Thursday, 8 December 2011

Art and Integration

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, one of the beacons of culture in Tasmania.

Built into a hill with sheer rock walls and a dizzying collection including ancient Mesopotamian tablets, paintings by Australian greats and modernist sculptures and installations, it was clearly meant to impress. Informed by an avante-garde sensibility, MONA had the flavour of something one might find in Berlin or New York.

After walking through its many levels in cavernous semi-darkness, I pondered the meaning of the experience. Many of the works, particularly the more recent, were about sex and death. There was an element of shock to them, a purposeful desire by the artist to confront the viewer with what lurks in the Shadow.

This is obviously not new in art - consider Caravaggio's brutal, sexual paintings in the 17th century, through to the modern day with Dada, Surrealism and all the rest. The artist is a transgressor, pushing the boundaries of culture and society, challenging the norms of acceptability. Working functionally, this approach renews society by cutting through its stale and restrictive forms and opens the door for new, life-affirming possibilities. It also exposes underlying issues with the hope of change. Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev explores these dynamics beautifully. The artistic soul of the main character, Asher Lev, demands the creation of a crucifixion painting that is taboo in his rigid, ultra-orthodox Jewish community. The painting symbolises the inner torment and hope for redemption in the psyche of his community. The artist holds the seed for change.

There is also a dysfunctional side to the artist as transgressor in which shock is elevated as a goal; boundaries are broken for the sake of merrely doing so, not in the service of a broader context. The artist disgorges whatever is in the unconscious, without proper discrimination or maturity. At MONA one of the works on display was a framed photograph of a dog humping a naked man from behind.

I wondered whether integration/synthesis could be a valuable underlying idea or goal in art. That is, the aim is not so much breaking boundaries as playing with boundaries so that they dissolve and a new whole is created; not so much confrontation and discord as unity and new life; and not so much shock as something that, while it may be challenging, is also deeply pleasing - not in a conservative, anodyne way, but in a way that nourishes the soul. As an example I think of the work of Melbourne artist Godwin Bradbeer, whose black and white figurative drawings convey a depth and mystery that is difficult to put into words. Images of faces and bodies appear on a black background, dreamlike and incorporeal as form emerges from nothingness. There is little that is shocking or subversive, just a numinous reverence for the human body and the mystery of creation.

So too I think the poetry of Mary Oliver is an example of art that aims for integration and wholeness, not merely the breaking of forms. In exploring the joy and suffering of life, Oliver seeks an underlying unity, meaning that can tie all experience together. What comes through is a celebratory wisdom immersed in nature as the path to soul. In her poem Sunrise (from Dream Work, 1986) she writes of climbing a hill at dawn and feeling the light that shines across the world:

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it
whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter

Beyond art, integration/synthesis can act as a template or overarching idea for culture and society as a whole. Human exploration, still largely rooted in individual gain and ego achievement, can have at its centre "the many that are one", where one person's quest is that of the entire human race and the planet as a whole. The adventure of life is undertaken not merely for oneself, but mindfully for all, for "the liberation of all beings" as Buddhists like to say. This would mean the entrance of a level of mysticism into human self-understanding and require a shift of foucus, a leap in consciousness. It seems to me that Bradbeer, Oliver and many others are laying the foundations. Wide cracks are opening in the materialistic world order that currently dominates, and as economic, social and environmental crises deepen, we are being called to new vision. Perhaps T.S Eliot had something like this in mind when he wrote the following in the final stanza of his great work, Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Wild Geese

Sharing the gentle wisdom of Mary Oliver, one of my favourite poets:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Ordinary Life - A Poem

Oh Great Ordinariness

You who kindles the sun's rays
and lets the day be day
and night to follow

Oh Great Ordinariness

You who lets the children down the ladder of sleep
and wakes them in the morning
You who keep my feet warm in winter
and allow my body to do what it needs
You who make the bread rise
and the baby squirm in its parcel of skin
You who move mountains one millimetre every 300 years
who sends the millions to work
and brings them home
You who drops words in my mouth
and silence when required
who lifts me up
and lets me sink into my dark unease
You who tumbles empires
and gives birth to prophets

Oh Great Ordinariness

How I've known you
as I count the days
as I watch the lichen on my neighbour's wall
as I watch the smile of my sleeping lover
as I feel your soft grip in every moment.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Occupy or perish

Last month in this blog, before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I wondered what was to come from the transition of the old order, symbolised in the decline of the world’s most powerful and richest ever nation, the USA, and the new global reality that is to emerge. I asked: “Can the unleashing of forces at a time of great change be harnessed to the creation of the new order?”

A few days later, Occupy Wall Street appeared. It has now touched off an international chain of protest with, at its core, a rejection of the crisis-ridden political and economic model that emerged out of the process of industrialisation and has everywhere been dominant since the latter part of the 20th century. The dynamic of this model is the generation of monetary wealth and a constant expansion, a never-ending growth of that wealth. The complex needs of human beings and the planet as a whole figure only in relation to the primary drive of economic growth.

Despite the confusing array of demands and slogans of Occupy protesters, the essence of what they stand for is a humane system that privileges human and environmental concerns above the narrowly economic. And that means opposition to the present form of capitalism, overstretched and floundering as it butts against the reality of finite global resources.

