Machine in the Ghost

IF

Am I ghost or machine, spirit or matter? Let me rid myself of both and there might be an answer in the blank space created.

As one looked at that dead leaf with all its beauty and colour, maybe one would very deeply comprehend, be aware of, what one’s own death must be, not at the very end but at the very beginning. Death isn’t some horrific thing, something to be avoided, something to be postponed, but rather something to be with day in and day out. And out of that comes an extraordinary sense of immensity. — J. Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti attempted to show how we tend to avoid or, worse still, deny our potential for what he called “immensity” — the natural capacity to touch, explore, and actually live the vastness from which we all arise, and which, consciously or not, we all embody.

But instead, we choose (or are driven by our cultural training) to become ghosts, long before our physical bodies are dead. The Tibetan Buddhists, in one of their more resonant and enduring insights, speak of what they call pretas — hungry ghosts with massive bellies and narrow throats — beings possessed by an insatiable desire for consumption, who are never fulfilled but always striving, grabbing, taking, killing, consuming. Pretas rule our governments and corporations; they feed us our news and our entertainment; they teach and test our children; they drag us into one war after another all in the name of the freedom to consume.

Therefore, the personal way of true freedom — of touching one’s natural body of peace and non-violence — occurs amid the separation from the collective and its obsession with consumption. Such freedom can be found in the contemplation of an autumn leaf and in the realization of the unity of life and death. This is really where the consumptive ghost longs to go; for the endless desires of the preta are — beyond all his lies and all his delusions — for the very thing that he already has. So the preta, while he is all too painfully real — he exists in corner offices on Wall St., in the marbled halls of power, and in electronic boxes of 65 inches or 6 — is a body of hallucinations; a painting of Hieronymous Bosch come to life.

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IF

So a ghost can be, like the preta, a phenomenon of walking death. It can also be an apparition of death walking. This latter is the type of ghost familiar to western cultures: the spirit that remains stuck within this world. But this kind of ghost, strictly speaking, is not really a spirit; for a spirit is a personal consciousness with a cosmic awareness or grounding. A ghost, by contrast, is a degraded, lonely, and corrupted consciousness that persists under a single delusion, viz., that it is still of human form. A spirit is self-aware of its disembodiment, and in that awareness, is not isolated from its new, formless world. Thus, in my private metaphysics, a ghost is not a spirit.

Now, why open such a discussion? Everyone knows that ghosts do not exist. Well, in fact, everyone doesn’t know: nearly half of Americans believe in the existence of ghosts. The problem with such surveys is often in the presumptive sense of meaning in the questions. For instance,  in those survey questions, the meaning of “ghost” is defined as “the spirits of dead people.” So it is assumed that we all understand what is meant by “spirits;” when that is in fact one of the most violently disputed points of global conflict. The following discussion, then, is a private matter, which is not to be taken seriously. But I will attempt a sincere treatment of this topic, because I think it deserves more respect than it typically receives in our media.

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IFWe live in a culture where confusion tends to reign between symbol and substance; the sign and the road; appearance and reality. Our measurements are so precise; the shades of meaning and direction so fine; the gradations so stark in the identification of wealth, importance, appeal, and affiliation, that it is easily imagined that we have this reality thing tied up in a bundle and nailed down with our keywords, soundbites, surveys, and algorithms.

But under the intense gaze of the best science of our era, this conflation of symbol and reality comes undone. Here’s an example of what I mean: since the 1970’s and the refinement of atomic clocks that are capable of accuracy and consistency to billionths of a second; a single basic experiment has been done to prove out Einstein’s theories of relativity. Two clocks are placed — one on the ground, at rest; another in an airplane. The clocks are switched on simultaneously as the airborne clock takes flight. Around the world it goes: as the circuit is completed, the clocks are simultaneously stopped and read. The clocks show marginally differing times, because (as Einstein predicted) the faster you go toward the speed of light, the more time slows.

Now if we should reach a point where we can approach the speed of light, the atomic clocks from that experiment will spread farther apart than they can now. But they will still be clocks — simple devices that measure not the world, but our relationship to it, which is inevitably, after all, a relationship with ourselves. Under the gaze of our new sciences, the separation, the alienation, the great divorce between man and nature — inevitably dissolves; as inner and outer, before and after, time and space, merge into a great unity. The preta dies.

