Have A Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger

 

Between July 1 and November 18, 1916, there were 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German casualties along the Somme. Though we only know and can tell a few of those stories, it is good to do so at the time of this centennial.  Lest we forget their sacrifice. And lest we again entertain the delusion that a war can end all wars…

The Devil’s Sooty Brothers

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett

“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.

Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.

Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down?  Maybe…

These stories have elements in common:

  1. The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
  2. They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
  3. They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.

I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life.  If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell. Continue reading

TED Talks on happiness

Embed from Getty Images

Last Friday, August 15, the theme of National Public Radio’s “TED Radio Hour” was “Simply Happy,” and carried the message that “finding happiness may be simpler than you think.” Narrator Guy Raz reviewed the ideas of five speakers whose TED presentations focused on happiness as something that can be cultivated.

Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at UC San Francisco, gathered real-time input from 35,000 people via a simple smart phone app one can register for at trackyourhappiness.org. Several times during the day, volunteers receive three questions on their phones:

1) How do you feel right now?  (on a scale from very good to very bad).
2) What are you doing? (check one of 22 choices).
3) Are you thinking about what you are doing? (as opposed to “mind wandering”).

Killingsworth discovered that 47% of the time, people are thinking of something other than what they are doing (ranging from a high of 65% when taking a shower, to an interesting 10% whose minds wander while having sex).  His finding, across all activities is that “people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering.”  This includes even unpopular tasks like commuting to work.  He concludes that mind wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness.”

Though he doesn’t cite the growing interest in mindfulness meditation practice, it’s significant that recent articles in Scientific American have mentioned studies of this practice, including Is Mindfulness Good Medicine, which appeared on the Scientific American blog the day before NPR posted Killingsworth’s findings.

Carl Honore is a journalist and the author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (2005). He claims our world is “addicted to speed” and living “the fast life rather than the good life.” He says his wakeup moment came when he realized he was speed-reading bedtime stories to his young son, compulsively rushing through one of the richest times of his day.

Honore says we are “so marinated in the culture of speed that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives – on our health, our work, our relationships and our community.” For one thing, speed and adrenaline can be exciting. For another there is a strong cultural bias that equates slowing down with being a slacker. One common meaning of “slow” is “not very bright.”

Honore says he still enjoys the fast pace of life as a journalist in London, but he is now “in touch with his inner tortoise,” and doesn’t unconsciously overload himself. “I feel like I’m living my life rather than actually just racing through it. So is it possible? That’s really the main question before us today. Is it possible to slow down? And I’m happy to be able to say to you that the answer is a resounding yes.”

Graham Hill was an early ’90’s internet millionaire by the age of 30. He sold the company he had built with friends, and then filled “the void” he felt inside with stuff:  “I bought a 3,600 square foot home, Volvo sedan, tons of furniture, gizmos, technology, stereos, probably had one of the first MP3 players. You can’t believe how much stuff.”

Unlike most of his wealthy peers, Hill realized his stuff wasn’t making him happy so he got rid of most of it. He now lives in a custom designed, 420 square foot New York City apartment that is wonder of space efficiency:

Hill notes that Americans use three times as much space as we did 50 years ago, yet we have still spawned a $22 billion dollar, 2.2 billion square foot self-storage industry. Other consequences include, “Lots of credit card debt, huge environmental footprints, and perhaps not coincidentally, our happiness levels flatlined over the same 50 years. Well, I’m here to suggest there’s a better way – that less might actually equal more.”

Dan Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness (2007), spoke in his talk of the many ways in which our happiness does not depend on circumstances or getting what we want. Humans are resilient enough, he says, to recover from serious trauma, though imagination generally tells us otherwise. Gilbert cited three cases, drawn from a single edition of the New York Times.

Jim Wright, Speaker of the House of Representatives before Newt Gingrich, resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving “a shady book deal.” He lost his position, reputation, and money, but now says, “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and almost every other way.”

Pete Best, The Beatles’ first drummer, was replaced by Ringo Starr just before the band became world famous. Still a drummer and studio musician, Best says, “I’m happier than I would’ve been with The Beatles.”