There is a spiritual dimension inherent in the opposition to the current order. As protesters seek justice, a fairer system, they are essentially looking to establish what some spiritual teachers describe as "right relationship". This is a mid-point where material reality accords with Spirit, where the inner needs of the human being for love, security, meaning and community are reflected in the social, political and economic structures. Life flows from the soul into the world. This might sound like naive and idealistic ballyhoo, but small concrete examples abound in the everyday world. Think of the radiant smile of a baby, or a loving relationship between two people, or a stranger helping an old woman off a tram - ordinary instances of the soul radiating outwards. Right relationship establishes a balance where everyone's needs are taken into account within the needs of the whole community and the planet. Justice or fairness is about creating the conditions in which each individual and the entire community can develop to their full potential. Without justice there is suffering, and when injustice is set into the structures of society the potential for suffering is immense.

Perfection is the not the goal of right relationship. We don't have to imagine a utopia when thinking of a balanced, harmonious society. A loving relationship also has its ups and downs and is not without pain, yet the core of the relationship is inviolate. So too with larger systems and structures. It is possible to imagine and achieve a new global order with justice and fairness at its centre that is not perfect and where people disagree and make mistakes. Ultimately transformation occurs when enough people with enough balance and maturity create the right conditions for long enough. I'm very hopeful for the Occupy movement, even as I hear that here in Melbourne the authorities are breaking up the vigil in the city centre. The seeds are sown - let love triumph over greed!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

September 11 Reflections

Anniversaries are a good time to reflect, and so here in Australia and across much of the world there has been a remembering of the events of September 11, 2001. One of the main topics of interest is a kind of major event frozen-moment reflection: "Where were you when you heard about the attacks on America?" Much like for older people, "Where were you when man landed on the moon?"

I'm interested in symbolism, metaphor and the big picture as much as the small-scale and personal. I love the texture of narrative and people's stories of the day, and I listen to the grief and tragedy and the sheer monstrous horror of what happened; but when discussion remains on the level of the personal story, something is missing.

I had a picture in my mind 10 years ago that still feels relevant: the barbarians are at the gates of Rome. What does this mean? The United States, the most powerful nation on the planet, is the contemporary equivalent of classical Rome, the most powerful empire of its time. Rome, over-reaching itself militarily and economically, suffered a long decline that ended with devastation at the hands of Germanic invaders. America, over-reaching itself and dependent on gigantic military spending, is on a downward slope from which it might not recover.

The barbarians are at the gates. The demons emerge from America's long shadow and go on the attack. America's contribution to the world has been enormous and incredibly enervating in many ways - think of the symbolism of freedom ignited by its revolution and the far-reaching effects of its ideals; think of its key role in stopping Nazism and fascism in World War II; think of the potency of its culture, its music, its cutting-edge thought and research in my different areas. Yet as it has created, so it has also wrecked and destroyed. The shadow of America's elevation of the ideals of freedom and individual liberty has been its own narrow self-interest, love of power and vast over-inflation. Here's a telling example: 3000 people died in the 9/11 terror attacks, but at least 300,000 (according to some reports) as a result of America's mad invasion of Iraq. Add to that the millions who lost their lives in various conflicts in south-east Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa either directly at the hands of US forces or through bloody dictatorships supported and funded by Washington.

In many respects, the US stands for the past and what is no longer relevant or life-enhancing. In some parts of the world, individual liberty and freedom of expression are still goals for which people strive, yet there is an emerging paradigm that goes beyond that framework. We are seeing the slow dawning of a global civilization in which the notion of the self is expanded beyond the individual and what is good for me, my tribe, my country. Its central notion is that we are all one on this fragile, beautiful planet. Global climate change and the interconnection of economic and communications systems make such a broadening of human horizons seem inevitable. In the meantime there are questions about how the old powers, the old ways, will be transformed. Can the unleashing of forces at a time of great change be harnessed to the creation of the new order, or must the barbarians rush ever more violently to sack Rome?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Hero and the Tyrant

In recent months there have been plenty of news reports of the situation in Libya in which the rebels are described as "freedom fighters". What an emotionally loaded term - one that's best suited to propaganda than the complex reality of today's world.

The way someone is portrayed in the mass media becomes reality for the vast majority of people, and the particular portrayal extremely difficult to challenge. That's not to say there is no truth in the Libyan rebels being labelled freedom fighters or in the counter image of Muammar Gaddafi as the "evil dictator", only that propaganda is typically used in the service of the powerful and the full truth of the matter is usually a lot more nuanced. I would guess that in the years prior to the Libyan uprising, when Western governments were trying to court Colonel Gaddafi for access to his nation's large oil reserves, he would have usually been referred to in the media as the "Libyan leader". Now with Western opinion against him again, he is roundly the "Libyan dictator" or just "the dictator".

Why are simple picture images so powerful and why do they sway people so easily? The reason seems to be because picture language is the language of the psyche, the inner language of our mind. It's the language of dreams and the archetypes that appear in them. "The tyrant" and "the hero" have been with us for thousands of years and have helped shape the way we think and respond to our world - they have been an important part of culture and civilization.

A long parade of tyrants and heroes appears throughout Western history, myth and culture. Among the tyrants we can list King Minos of Crete (who fed the youths of Athens to the minotaur), Pharaoh who kept the Hebrews enslaved, Herod who tried to kill the baby Jesus, through to various kings, popes and feudal lords and in our time such people as Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Tyrants represent illegitimate rule, power for its own sake - that is, in the service of private interests and not for the common good. Among the parade of heroes: Hercules, Moses, David, the Christian saints, George Washington, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and often these days various celebrities and sports stars. The hero is one who is able to bring a radiant new spark which lights up their community or transforms it in some way for the better - a leader who represents the best that every person is able to achieve in their own life. It is possible to differ on whether a historical figure is a hero or something else (for instance, Napoleon may be a hero or tyrant depending on your point of view), but it's hard to dispute the general power of archetypes or their deep influence on the human psyche.