This is not only different from the way that we have looked at the world for three hundred years, it is opposite. The distinction between the ‘in here’ and the ‘out there’ upon which science was founded, is becoming blurred. This is a puzzling state of affairs. Scientists, using the ‘in here–out there’ distinction, have discovered that [it] may not exist! What is ‘out there’ apparently depends, in a rigorous mathematical sense as well as a philosophical one, upon what we decide ‘in here.’*

What science has discovered, and continues to reveal across so many areas of study, is that we are not faced merely with a problem of a “ghost in the machine” — Ryle’s phrase for the Cartesian splitting that Zukav (above) calls the “in here — out there” model of life and the universe. For we must get the machine out of the ghost as well — that is, take our thinking and feeling about ourselves and our world to another level of awareness, where there is neither ghost nor machine. To do so, we must, in both our sciences and in our ordinary lives, expel equally the mechanical and the spiritual from within; then see what remains for us to work with. Once again, Krishnamurti, from one of his last journal entries:

We never seem  to learn about this movement, that it is one movement. The outer and the inner are not two separate movements. The waters of the sea withdraw from the shore, then the same water comes in, lashing the shores, the cliffs. Because we have separated the external and the inner, contradiction begins, the contradiction that breeds conflict and pain. This division between the outer and the inner is so unreal, so illusory, but we keep the external totally separate from the inner…The outer and the inner are one, a unitary movement, not separate, but whole…Learning about [this] is not a matter of time…not a gradual process, for then time again becomes divisive. Time acts in the fragmentation of the whole. But to see the truth of it in an  instant, then it is there, this action and reaction, endlessly — this light and dark, the beauty and ugliness.

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IF

Therefore, when you see a ghost, walk straight into (and through) it. This will show the ghost that (a) you are not afraid of it; and (b) that it, the ghost, is not real as either a physical phenomenon or a personal presence. From this beginning, you will have earned enough of the ghost’s attention to begin to teach it some of the finer points about its state of being. But you need to begin with those crucial steps into the ghost’s faux-body; or nothing that follows will make sense to it.

I don’t deny that ghosts exist; but I do deny that they are real. Every ghost is a shadow of being trapped within a cage of illusion, which becomes its identity. The ghost rejects the unity of outer and inner because it only wants to be outer. It clings to the bars of its cage and denies the space that would be its true dwelling. The delusion that death is the negation of life still sticks to its nebulous body. Thus, the ghost’s essence is isolation — an irrevocable loneliness that the existentialist philosophers of a century ago mistakenly assumed was the inevitable condition of being human.

So you can find ghosts anywhere; but sooner or later you’ll have to meet the ones you see in stagnant water; in the bathroom fixtures; in the glass of a picture frame with its back to the sun; in the roof’s black tar after a rain; in the cell phone’s cheap chrome backing; the bumper of a car. Any mirror will do.

nightintowerBut sight is a poor sense to this purpose; feeling is truer if grimmer; it admits of no distortions. I sense the ghosts in the small bones of my feet; in the bloated darkness of my bowels (the small and the large types alike); in the gray stains that coat my lungs, with their muffled sound like the tired flapping of coffin hinges in the winds that blow beneath the pinestraw.

If you can sit very still and walk right through them, you will find how cold and weak they are, like the handshake of a corporate middle manager or the fleeting blips of a computer’s boot sequence or a bureaucrat’s gaze into a triplicate paper form. There they are: everything you’ve been trained to believe, fear, demand, claim, regret, divide, or follow. They all tell you the same thing, that every breath and every step is into the grave — the Big Nothing that you already are, and which is the sleep with no dreams; the account with no money; the gas leaking from your butt whose scent offends the Nose of God; the universe’s next Dark Age that will descend after the last of the photons die.

To pass through them, clean and unharmed, needs so little effort and creates such a sublime confidence. Once their cold and bloated hands have released you, you will ride through this life and all the life that follows it like Mirabai, the great poetess of India:

I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders; and now you want
me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious.**

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*Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, 1979. In the quoted text, Zukav is referring primarily to the “uncertainty principle” of quantum mechanics; but also to the wave/particle duality of light, and to what is known today as “quantum entanglement.”

**Mirabai, “Why Mira Can’t Come Back To Her Old House”; from The Winged Energy of Delight, ed. Robert Bly, 2004.

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Ending Genocide: Tender Faces of Spring Grass

IF

A long time ago my father told me what his father told him, that there was once a Lakota holy man, called Drinks Water, who dreamed what was to be; and this was long before the coming of the Wasichus [white men]. He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider’s web all around the Lakotas. And he said: “When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve.” They say he went back to Mother Earth soon after he saw this vision, and it was sorrow that killed him. You can look about you now and see that he meant these dirt-roofed houses we are living in, and that all the rest was true. Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.
— Nicholas Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks

IFFrom before the time of  Wounded Knee, this genocide has gone on. It continues today among the children of Pine Ridge: more than a hundred suicide attempts in a 3-month period, among a population of less than 40,000. An entire people driven to and beyond the point of despair, by the very same things as haunted the dreams of Drinks Water and broke the spirit of the great Black Elk — the invasions of the white man with his drugs, oppression, sicknesses, booze, tyranny, guns, and false promises. These children of Pine Ridge today are not even being given the chance to grow old in darkness as Black Elk did — or is it better for them that way?