And most dramatic to me was Moreese Bickham, 78, released from prison because of DNA evidence after serving 37 years for a crime he did not commit. Upon release, Bickham said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Baring “extraordinary” people like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, we can hardly imagine prison as being worthwhile, let alone “glorious,” but Gilbert uses these and other examples to underline the power that “reframing” events has on our outlook. The stories we tell and the meaning we find in experience are critical. “It is wrong to say that we have no control over our happiness. It is wrong to say that we have complete control over our happiness. We have some input into how happy we will be…We can learn to see events in a constructive and positive way.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has devoted himself to interfaith dialog and the interaction of religion and science. His TED topic was gratitude, as one might expect of a man whose home page is gratefullness.org. He says most people think we are grateful when we are happy, but the opposite is true: gratitude leads to happiness.

He outlines a simple way to cultivate gratitude, beginning with stopping our minds and our busyness to reflect that “You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you. And yet, that’s the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us. We say opportunity knocks only once. Well, think again – every moment is a new gift, over and over again, and if you miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us, and another moment. We can avail ourselves of this opportunity or we can miss it. And if we avail ourselves of the opportunity, it is the key to happiness.”

Such a simple step, repeated, carries great weight, for Steindl-Rast reflects that grateful people are not fearful, and if we are not fearful, we will not be violent.  “If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not from a sense of scarcity, and you’re willing to share.If you’re grateful, you’re enjoying the differences between people and you’re respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid on which we live. And it doesn’t make for equality, but it makes for equal respect, and that is the important thing. A grateful world is a world of joyful people, grateful people are joyful people. And that is what I hope for us.”

***

The question of attitudes and habits that lead to wellbeing has emerged as the key theme of theFirstGates this year. I’ve posted ideas from Carl Jung, the Dalai Lama, and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Here are five more voices (and more to come) saying that happiness is not an accident, not given to a few select or fortunate people. It is a choice we can all make, a direction we can aim for at any given moment

On this day a hundred years ago

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” – Otto von Bismarck, 1888.

“To have to go to war on account of tiresome Serbia beggars belief.” – Queen Mary of England, August, 1914.

By all accounts, the summer of 1914 in Europe was the sweetest anyone could remember. To many, it seemed like the new century had ushered in an era of prosperity and peace. Everywhere, the middle classes were growing. Globalization was the order of the day. There hadn’t been a continental war in 50 years, and you could travel the world without a passport.

The Sketchers by John Singer Sargent, 1914, public domain

The Sketchers by John Singer Sargent, 1914, public domain

Below the idyllic surface, a storm was brewing. At the beginning, as at the end of the 20th century, the Balkans were the least stable region in Europe. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia from the Turks, whose influence was waning. Nationalistic fervor ran high through the region, and the Bosnian Serbs longed to reunite with the nation of Serbia. During the last weeks of June, 1914, six young Serbian men, members of The Black Hand, a radical nationalist group, slipped into Sarajevo with the intention of killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, on his scheduled visit to Bosnia. By a strange coincidence, five of the six would-be assassins were tubercular teenagers, including, Gavrilo Princip, 19, whose ambition was to die as a martyr.

On the morning of June 28, the six positioned themselves along the route Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, would travel by motorcade. The first assassin hurled a pocket bomb at the Archduke’s car, but the driver, alerted by the detonation of the bomb’s percussion cap, accelerated and the device exploded under a following car, injuring two other passengers. The motorcade rushed past three more assassins who did nothing; when they were captured, two made excuses while the third confessed that he’d lost his nerve.

After a speech at the city hall, Franz Ferdinand announced his intention to cancel the rest of the parade and go to the hospital to visit the two wounded men. Unfortunately, no one told the driver of the change in plans. He continued along the original route, past another assassin who did nothing.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave City Hall in Sarajevo, June 28.  Public domain.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie leave City Hall in Sarajevo, June 28. Public domain.

When the driver was finally alerted to his mistake, he stopped the car to turn it around – by a fateful coincidence, just five feet away from the sixth assassin, Gavrilo Princip. Princip fired two shots, hitting the Archduke in the throat and Sophie in the abdomen. “It is nothing, it is nothing,” Franz Ferdinand said. An hour later, he and his wife were dead.