To me there is an imperative that we understand the image language of our mind and identify when archetypes are being triggered or used. And it's not solely about being manipulated by politicians or the mass media. With the decline of organised religion, which once ordered and gave coherence to the energies of the psyche, the archetypes and their power has been pushed back into the unconscious. When there is no conscious relationship to them, their outward projection into the world can be destructive - just think of the devastating consequences of fascism in the 20th century. But the hope is that through awareness and through new myth and ritual relevant to our time, we can find ways of consciously holding and channelling their power to further the cause of life and compassion on our fragile planet.

Monday, 15 August 2011


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

WB Yeats, The Second Coming.

The commentary on the riots in England makes for interesting analysis. The shock of the riots caused a deep, collective taking of breath; and out of the rush of air from the exhalation has come the great word WHY.

Why is this happening? Why would young people want to trash and loot? Why in a stable and relatively wealthy country? What is it all about?

In the relatively simple way the world is portrayed in the mainstream news media, the first possibility was that the riots might have a political cause. Reporters looked for evidence of the purposeful trashing of buildings belonging to multinational corporations. Was the disturbance a reaction to the economic austerity measures imposed by the British Government? Was it an outpouring of hatred against police and their violence and heavy-handedness in the poor areas of London?

The answer came swiftly and determinedly: there was no justifiable purpose. The chain of spreading mayhem was just that – criminal lunacy. It was simply wanton destruction by people who should know better. “Feral rats” is how one London woman was quoted as describing the looters. “What are their parents doing?”

It’s understandable that in the heat of shocking events like the riots in England words come without thought or reflection. My hope is that some of the more nuanced and complex views are given credence. Unfortunately it is a tendency in our culture to think in dualistic, black-and-white ways. Shades of grey, which are by far the norm in the complexity that is life, are pushed aside. We prefer the either-or approach because it calms our fears and makes sense of the world in a simple and seemingly logical way. The implicit formulation is this: WE are good, peaceful people. THEY are bad people intent on criminality and destruction.

But this kind of binary thinking inevitably leads to more suffering. We fail to see our social and spiritual interconnectedness with the other and so close ourselves off to our own complexity and the dynamic life of the world as a whole.

The looting and destruction in England were criminal and crazy. But they were other things as well. To me at least, in a context of poverty and urban alienation, the riots were a shocking result of the spiritual vacuum at the heart of our culture; a sign of the crisis of meaning that is eating the fabric of society. What creative and life-affirming direction do young people receive nowadays? What guiding role-models? What identity? What life-enhancing stories and myths?

When society does not hold a meaningful, enriching place for young people or offer an identity for them to grow into, then anti-social behaviour is a likely result. The kinds of riots seen in England are a sign of the unravelling of the social order, the decay of moral, political and economic institutions. The bizarre aspect of it all was that the looters were simply following the one remaining god society holds dear – consumption.

And what is the likely result of the disturbances? Inevitably the authorities talk of crackdowns and getting tough on crime, but there have to be strong and creative measures that give young people hope and direction. If poverty and hopelessness prevail, next time the vortex of rioting could be a lot worse.

As WB Yeats said, “the centre cannot hold”; things are indeed falling apart in Europe and elsewhere. However, the death of old forms presents the exciting challenge of renewal and rebirth. It is up to each of us, in millions of ways large and small, to bring the new order forward.

Thursday, 28 July 2011


Modern man is in fact a curious mixture of characteristics acquired over the long ages of his mental development ... scepticism and scientific conviction exist in him side by side with old-fashioned prejudices, outdated habits of thought and feeling, obstinate misinterpretations and blind ignorance

C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols

It has often been said that we humans are capable of the best and the worst, and history provides numerous examples of both. Yet speaking as an outsider who has never been to that country, Norway has provided the world not just one of the most striking examples of the contrasts of human nature, but reconfirmed the existence of ancient mental forms that have refused to die after centuries of evolution.

An ostensibly peaceful country with a highly developed welfare state and a pride in being a peace broker among nations has witnessed a massacre by a madman purporting to defend the values of Norway. The perpetrator, Anders Breivik, sees himself as a kind of "holy warrior" for Truth, a crusader resisting an invading Muslim immigrant tide. He justifies his barbarism because he is "at war".

The idea of the holy war has existed since biblical times. On God's orders, we are told in the Old Testament, the Hebrews wiped out the inhabitants of Canaan before settling the promised land (Joshua 10:40). A development in the Western mythology of war came about 500BC courtesy of the Persians, who were the first to fight and conquer for universal values of Truth and Light (see Joseph Campbell's book, Oriental Mythology). They believed in an apocalyptic clash between good and evil where evil would be destroyed and thereafter peace reign forever.

Since then the Islamic conquests and notion of jihad, the Christian crusades of the middle ages and countless other wars have been fought by groups claiming God and Right on their side. To this day the United States, "one nation under God", still gives such justifications. Now move to Norway: Breivik gives the world a stark reminder that its ancient and outdated ideas can have catastrophic consequences; the shocking difference this time that it was not al-Qaeda or extremist Islamists waging jihad, but a Westerner attacking the West from the inside with its own version of the "holy war".