And so it was all over.
I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.
And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead. — Black Elk on “The End of the Dream”

IF“Our kids today just want to die because they’re sick of all this oppression.” Is it good that another Lakota man of our present moment has lived long enough to see his granddaughter assaulted with racism and driven “back to Mother Earth” amid the ravages of an oppression of negligence that told her, “[your] culture is not successful”? Her culture might have been her last best hope, for it might have turned her vision back toward that “beautiful dream” of Black Elk’s vision.

But the real problem is that 12 year old Santana Janis was never allowed the experience of her culture — for that great Lakota culture is not favored by corporations; nor does it trend on Facebook or Twitter. For in our world, investment banks may be bailed out; new wars may be started; city police forces may be transformed into large armies with some of the most sophisticated and deadly weaponry on Earth; politicians may be bought; and a sound bite message filled with lies may be broadcast as truth over cable and satellite in prime time. But a once great and noble people cannot be allowed the chance to repair the broken hoop of their nation, so that their children might find some connection back to life, to possibility.

IFIt never should have been this way — not in 1890 amid the slaughter at Wounded Knee; not in 1930 when an aging Black Elk told his story of a great hope that ended in oppression, murder, and despair;* and certainly not this year, when a pandemic of suicide ravaged the already broken hoop of the Oglala Nation. It doesn’t have to be this way next year, or a decade from now.

The point here is that we are given a choice: let this quiet end of the genocide continue apace; or rage against it amid a group guilt drawn from the depredations of our white ancestors; or at last, to find within ourselves the thread of humanity that unites the Lakota and all the other peoples and races that live in this land; and then to work freely — without the burden of either guilt or despair — toward the regeneration of a great people.

IFRegeneration is defined, first and foremost, by self-determination. If all we can give them is more ABC Stores, more McDonalds, more drugs, more gambling casinos, and more poverty; then they will continue to rot and die outwardly, while we also continue to rot and die inwardly. We must offer them both the resources and the motivation to determine their recovery, their correction, their future. We can become as nourished as they by such a restoration: imagine a world where a new generation of spiritual teachers streams out from a vibrant Lakota world, just as Zen teachers came to our shores from Japan over the last century.

Every fate can be ended; every genocide halted and reversed; every guilt absolved — and dissolved. No government or corporate institution can make it happen; it must start here, within and among us. As Black Elk would remind us, it is only through the people and their love for the earth and for one another, that the wishes of the Six Grandfathers may be fulfilled:

The Six Grandfathers have placed in this world many things, all of which should be happy. Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy. Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.


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*Black Elk Speaks remains, to my mind, one of the great classics of American literature. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to call it the American Iliad. Much of the credit for the beauty and compellingly literary construction of this book goes to John Neihardt, who conducted the interviews with Black Elk and prepared the text. It is the kind of book that can make you feel like a very different person after you’ve turned its last page.

Vishnu’s Light, or Moksha in the Workplace

 

The H1-B imbroglio is unlikely to be a prominent issue in coming elections; it means little to anyone but big corporations and tech firms which already have Congress firmly in pocket. I have no particular side to take on it, though I would tend to trust Bernie Sanders’ view (which is a remarkably “conservative” position, if you can recall what conservatism used to be, that is). I’d actually prefer to offer a little human perspective on the matter, via the telling of stories…

IF

True story from about a decade ago: I was sitting around a lunchroom table with a group of Indian tech workers. A new person had just arrived from our company’s office in Chennai, India, and he was getting acquainted with the “onshore” staff. Their way of breaking the ice was to go around the table, each man telling his name, position, and language(s). The web developer would introduce himself and say, ” I am Anand, I specialize in XML, javascript, CSS…” The systems administrator would then chime in with something like “Ravi, I work in UNIX, Powershell, Perl…” And so on it went, around the table, six or eight guys with varying skills and responsibilities.

Finally it was my turn. I smiled and said, “I’m Brian Donohue, I work in the QA area and I also do some technical writing, and my language is…oh damn it…English?”