Initially, the assassination caused little stir in the capitals of Europe – it was all too common in the early years of the century. In the previous two decades, presidents of the United States, France, Mexico, Guatemala, Uruguay, and the Dominical Republic had been assassinated, as had Prime Ministers of Russia, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Persia, and Egypt. So had kings, queens and empresses of Austria, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, and Greece (source: A World Undone by G.J. Meyer).

No one went to war over assassinations. Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, did not even like his nephew, Franz Ferdinand, who had become the heir after his own son committed suicide. The emperor seemed almost relieved that the Archduke was gone. First the nephew had defied his uncle by marrying Sophie, who, as “mere” countess, was not of a suitable rank to be wife of a head of state. Even more onerous, the Archduke espoused progressive ideas which his uncle, born in 1830, could not tolerate.

While the rest of the world and the Emperor himself moved on, other high ranking officials within the Austro-Hungarian government sought to exploit the assassination, as an excuse to punish Serbia. By the turn of the century, Austria-Hungary was a second-rate Empire in decline, economically, militarily, and in the eyes of the other western powers. Field Marshal Franz Conrad was convinced that the empire could only recover its standings by asserting itself in the Balkans, beginning with ending the “Serbian problem,” which ideally meant, ending Serbia itself. He had proposed war against Serbia 25 times in 1913.

Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austrian foreign minister, was a wealthy, pleasure loving aristocrat who owned a racing stable and was famous as a ladies man. “He was also widely regarded as weak, lazy, frivolous and unreliable,” according to G.J. Meyer. Knowing he needed to boost his reputation, he too saw war on Serbia as an opportunity. In Meyer’s words, he had become dangerous – “a weak man, determined to appear strong.”

Conrad and Berchtold drafted a 10 point ultimatum so strict they were sure the Serbs would reject it. For a number of reasons – internal wrangling as well as external political considerations – the ultimatum was not delivered until 25 days after the assassination, when its connection to the event had grown even more tenuous.

Serbia’s powerful ally, Russia, had been led to expect a milder response. Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, flew into a rage. “You are setting fire to Europe!” he told the Austrian ambassador. Advisors told the Tsar that failure to help their Slavic brothers in Serbia might trigger a revolution.

After almost a month of quiet following the Archduke’s assassination, the crisis burst upon all the nations of Europe. Forty-eight hours after receiving the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia announced it could not accept all of the demands. Diplomatic relations were severed, and both countries began to mobilize. Adding to the chaos at the end of July, “mobilization” meant different things in different countries.

In Russia, the process took weeks. Thousands of peasant reservists had to be notified, some living hundreds of miles from the nearest railroad. In sharp contrast, German mobilization was based on “the Schlieffen Plan,” which assumed the nation would face a war on two fronts. Mobilization meant war, with a lightning attack to the west, designed to defeat France in 40 days so the armies could turn east to face Russia. Frantic last moment diplomacy failed. Persuaded of the necessity by the military, Kaiser Wilhelm gave the order to proceed. On August 2, German troops crossed into Luxembourg, and the shooting began.

Fired by nationalism and 19th century ideas of honor and glory, young men in all the combatant nations flooded recruiting centers. French troops, boarding trains for the front, called, “A bientot” (“See you soon.”) to those who waved from the platform.

Not everyone was so sanguine. On August 3, after Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary stood at his window as dusk fell and the lamps were lit. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

If we think of the current chaos in the middle east – the use of poison gas and the crumbling of national boundaries that were drawn in the wake of the first world war – we have to say that the lights have still not come back on…

Guarding the mind

guard mind 1

One summer when I was working in high-tech, I had the following experience for several weeks: I’d leave the house, enjoying the fine weather. After a pleasant enough commute, I’d grab some coffee at the cafe, greet co-workers who were doing the same, and then find myself, when I arrived at my cubicle, in a foul mood, angry, and/or depressed.

Finally, I began to notice the almost subliminal self-talk that started the moment I hit the parking lot: imagining negative outcomes for everything I had going on that day. I’d picture meetings, or presentation, or projects falling apart. A quiet but persuasive inner voice would label co-workers’ motives in the harshest light. My boss at the time was a friend who had just finished his MBA and was still finding his way by trial and error. This made him a perfect projection screen. I’d sometimes find myself wondering if he was now out to get me.