Clearly Breivik's own individual psychosis had a large part to play in what he did. With exceptions in certain parts of the world, it is mainly now unstable individuals who identify as divine warriors. But it would be wrong to dismiss the horrific acts in Norway as simply the work of a lone madman. We have not collectively digested the consequences of our own past, nor come to terms with the fear and separativeness that give rise to the re-activation of deadly old archetypes. They wait in the shadows, ready to possess their victims and burst forth in blood.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Unidentified Flying Imaginings

For something so vital to humanity, imagination too often gets a bad rap. “It’s just your imagination” is the common expression when a person wants to dispel another’s perception of some aspect of reality.

I watched a TV show this week where an Australian comedian investigated the phenomenon of UFOs, travelling to Roswell, New Mexico, to a kind of festival of UFO believers. In many ways it was fascinating and funny to hear people’s stories of space ship sightings, alien abductions and weird encounters with otherworldly beings intent on bodily probing their victims.

These kinds of shows, humorous or not, inevitably come to the position that people who believe in UFOs are deluded or mad and that it’s “just their imagination”. Ironically, such a black-and-white position is the mirror opposite of the wide-eyed credulity of many UFO believers. Fundamentalist rationalism meets fundamentalist supernaturalism.

I wonder if in the 21st century we can come up with understandings that are a bit more sophisticated, a little more nuanced. Imagination doesn’t have to be synonymous with unreality, nor should it be taken as some kind of hard, absolute truth. Imagination is vital – we couldn’t live without a mental ability to broaden the horizon of our everyday world. Nothing new would be created by humans without it. Everything would be immensely dull and lonely.

Imagination is a bridge between the known and the unknown, between the outer, concrete world and the inner world of the human psyche, between consciousness and the unconscious. Carl Jung, in Man and His Symbols, says: “Even when our senses react to real phenomena, sights, and sounds, they are somehow translated from the realm of reality into that of the mind ... thus every experience contains an indefinite number of unknown factors.”

So when someone investigates a phenomenon like UFOs that goes beyond the boundaries of the known accepted reality, inevitably imagination comes into play. The proper attitude of the investigator should be humility. Why would a person believe they had encountered an alien? What does it say potentially about them, their psychology and their life? They may be barking mad, but they may not. Even in madness certain truths about them and the kind of society they live in will be revealed if questions are asked. And the widespread occurrence of something like UFO sightings points to fascinating, broader patterns in the collective psyche.

Inevitably, such an investigation comes up against a battery of unknowns and factors that cannot be fully answered by the rational mind. That’s OK. Humans are more than one-dimensional rational beings. We ought to be celebrating ourselves in our full roundedness and the role the imagination plays in making us who we are.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Rationality and the Unknown

A while back I was stirred to write a poem after hearing atheists like Christopher Hitchens a lot in the media. It's more a response to the tone of arrogance in their views, rather than to their views per se, though I think the subject of death would present a pretty stiff emotional challenge to a staunch atheist.

A Militant Atheist on His Death Bed

When they speak at my grave
they will say that I died
in a reasonable manner

They will say I was disciplined in dying
as in the fullness of life,
demanding answers and proofs.

The candle flame by my bed
was fed by oxygen,
not the draught of superstition.

Among them there will be no voodoo
of the imagination.
They will say I went into the void
in a reasonable manner.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Life's Grand Cathedral

Most lunch times I find myself lured into St Patrick’s Cathedral, a short walk from where I work in Little Collins Street in downtown Melbourne. I ford streams of office workers, scramble through the noise and turbulence of the city and enter through St Pat’s large and impressive wooden doors.

It’s the silence that draws me there, a deep and magnetic emptiness that satisfies my need to find a place of quiet reflection in the midst of the city crowds and the feverishness of my own thoughts. It’s a giant cavern and I welcome the opportunity to just sit with myself and be enveloped in its heavy, reverential air.

I don’t belong to any organised religion, so it’s fascinating and novel to be in such an impressive spiritual place. I come from a family of non-observant Ukrainian Jews and as I sit in the cathedral I perform a simple Zen meditation of observing the flow of my breath. Despite my heathenness, I carry the same respect for the divinity of the place that I see in the faces of the few people worshipping there.

Everything about St Pat’s – its massive stone pillars, its lofty roof, the altars and stained glass windows - speaks of the immensity of God and the spiritual calling. Everything is pointing upwards, from the material world to the transcendent and everlasting beyond. The individual is made small and humbled, submitting the ego in the all-powerful womb of the divine. From the windows streams a yellow light that germinates the dark interior, a soft grace that falls into a deep well of silence.

Entering the cathedral I am compelled to answer the call of Spirit, and everything around me is telling me that is what I should do, is designed for that purpose. There is something deeply attractive about the silence in this place. It is like the sense of awe one feels staring at a mountain or looking down into a forested valley from the top of an escarpment. Like dropping into a well and being held by the nothingness that is there.

After my little meditation sessions in St Pat’s, as I walk the short way back to work, I’m always struck by the contrast with the outside world. I wonder how the experience of the sacred can make its way out of the wooden doors and into everyday life; not clothed in the old and outworn forms of religion, but in some shape that is alive and relevant.