The whole table erupted in laughter. Mind, it was appreciative and not at all mocking laughter. One of the things I loved about working with the Indians was their humor and their humility. These were some of the (really) smartest guys in the room; they typically worked like horses all day and into the evenings; and I rarely had any difficulty communicating with them. In fact, most of them wrote better English than the Americans I worked with. Still, few of them were really comfortable with their second language.

rockbigThey worked together better than many of my American colleagues did. They knew and appreciated their own limitations, and therefore trusted one another. Thus, my joke at that lunchroom table was also informative: it told the new guy that I could help him with documentation when he needed to either parse or create something in English.

Bottom line, I’ve never felt so comfortable and trusted among any class of corporate workers than I have with the Indians. Even the ones who had management-level positions were trench-style workers. It was therefore very rare to see one involved in the various back-stabbing depredations so common among American managers. They recognized something of themselves in me, so we developed relationships based on honesty, trust, and the sidestepping of needless conflict.

They also appreciated my admittedly weak and vicarious knowledge of, and admiration for, their culture. I would ask them questions about the Bhagavad Gita and my own favorite, the Upanishads, and they’d be delighted to hear my odd interpretations of these classics and offer their own views. Here again, they typically found me amusing, though never contemptibly so.

trunkWe made the entire culture clash into a humorous game. We’d go outside in April or May, and I’d be embracing the 60-something degree weather, while wondering at the jackets and winter coats still being worn by the Indian guys. But most of them were from a place where it is between 90 and 110 most of the year. And then they’d turn the tables on me: one day I arrived late, complaining intensely about the crowded trains and ceaseless clot of humanity at every step of the commute, only to hear snickers around me. Finally, one of them spoke up: “Brian, you have to come to India sometime, and you will know what a crowd really is — in India, you are always in a crowd; it is our normal state.”

At lunchtime they liked bringing in their own cooking, which featured ingredients from their homeland. The game with me was always the same: “oh Brian, try this one — is not spicy at all, very, very mild.” I’d take a mouthful, the steam would soon be pouring out my ears, I’d be reaching for the tandoori (always go for the bread to calm a hot mouth, not the water), and their laughter would fill the room.

Interestingly, many of them were Christians. They respected the Vedas and other ancient spiritual classics, but chose to worship Christ. They did a considerably better job at following His teachings than did most American Christians I’ve known. I would give them tips on interesting churches around town; and even taught a few of them a little of the Latin mass. They were geeks, experts at learning new languages; therefore, they took it in easily.

recession2Perhaps because these men* possessed this substance of personal depth, humor, human-kindness, and humility, they had a certain perspective on their professions. Developers understood that code was sometimes defective; systems administrators realized that servers went down every so often. They were always puzzled by the emotional displays that any technical malfunction incited in the American managers. First of all, they well understood that no amount of hand-wringing, shouting, or verbal assault would correct any problem with hardware or software; and second, they realized that it was a critical part of their jobs to fix bugs and restore order when things went amok. I was in a project meeting one day amid such a malfunction, and during the discussion I said, “people, relax, we’re trained and capable of handling this — and anyway, if these systems always worked exactly as they were designed to, most of us in this room wouldn’t have jobs.” A few of the Americans chuckled grimly, but the Indian guys were all smiling gently and shaking their heads (which is something that really takes some getting used to with these people: when they shake their heads from side to side it means an emphatic “yes”, or just the opposite of what it means to us).

IFSo I became friends with several of these Indian men, because they trusted me. Imagine yourself in a distant land from home, amid a vaguely strange culture, where you might be viewed as a foreigner, even as a threat to the jobs of that nation’s citizens. You’re on a temp visa; you have a competent but nonetheless tentative and “foreign-sounding” grasp of the native language; and you’re generally viewed as a temporary indentured servant. The corporate housing is a ways less than first class, and virtually everything in your environment — food, customs, mannerisms, language, even the weather — runs the gamut from vaguely discordant to definitely uncomfortable. You want to work hard, help out, and be perceived as a team player; but you too often breathe an air of suspicion around you. So, for these fellows, meeting a plain, simple native of this strange world who could accept them for who they were was perhaps refreshing.

It went both ways: in fact, I got more out of these relationships than they probably did. Most of what little I know about technology I learned from being around these Indians, most of whom had multiple graduate-level degrees in computer science before they were 25. They were never guarded about their knowledge, and freely shared with me what they knew, to the limited extent of my capacity for understanding it.

dfd_cover3.jpgI wanted to visit their country and know these people amid their own world, and I nearly got to go to Chennai: my manager was actually in favor of it, but then it got to HR, which killed the plan because I was only a contract worker. So I remained “onshore” to be their ally and confidante amid a strange culture. What advice I could give them usually boiled down to this: make use of our resources, our money, and whatever you find that we’re doing right over here; but reject our corporate greed, our vanity, our arrogant sense of exceptionalism, and most of all, the fears that drive us to the depredations that we commonly commit against one another whenever we pass through the revolving doors as the willing slaves of the corporate world. I would quote the Buddha to them: “accept this and reject that; become a light unto yourself and rely upon that light.”