Once I caught this inner thought train and started to listen, it fell apart, as such things do in the light of day. This is one key result of mindfulness practice: attend to a thought – any thought – and it begins to shift and change, revealing its nature as something far less substantial than we think. Jung had a parallel insight when he realized, “My thoughts are not my own,” and compared them to animals encountered while walking in the forest.

Hist Center Window

Since that summer, I’ve learned to listen more closely for thoughts flying under the radar. That’s part of what prompted several posts this spring with the theme of consciously choosing where to place the attention. A recent post on the Shambhala Publications blog quoted a verse along these lines written more than 1200 years ago. A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life by Shantideva (c. 685-763), a great Buddhist master and scholar, is still widely studied today (see note 1 below). In chapter 11, “Vigilance,” he deals with guarding the mind against against unwholesome states, for this is where all our actions are born. The chapter is composed of 109 quatrains. Here are the first three:

1.
Those who wish to keep a rule of life
Must guard their minds in perfect self-possession.
Without this guard upon the mind,
No discipline can ever be maintained.

2.
Wandering where it will, the elephant of the mind,
Will bring us down to pains of deepest hell.
No worldly beast, however wild,
Could bring upon us such calamities.

3.
If, with mindfulness’ rope,
The elephant of the mind is tethered all around,
Our fears will come to nothing,
Every virtue drop into our hands.

Shantideva. Public domain.

Shantideva. Public domain.

Guarding the mind is not just a Buddhist concern. When I Googled the phrase, most of the hits came from Christian websites and blogs. These discussions centered on Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things”

Many of the thoughts, suggestions, and practices were similar to Shantideva’s writing as well as a more recent statement by the Dalai Lama. I am even aware of both Buddhist and Christian scriptural practices for wearing imaginal armor to shield the heart/mind from negative influence. I would not be surprised to find similar practices in other spiritual traditions.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few days away from my usual routines and concerns to consider these things. I’m struck again, as I was in the work episode I related above, by how subtle the negative inner voices can be.

Another bias I find in myself was articulated by James Baraz, a Buddhist meditation teacher in an article on the Huffington Post, Can We Afford Joy in a World of Suffering. Baraz describes “the Kumbaya factor,” as the fear that if we consciously turn away from what is negative, we may simply wind up “in La-La Land singing Kumbaya.”

Everyone has to work this out for themselves, but Baraz makes several key points. Depression saps our energy. No one benefits self or others while wondering, “what’s the use.” In the work experience I related above, I wasn’t the best of co-workers while imagining others were out to get me.

I’m reminded of a story I heard several times in college. In 1927, Buckminster Fuller walked to the shores of Lake Michigan, thinking to end his life. He had just lost his job and felt responsible for the death of his daughter a few years earlier. He would later tell lecture audiences that as he looked into the waters, he felt surrounded by light and heard an inner voice say:

“You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.” (Fuller)

The experience led Fuller to re-examine everything and resolve to live his life as “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity” (see note 2 below). In this epiphany, Fuller locked onto the same truth that Shantideva articulated 1200 years before:

54.
Examine thus yourself from every side.
Note harmful thoughts and every futile striving.
Thus it is that heroes in the bodhisattva path
Apply the remedies to keep a steady mind.

55.
With perfect and unyielding faith,
With steadfastness, respect, and courtesy,
With modesty and conscientiousness,
Work calmly for the happiness of others.

Speaking in the same tradition for a 21st century audience, James Baraz summed up the idea this way: “So can we afford joy in a world of suffering? I believe, in a world of suffering, we can’t afford not to find joy.”

reflection 4

Notes: _____________________________________________________

(1) In Buddhist terminology, a Boddhisattva is one who vows to seek spiritual awakening not for self alone but for the benefit of others.

(2) Some historians, finding no account of Buckminster Fuller’s epiphany in his writings for 1927, have wondered if he made up the story later. I can only speak for myself and observe that I’ve never put my most profound experiences in a journal: the writing is too pale, and there’s no need, since the events themselves remain vivid.