Religion built a vessel for the Spirit, allowing people a conscious relationship to the transcendental forces at work in their lives and in the world. In modern society we have not eliminated the spiritual journey, but simply driven it into the unconscious. As the Jungian critic David Tacey says in Gods and Diseases (HarperCollins, 2011): “The spirit still pushes us from one state to another, and nothing can stand in its way, not even a materialist society that has no belief in the sacred.”

There is hope. It comes in the form of the quiet moments when we connect with the deep silence beyond life’s myriad distractions; the moments in which we can simply be. It happens in nature and in loving relationships; in times of celebration and sharing with others; in music and dance; and, though we usually don’t seek it in this way, in times of suffering.

Sacred ritual doesn’t belong solely inside a place of worship. Outside the cathedral is where the challenge, and the fun, begins.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Beyond the Obama-Osama Duality

The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US commandos last week brought into sharp focus something I’d been thinking about off and on for a while.

I broadly agree with the people criticial of the way bin Laden was targeted for killing rather than being brought in like other criminals to face a proper system of justice. And the equivocation of the US Government over what went on in the moments before he was killed and the way his body was swiftly disposed at sea adds to the moral shoddiness of the whole operation.

My chief interest, though, is how the affair demonstrates the principle of duality that is a constant in human affairs. It was fascinating how Barack Obama, in his speech after the death of bin Laden, described it as “justice”. America, he said, was the place of “liberty and justice”. Effectively an extrajudicial killing, probably a summary execution, was “justice” meted out by the military of a country that stood for justice and freedom.

In the early ‘90s, about the time of the first Gulf War, I saw a documentary based on a book by the American author Sam Keen called Faces of the Enemy. In it Keen pointed out that an individual or country that has a one-sided picture of itself, as being pure or on some kind of holy mission, creates a psychology of opposites in which there has to be a demonic adversary. Good incarnates evil, and the defenders of liberty and justice will inevitably find terrorists bent on their destruction. As the ancient Greeks said – hubris invites nemesis.

But duality is not simply about absolutes, not simply freedom versus al Qaeda. It exists as an inner fabric of temporal life. Indeed all life can be seen as a relationship of opposites: day-night, black-white, man-woman, mind-body, subject-object, rich-poor, left-right, earth-heaven, positive-negative, life-death, good-evil, being-nothingness, and so on.

In my work for a not-for-profit community organisation in Melbourne, I am aware of one such element of duality – progress. By that I mean how the aims of the organisation, which is to spread the benefits of renewable energy and environmental sustainability, translate into change in the community. At the moment there is a new state government that shows little interest in sustainability and the progressive agenda in mainstream discourse is under fire from conservative critics and seems stalled.

I can only see it as a process of moving forward and back. Inevitably and inexorably as some challenge is met, some synthesis made, some enlightenment gained, there will be a dark and regressive element that will seek to undo that which is achieved. It applies to the psychology of groups and whole cultures as much as to individuals. It’s true the regressive element will tend to thrive in certain conditions – particularly where there is fear, ignorance and uncertainty – but it is a constant companion no matter what circumstance.

It’s also true that dark material will tend to surface just after a point of enlightenment. A beam of light inevitably exposes that which has been festering in the darkness. This can be seen, for instance, in the way countries that embrace democracy and greater openness after long periods of dictatorship find themselves initially torn by divisions and strife. Old conflicts that lay dormant break into the open. Criminal gangs, ethnic violence and economic chaos came in the wake of the demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The current upsurge in violence between Muslims and Christians in Egypt could also be an example of this process.

There is a lot to be learnt in the way that Eastern philosophy tackles the problems of duality. Broadly speaking, it counsels not to identify with any single element of a pair of opposites but to embrace and integrate them as a whole. The West’s tendency has been to split one opposite away from the other. For many centuries Western religions told their followers to identify with goodness, creating a monstrous shadow of evil that ran amok in various ways including wars and genocide.

Duality menaces because of our limited vision and lack of preparedness to bring the opposites together in a meaningful way. There is wholeness beyond the opposites, a point of harmony most of us are aware of at different times, if briefly, in our lives.

In this context the US President might want to consider the following excerpt from the Taoist classic Tao Teh Ching by Lao Tzu:

If one does not know the Constant,
One runs blindly into disasters.
If one knows the Constant,
One can understand and embrace all.
If one understands and embraces all,
One is capable of doing justice.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