One day, one of the foremost of these uber-geeks from the land of Vishnu was leaving for home after a long stay, during which he had administered an exceedingly complex project (their visits averaged three to six months; this guy had been here nearly a year). There was a farewell party for him, at which he received a number of techno-gifts: a cell phone, a DSLR camera, an iPod, and a few other such things. Someone looked over all this loot on the table and remarked at how wired he was now. The man smiled, stood up straight, and said, “they are just toys; I do not belong to these things. I am an Indian man.” This from a fellow who had probably forgotten more about technology than everyone else in that office combined ever knew.

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nightcontempltesSo, do we need these people from a former British colony on the other side of the planet? Do they provide skills and knowledge that our American labor force lacks in sufficient abundance? For those positions typically performed by my Indian friends in the stories I have told, the answer is yes, we could use their help. But perhaps more than their technical skill, we need to be reminded of the human qualities that they bring with them, and which still live within us, somewhere under the thick layers of fear, allegiance, and corporate arrogance. When you go through those revolving doors tomorrow morning, remember this. You don’t have to stop being human just because you’re in the land of monsters. In fact, it is within the glass tower behind the revolving doors where your humanity is the most urgently needed. Do not be afraid.

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*Nearly all of them were men, because tech is as much male-dominated in India as it is here. But I saw signs of change: a number of the QA testers in India were women; and they were so good that I came to rely unstintingly on a couple of them. I remember having an argument with a project manager who wanted me to sign off on a project that was already late. I said: “When Devi and Subha tell me the code’s good, I’ll sign off — but not before.” The next day, those two women sent me a report that revealed a few critical bugs remaining in the code. They were fixed and a week later than I’d been asked to, I signed off on a truly production-worthy application. After I left that company, I tried to keep tabs on those women (mainly over LinkedIn): I discovered years later that Subha had become a rising star and eventually landed a senior management position over here. I wasn’t the least bit surprised: when she worked for me she had been one of the most gifted and dedicated people I’d ever encountered in 20-odd years amid the corporate work environment.

Down and Out: The Path of True Growth

Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can only speak of it in images and parables.
Werner Heisenberg

I recently turned 58, which on first blush is an unremarkable age. But one day I realized that, according to the standards of my society, I have now been an adult for exactly 4 decades (when I was 18, it was even legal to drink as well as to vote, join the military, etc.). Now a realization like that tends to spark reflection, so I’m warning you in advance — perhaps you’d prefer to head over to Facebook to see what’s trending among your so-called friends. This is going to be a more retrospective exercise.

Now I turned 18 in 1975, which was, especially in retrospect, a fairly interesting year:

  • A little tech startup was founded by two young fellows named Gates and Allen. They would call it “Microsoft.”
  • NASA shot the Viking I spacecraft on its way towards Mars.
  • The Watergate investigations and convictions played out as the Vietnam War wound down.
  • The first cases of what would become known as Lyme Disease were reported in Lyme, CT.
  • Squeaky Fromme tried to kill President Ford.
  • Keith Jarrett played the Köln concerts, which were recorded and eventually became the highest-selling piano record of all time.
  • John Wooden’s coaching career ended with his team’s 10th national NCAA basketball championship.
  • Jimmy Hoffa disappeared into the mists of history (or the bowels of Giants Stadium).
  • The Mayaguez Incident occurred in Cambodia; 38 Americans died.
  • The Altair 8800 debuted as the first publicly available microcomputer. It contained the new Intel 8080 processor.
  • Ron Reagan threw his hat in the ring for the 1976 election, and Maggie Thatcher became head of the UK’s Conservative Party.
  • The first episode of Saturday Night Live appeared, hosted by George Carlin.
  • Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Tiger Woods was born; Dmitri Shostakovich died.

IFThe interesting aspect of the list above is that there is such a rich sense of incipience to it (in what we would perceive as both good and bad beginnings). The opening of the personal computer revolution along with the birth of MS; the rise of what would become a world-changing, if violent and horrible, conservatism; the opening of the exploration of Mars. Review that list again and you’ll see that more than half the items in it carry more implications to the world beyond 1975 than they did to their local moment.