When William Married Kate

At heart, I’m a Bolshevik. For me royalty is not just an anachronism that serves no obvious purpose in the 21st century, but an institution that continues to represent elitism, colonialism and class privilege.
So at first I tried to quarantine myself from the media hype about The Wedding. I knew the wave of adulation and hyperbole was rising and I tried to skip news services in the days before Friday’s nuptials between Prince William and Kate.
Alas, on the day (or night over here) I couldn’t help myself. Any phenomenon that carries broad public appeal should at least be investigated and its force understood.
One reason why so many people seemed to care about the whole thing in Britain was the atmosphere of economic gloom over there. Maybe people just needed a grand and happy spectacle to take their minds off unemployment, rising food prices and welfare cuts; an excuse to celebrate and have a party.
I think the real heart of why something like a royal wedding has timeless mass appeal is its enormous symbolic content. The media, which taps into the heart of mass consciousness, continually gushed during Friday’s live coverage about the “fairytale” nature of the event. Television commentators described it as “a fairytale comes true” and “the stuff of dreams”. Indeed one commentator described the occasion as a “mixture of magnificence and the ordinary – that’s why they (ordinary people) identify with it.” Another said it was “everyone’s party”.
The power of a symbol is that it is ultimately mysterious and not real in the conventional material sense. The members of royalty – kings, queens, princes, dukes etc – carry a kind of symbolic aura that has nothing to do with them as real people. It’s what Carl Jung described as “mana”, a projection of an archetypal image from the mass unconscious.
Why are fairytales important to people? Why would someone camp overnight to get an ecstatic glimpse of the newlywed royal couple? Fairytales are essentially dreams, and dreams emerge from the unconscious. There is a non-rational side to the psyche that is an important component of what it means to be human, and this has not been banished despite the dominance in our times of rationalism and secularism.
A royal wedding is an ancient and powerful symbol of wholeness. It is a representation of the sublimeness of oneness, the union of opposites. Love unites and binds that which is separate. By watching the wedding, people participate vicariously in a magical process that relates deeply to their own lives.
Strangely enough, modern technology and media has assisted this magical connection. Through the internet and media coverage of the royals we get some sense of them as human beings – in many ways they are shown to be just like us – and that keeps the link to the mass public alive that allows the “mana” process to occur.
As always, however, a projection is just a projection. A symbol can have no lasting effect unless it leads to concrete action and transformation in a person's life. After the sleeping bags near Buckingham Palace are rolled up and the crowds go home, after the partying is over and the televisions are turned off, how can the spirit of love and unity be held so that its presence continues to inspire?     

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Gods and Diseases: Review

There is a story in David Tacey’s latest book, Gods and Diseases, which captures in a neat set of images the sense of what the author is trying to say. In ancient Greece, he tells us, people wanting relief from ailments of one kind or another would come to the temple of the god of medicine, Asclepius, and be led into a “dream chamber”. They would be asked to sleep for a while and their dreams then analysed by the priests of the temple to form the basis for their remedy.
This picture is emblematic of Tacey’s outlook in the book. Physical and mental wellbeing, he says, has a hidden, psychological-spiritual component. There are stories and meanings behind why we feel unwell and these must be understood to help us properly face our situation.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Girl with the Redback Tattoo

I was fascinated by a woman on a tram not long ago. It wasn’t the woman’s long, black hair that attracted my attention or her sullen and somewhat ashen expression. Nor was it the book she was reading, which I couldn’t properly see.  It was the large, redback spider that was tattooed on her left arm.

Discounting the possibility that she merely liked spiders, I guessed the tattoo was a reference to the venom and aggression of the redback, that if attacked physically or emotionally she, like the spider, would bite hard. I was reminded of a friend who once told me he was going to get a tattoo on one arm of a playful cat and on the other a tiger. He wanted to give the world a simple map of his inner life.
Symbols such as these provide insights into a person’s psychology, but they also point to broader trends that run counter to the recognised and simple version of our collective identity. It’s accepted that Australia is a rational and rationally organised country. As individuals, we are driven by materialistic goals of prosperity and happiness through work, family, consumption of goods and services and property ownership.
The long decline of religion as a social force has left the field of spirituality undefined or vacant for most people. This territory is about the sacred, about all the ways of understanding and experiencing meaning and depth in our lives and the world around us. Abandoning the rituals and explanations of religion, we are left with a rational, outward-looking, materialist and largely shallow picture.      
Despite this, we continue to seek meaning beyond the surface reality of our day-to-day lives and continue to act, often without knowing, from the depths of the psyche – a murky world best understood through myths and symbols, dreams and the artistic imagination.
Looking at the woman with the redback tattoo, my mind wandered to all the other ways we behave that are on the borderline of rationality, if not beyond.  According to Carl Jung in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “Day after day we live far beyond the bounds of our consciousness; without our knowledge, the life of the unconscious is also going on within us.” The American mythologist Joseph Campbell told a humorous story about going ten-pin bowling with a university professor, a man ordinarily steeped in reason, who kept waving his arms after releasing each ball to direct it to the right spot.
Some of the clearest ways in which we express our non-rational impulses happen in response to death – at funerals and other rituals. Deep down, as Jung observed, most of us just can’t accept a life simply stops and is no more. Some people speak to their loved ones in their minds or at graves for years after their death. It is common for people delivering eulogies at funerals to directly address the deceased with something like, “I miss you and will always love you.” Likewise, messages left at roadside memorials are often addressed to the dead: “You were taken away too early from us. We’ll always remember you.” From a strictly rational perspective these are all nonsense – the dead cannot hear or respond to anything said to them. Yet it is clearly important and a balm to the grief of the living to act in these non-rational ways.
Other death rituals happen on a grander scale, such as can be seen on Anzac Day or Remembrance Day. The dawn services, the shrines of remembrance, the pilgrimages to Gallipoli, the minute of silence, the haunting sound of the bugle, the intoning of “They grow not old as we grow old”, all have a strongly religious quality. They allow people to reach beyond the limits of time and space and unite them with the dead Anzacs. In effect, the dead soldiers come to life through myths and rituals, much like in other cultures where the spirits of ancestors are alive and revered and worshipped.
Sport is another area where non-rational impulses are expressed. AFL football is, for some people, a lightning rod for emotions driven from the inner depths of the psyche. A supporter whose team loses can be depressed for days, while another whose team wins is filled with a radiant and lasting joy. Through the force of psychological attachment and emotional participation, the spectacle of football becomes a mythic hyper-reality of heroes and battles.
Football games are modern-day re-enactments of timeless archetypes, motifs and stories. The best players are invested with the quality of supreme warriors, gods (Gary Ablett snr was literally “God” on some Geelong banners) or kings (Wayne Carey was nicknamed “the king” before his fall from grace at North Melbourne). There are those who are reviled and others who are saintly, those who sacrifice themselves and are crucified (injured) and fallen idols like Carey or Brendan Fevola. There are the stories of David and Goliath, of winning in adversity, amazing escapes and tragic losses. And above it all there is an elemental and deeply tribal clash of opposites – us and them, your team against theirs.
Jung and Campbell believed the impulse towards myth arises out of the dynamics of the psyche, the inner growth of the individual dependent on bringing unconscious elements to consciousness. Where once religion directed the energies of the psyche through frameworks of belief, now there are no collective maps for the inner life. A modern, Western society supposedly no longer needed the hocus-pocus of religion, yet the shadow of non-rationality remains.
To admit the presence of depth beyond the surface of the material world does not mean abandoning reason. It is not a recipe for adopting a particular spiritual belief or practice. To accept the non-rational is to acknowledge the deep mystery that cloaks the human mind and our lives generally. Gentle exploration can start to peel back the unknown. A redback spider tattoo on a young woman may be just a pretty – if somewhat menacing – symbol, but it’s also a reminder that our lives are much more than what they seem.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Highlight of 2010