So I can perhaps be excused for my teenage inattention to the current events of that year in which I stumbled over the threshold of societal adulthood. The fact is that I had no concept of what that meant; for I was still a child. Sure, I did things that adults do: I started smoking and drinking. By the time I was 18, I was deep into those things, along with LSD, pot, hash, Quaaludes, and more that I can’t remember. So I was no more a grownup at 18 than I had been at 8. The new element was not maturity, but danger.

Here, therefore, is a principle that is true at any time of life: physical age does not maturity make. Growth is not the boot sector of a computer, something that just happens, at the same pace and direction for all, when you push a button and wait a little. It requires a patient and omni-directional effort that is little regarded in our culture. Fortunately, however, some remarkable psychologists, philosophers, and artists of our era have some insight for us that is easily accessible and enriching at any age.

rockbigA personal favorite among these is the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, whose books (especially The Soul’s Code) have my highest recommendation for your reading list. Hillman talked and wrote frequently about our cultural obsession with “growing up,” to the exclusion of what he saw as an equally essential direction, “growing down.” That is, he wanted to see our culture evolve into one that equally emphasized the spreading of roots below with the upward reach of branches. His point was not that growing down is more important than growing up, but that it needs greater attention in a society that ignores or demonizes “down” and aggrandizes or obsesses over “up.” We need both, but we teach and encourage only one. We may as well attempt to get rid of the south pole of our Earth in favor of the north.

Now the roots that Hillman mentioned are not just your ancestry or a given person’s socio-cultural influences. They go further, to what Paul Tillich called the very ground of being; and I would add that we only have to observe the direction of the science of the last century to get a sense for these roots. In previous essays I have already traced some of the broad details of such roots: quantum entanglement; string theory; relativity; and cosmic holography.

So the next question is, “can we teach such things to our children?” And I answer, “why not? We’re already filling them with the Cartesian-Newtonian myths and assumptions of another era and calling them science.” You may protest that this new science tends to stretch the brain towards its snapping point; but so does calculus if it’s taught correctly (and I would personally make the same claim for literature or art). My personal view is that the beauty of this new science is its capacity for calling upon the heart: quantum mechanics is as much the work of intuition as intellect; and if you read up on Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg, you’d find that they agree.

IFThe point I’m leading to here is that virtually everything we take culturally to be the mark of adulthood — passing standardized tests; getting a driver’s license; being eligible to vote or join the army; going to college — none of these experiences equates or even leads to maturity. They are the same weak and ephemeral symbols as flags are to nations or as paper cash is to personal wealth. Watts used to say that you can’t tie up a package with the equator; in the same way you can’t find maturity in a test score or a voter registration form.

Thus we come to an apparent paradox: one of the most reliable measures of maturity is a sane perspective on measurement itself. That is to say, if I can be clearly aware that when I attempt to measure a thing I am also measuring myself — to the extent that I can really feel this reality, and enjoy its inherent humor — then my maturation is a fine blossom indeed. For now I understand that my measurement is illusion — a secondhand image of the reality I wish to measure and therefore contain within a theory or a model of being.

This is a primary reason why I emphasize the meaning of the new sciences to our lives — for they are teaching us the same kind of lesson as you can find in Zen; in the literature of the Tao; in some of the teachings of Christ; and in the best of our psychologies. Heisenberg, the man commonly credited as the “father of quantum mechanics,” warned us: “The reality we can put into words is never reality itself.” This understanding is a confession to oneself and an admonition to others; and it is a clearer and more beautiful manifestation of maturity than a lifetime’s worth of certificates, licenses, test scores, and accommodations.

IFTo grow down is to feel how discovery happens as much in the depths as in the measured appearances of the outer landscape. Hillman reminded us of the direction of birth itself: no woman ever gave birth through the mouth. We all began our journeys here with a downward trek that led to our arrival. Suddenly, the phrase “down and out” takes on a fresh and transformational meaning.

That journey of maturation is an embrace of weirdness; a lifelong love affair with nonsense and contradiction. This, by the way, is how great art happens, too. Heisenberg said that the farther he strode into the waters of weirdness, he “repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?” It’s happening still in the most recent developments of the new sciences:

Holography began to be used not just to understand black holes, but any region of space that can be described by its boundary. Over the past decade or so, the seemingly crazy idea that space is a kind of hologram has become rather humdrum, a tool of modern physics used in everything from cosmology to condensed matter. “One of the things that happen to scientific ideas is they often go from wild conjecture to reasonable conjecture to working tools,” Susskind said. “It’s gotten routine.”

IFNow, another question: can we do this within our own lives? And I answer again, “why not?” As science does with the most seemingly bizarre notions, rely on your own experience to “make it routine.” Now one of the primary weirdnesses of maturation is that it never stops happening. Nature doesn’t put that stamp on your license or your voter ID or your diploma: the government or the institution put it there. Now I happen to feel that government can, under limited circumstances and purposes, be trusted. As poor (both economically and professionally) as the government of my current city may be, I see that water still flows into my sink; garbage gets picked up; and the contents of my bowel and bladder disappear into the sewers. At work, I see that the state can frequently manage public design and construction projects passably well; even if it handles technology like the proverbial monkey at the typewriter. So what follows is by no means a polemic against government but merely a reminder of its limitations.

Government sucks only when we ask or allow it to do more than is defined in its constitutional mandate. Once the individual’s unique path of growth and self-discovery is impeded by an institution or by an arbitrary law or doctrine, then you know that government has crossed the line. When that line has been crossed, government becomes a religion and the politicians its priests, with all the same violence, greed, perversions, and prejudices common to priests of other religions. If preaching, as Watts used to say, is moral violence; then surveillance is intellectual violence. Both are the enemies of growth.

nightgazeI am no longer an advocate of revolution (nor, however, do I reject it); for I see that the only revolution that really changes anything for the better starts inside the individual self. Pull down the pillars of Authority and Hierarchy within you — that disgusting priapism of belief that says your Mind or Spirit is superior to and should control your puny body; which, in its governmental embodiment, says (on paper) “all men are equal” but means “all men are equally suspicious.” Your mind is not by nature a big-brother controller inside you, making sure the body’s parts, functions, and desires are forced to behave well; your mind is not even inside your body. It is, in all likelihood, a container rather than an insular and foreign President of body; Mind is an emanation instead of a ruling resident of your body. This is why when you die, it is far more likely that Mind (or, if you prefer, Spirit) will easily move to another dimension or universe than that it will sit there and decay with your purely physical corpse. Mind includes and surpasses brain (and any other part of your physical organism): if it were otherwise, that mind is stuck inside our bodies, then we would be justified in despairing that this life is all we will ever know as individuals. This is why, incidentally, consciousness is never seen leaving the dead body; for it was never really there in the first place.

So I am asking you to try embracing weirdness — not merely because it’s an alternative to what we know inevitably falls short of success (convention and obedience to authority) — but because science, including the personal science known as experience, teaches us that it works. Take every belief you find inside you and tip it onto its ear; empty it of its stale, rotting substance; and then challenge it from the heart. For it is not enough to think differently; for that is at best a way of merely societal growth. You will find the need to feel differently; for that is the way of cosmic growth.

A Dress Falls; The Lover Rises

The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no ‘meaning,’ they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.

— Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

IFOne day recently, I was practicing my variant on kundalini meditation, when an old, dust-strewn memory came to me. It was of the first time that a woman had undressed herself before me. As I was still very much a child at the time, the eroticism of that moment was muddled, confused — even rather brutish on my part. But another aspect was clear, and remained so in memory: I had a very strong sense of the sacred, as if there were so much more than a young woman’s dress dropping before me. A mystery was being revealed, yes, but there was more: the very delusion of Mystery itself had been exposed in this moment. I have never felt the naked breath of the Holy — not in any church, temple, or conventional sacred space — as I did in those few seconds of stupid wonder at this revelation of the glistening darkness of the eternal feminine.

It was an opening of truth that I was not prepared for at that age; so its magic slipped away. It would be decades before I could begin to understand what I had both received and lost that night; it would be even longer before I would see how fear had made me falter at the very threshold of realization. And it is only now that I can perceive, however dimly, that the eternal feminine revealed to me some four decades ago is also here, right now, inside me. Through all these years, it was; amid all my vain searching, it was always there. I had it all the time. I didn’t have to be afraid of what that girl revealed to me that night; for it was not separate from who I was, and am.

IFNo one had prepared me for that understanding, for that experience. Therefore, all I was left with in that sacred moment was the same studied ignorance as is written into our Bibles, our textbooks, our collective media of repression. The sacred feminine, especially among men, is the most aggressively denied among those in our culture who style themselves as the faithful and the religiously adept. Like a modern executioner’s poison, that ideological potassium chloride is injected deep into our bodies until it stops the heart of awareness and turns us into walking, breathing, fucking corpses. That is, many of us learn to make love, but few discover how to create it.