One of the highlights of 2010 for me was an unusual billboard I kept passing in Fitzroy in Melbourne’s inner north during the federal election campaign. The sign had a picture of the then Greens candidate for the seat of Melbourne, Adam Bandt, with the slogan, “I’ll stand up for refugees”.
From my packed tram amid the sullen throng of people on their way to work, my eyes would search for this billboard each morning, like a curious yet reassuring symbol. 
Something about that slogan, “I’ll stand up for refugees” was different. There was no apparent appeal to the self-interest of the voter; rather the candidate was asking people to vote for him because he was going to help someone else.
Electoral politics is almost entirely about self-interest. Whether it’s the economy, education, health, crime, transport or rural issues, politicians assume the average person is interested only in what is good for them and their family. Even environmental issues with altruistic motives are often cloaked in self-interest: a minister announces the preservation of a forest from logging so that it may be “enjoyed by current and future generations”.
Though the fulfilment of personal needs and desires is important, there is a range of human qualities neglected by mainstream politics: the need for community, the ability to reach out to others, the capacity to sacrifice for the welfare of other people and the planet as a whole.      
At heart, our culture and economic system are geared for self-gratification and the fulfilment of the individual through consumption. Economics is about generating unlimited growth based on the assumption that humans are motivated by greed and fear. Buttressed by the global advertising industry, which creates an endless stream of artificial wants and desires, the picture of what it means to be human has been narrowed. People are reduced to being ever-open mouths in vast and complex networks of markets to be mined for profit.
Politics is essentially about oiling the system of self-interest; which is why that poster in Fitzroy seemed to mark a departure, a statement of an emerging sense of different interests and possibilities. Commentators say the rise in support for the Greens is a sign of a “post-materialist” consciousness among inner-urban residents, a shifting of priorities towards community, strong action on the environment, and social justice.
The established political elites deride the emerging political consciousness as the product of “affluent trendies” who can afford to be post-materialist because they are wealthy, young and secure in employment. In a simplistic equation, people who prioritise such issues as the rights of asylum seekers are said to do so only because they no longer need to worry about the basic economic, health and education concerns that preoccupy the rest of the population.
There are deeper truths at work. A post-materialist cultural shift has been brewing since the late 1960s, when social movements led by young people attacked Western society’s sterile obsession with the economy and conservative social norms. Many of the ideas and new ways of living that were advocated then by minorities of social activists and their supporters, on issues like anti-militarism, social and sexual freedom, the rights of women and environmental protection were eventually incorporated partially or wholly into the broader society.
The continuation of that post-materialist trend seems now to be maturing and gathering momentum in new guises relevant to the 21st century. One of the key features is the abandonment of self-interest as the sole motivation for human action. The interconnectedness of all life on Earth has never been more apparent nor the need to act collectively to protect and nurture it more urgent. Yet nations are still structured around outworn priorities which promote disconnection and disunity; the squabbling and inaction by governments at the various global climate change conferences are a telling example.
It’s clear that groups of people across the world are breaking the shackles of materialism, thinking and acting in ways that expand human experience from “what is good for me” to “what is good for us” and “what is good for all life”. That’s the animating shift in Australia behind climate action and transition-town groups and the strong interest in environmental sustainability and social justice in many inner-urban communities.
The success of this profound shift in consciousness will not be measured by the number of Greens MPs elected to parliament, though in parliamentary politics the Greens represent the shift most clearly. Its success will come over time when humanity broadly accepts and integrates its far-reaching implications and emerges out of the woods of narrow self-interest.  
By that time Adam Bandt’s confidently smiling face on a poster in Fitzroy will have been long forgotten, but his sentiment of connection and compassion will be closely woven into the social fabric.  