This points back to a theme that Alan Watts used to talk about in his comparison of Western and Eastern mythologies. He saw two dominant myths in the Western collective mind: the first he described as the “ceramic model,” in which an external God took clay, made little figurines out of it, and then gave them all life. The line between creation and manufacturing becomes blurred in this model, until we reach the second myth that Watts found in our culture, the “fully automatic model.” Here, the Cartesian-Newtonian mechanism has taken over, and there is not even a pretense of creation anymore: everything is blind matter and energy scattering and interacting randomly amid a similarly blind and stupid universe. In this model, whatever there is of sentience and intelligence comes about accidentally. It is therefore astonishing that, under the influence of such a metaphysic, humans still manage to create something meaningful and enduring every so often.

IFIn contrast, Watts showed how the Hindus saw the cosmic reality as a creative drama, a play of sound and silence; The Taoist looked at Nature and saw a living, intelligent organism in a continual process of self-creation. Creation is the essential, sine-qua-non condition of transformation. But whenever we talk about changing our societies, it’s always in terms of getting the rats out of office and replacing them with more evolved or less brutish rodents (squirrels?). To paraphrase one of the more popular political slogans of our time, we may all hope for change, but if you talk about creating it, then you’ve crossed a line and must be pushed to and beyond the margins of public discourse. We take a similar approach to our personal lives: it’s all about altering appearances rather than working artistically with ourselves, from the depths outward. So we want to be thinner or get rid of a habit or become richer or more popular: we push ourselves around, make demands, spend money, and rearrange the furniture of life — go to the gym or the doctor or the drugstore; and we usually fail, or succeed so superficially that our victory is as good as Pyrrhic.

We exclude ourselves from the Creative principle. We imagine that creativity is the province of artists and other experts who possess the gifts and the training to be duly authorized as society’s creators. We may dream of joining the ranks of that elite, but that does no more than throw us back onto the hope-but-no-change boat of the political realm. This is the emotional treadmill that pushes so many of us into the swamp of addiction: to television, political and religious affiliation, gambling, Lotto, etc. We want the payoff without the exploration or the effort of making it possible. A writer once observed that he had met many people who wanted to be novelists, but few who actually wanted to write a novel.

IFBut creation starts right here, where you are, in your ordinary daily life. If you can do the work of self-exploration and inner cleansing required to self-create a new beginning, a different future for yourself — in the dullest and plainest aspects of your ordinary experience — then I submit that such things as writing books, making music, or creating visual art will be as child’s play to you. If I can discover the art in sitting by the window; washing the dishes; walking the dog; preparing a financial report or a spreadsheet; making the bed or loving my woman — then the goddess of Art is already petting me from the inside out, and there will eventually be wonders from my pen, my brush, or my guitar. For then, even if there is no one out-there to see or hear or admire it, my work will be lit with the photonic energy of the Creative; and my life’s personal art will become its own blessing.

Now, I return to my memory of that sexual experience from my youth. What if I had recognized myself in that young woman’s glorious body? Well, I would never have had to study Tantra, kundalini, or any of that other nonsense. As Watts, Krishnamurti, and others have pointed out before me, we only study and practice these esoteric arts because we think we lack that which we strive to obtain through them. But if we begin by knowing our own inner feminine — emotionally, intellectually, and even (in the words of the old joke) Biblically — without any inhibition or guilt or fear of our true nature; then relationships become effortless, and love flows like tears of relief and gratitude.

It is a matter of restoring the natural balance of our being by pushing ourselves away from the concrete median of a dull equanimity. This is what Lao Tzu meant when he urged us to “know the masculine but be one with the feminine.” Emphasize for yourself what your culture ignores or condemns. The fifth line of the I Ching hexagram Grace (#22) underscores this point:

Adorning tending — towards a hill-top garden.
Rolled plain-silk: little, little.
Abashment. Completing significant.*

IFEgo urges us toward the great triumvirate of success: Wealth, Fame, Accumulation. But blessing — the success of the natural self — is another way, a way of personal creation. It is a garden rather than a nation; its silk (in ancient China writing and painting were often done on rolled silk) is so small as to be overlooked. These are all metaphors of the universal and sacred feminine: simple adornments; the little garden atop the hill; the roll of silk whose only insignificance is in its size, though not in its meaning.

True greatness arises not from status or height or visibility, but from an art of an integrity whose sole attachment is to beauty. Popularity and appeal come and go; they may be put on and taken off; they flash and fall out of the pan, into the ashes. Beauty endures, because it arises from within and has no mind beyond its moment. It has no perceptions to court or expectations to manage. It lightheartedly rejects appearance and dwells within its own substance. It drops its dress and finds all it needs in the perpetual rising and falling of the breath of creation, from the body of ordinary ecstasy.

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*This is from the Ritsema/Karcher transation quoted here.