Thursday, 17 February 2011

War in the Library

War broke out on a sunny afternoon at my small suburban library. It began as conflicts often do – with faint rumblings of discontent escalating into wholesale slaughter. Apparently, the only free computer had been double-booked.
An older woman with grey, short hair was insisting that she had booked the internet, but somehow her booking had not been registered.
The librarian told the woman bluntly she must have made a mistake. Affronted and defensive, she dug in and refused to concede. The young man using the computer looked up nervously from his YouTube clip but said he had a genuine booking. Then the real fun began.
When the computer next to the contested terminal suddenly became free, the jilted woman claimed it and began her assault. “Hard to find anyone with decency around here,’’ she sniped at the young man. ``Yeah, yeah, whatever,’’ he replied. For the next 10 minutes, while typing on her keyboard, she threw sarcastic barbs his way, to which he replied with increasing venom.
Finally the woman got up from her emailing chores and left the library. But not before one last shot: “Such a nice day, such a nice person ... pig!”
I watched this scene with fascination and horror nearby. I kept thinking how common it is for a person who feels wronged in some way to carp or abuse another.
Often it happens when a neighbour is rude, or on the road when another car cuts us off, or a parking inspector gives us a ticket even though we only dashed into the shop for a minute. We just can’t help firing a parting salvo to soothe our wounded egos. The volcano of our rage explodes in response to the hurt of the blow. Feeling abused, we abuse back.
But does it have to be like this? Do we have to bare our fangs when we feel piqued?
The key has to be emotional detachment – the ability to step back from the heat of the conflict and act in a positive way that embraces everybody involved, not just yourself.
We are not generally taught the art and skill of emotional detachment. At school we are urged to think critically, to inspect and dissect thoughts and arguments – which is about the exercise of the mind. What about emotions? In our rationally ordered, mind-oriented society, emotions are not considered the main game, yet they are hugely important and often influence and override what we are thinking.
The idea that as human beings we have a core or essence that is independent of our feeling states, that we don’t have to identify with our emotions and can stand back and not be consumed by them, is powerful and subversive.
Advertising relies on the manipulation of emotions and desires. How many of us go out and buy something when we feel unhappy, lonely, depressed? After the 9/11 terror attacks then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told his citizens to go shopping as a way of recovering from their shock and grief. Go shopping. And of course politicians are skilled manipulators of the moods of the electorate, tweaking emotions like fear, greed and insecurity.
Emotional detachment does not mean becoming unfeeling or cold. It means recognising there is a choice about how to respond to a feeling. We don’t have to be slaves to our emotions. Another person may be abusive, they may hurt or wrong us in some way, but recognising that we have a choice creates the potential for acting in a way where we don’t throw our own toxic fuel on the fire of a conflict.
So how could the protagonists in the library have acted differently? The librarian should not have bluntly told the woman she had made a mistake, but tried to soothe her and offer her something positive (“It’s terrible you’ve missed out on the computer, can I get you on another one as soon as possible?”) Likewise, the young man could have expressed his sympathy for the woman’s plight and offered to help her make a booking for next time. He certainly should not have responded to her abusive bating. For her part, the woman could have channelled her anger and frustration by firmly asking the librarian to show her the booking system and ensure that she was able to use the next available computer.
It’s true these are ideal responses, but they are possible and they do happen. Sometimes all it takes is one or more deep breaths before we speak or act. But it begins fundamentally with the understanding that we are not our emotions, that war is not inevitable.

Published in The Age newspaper, February 2010

On Work and Connection

Mechanics are not the sort of people who reach for publicity, and they rarely get it. But I have a desire to hoist my mechanic before the bright lights and celebrate every grease-stained inch of him. 
He has been intimate with every part of every bomb I’ve driven over the years. He’s known the axles, picked through the engines, changed the groove-worn tyres and oiled the pistons. He’s been my counsellor and saviour countless times when, forlornly, I’ve rolled into his suburban garage with the latest problem.
His name’s Mick, which is somewhat typical for a mechanic. You don’t get many words out of him, and when he does speak they come rapid-fire and always end in a question.
`It’s gonna cost a lot to get new tyres, knowata mean? You’re better off getting re-treads, knowata mean?’
Mick works on his own and his garage is always full of cars, some jacked up high, others lolling about in various states of disrepair. His workshop looks like the grubby inside of hell. Even the girlie poster that once stood out near the entrance has succumbed and is buried under layers of grime.
He’s invariably busy but somehow always finds the time to attend to mechanical no-hopers like me. His patience, like the stream of cars that come in and out of his garage, seems endless.
George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier made the profound observation that there are millions of people who work in jobs essential to the running of society who receive no recognition. Orwell investigated the lives of coal miners in northern England in the 1930s. The miners’ work led to the generation of electricity that powered the country, yet they lived in abject poverty and neglect.
In 2010 in Australia few workers endure conditions anything like those described by Orwell, but there still exists a kind of social short-sightedness and lack of approval towards many blue-collar jobs. Amid strict divisions of labour, we are still a society ruled deeply by status. And when it comes to dirty, repetitive or dangerous work we prefer to look away.
Imagine a car-dependent country like ours without mechanics. Or the conditions we would be working and living in without cleaners or garbage collectors. Or the hunger in our stomachs without the food process workers whose products pile up in supermarkets.
There are hundreds of jobs that don’t rate a mention in a society like ours that is obsessed with wealth, status and celebrity – and armies of unsung workers who nevertheless keep it functioning and well-oiled. The illusion exists that the work of the CEO and his office cleaner are unconnected. The truth is that one cannot operate without the other, and this extends to a web of connections throughout our complex society, binding the high and the low.
Friends of mine have the quaint habit of placing a stubby of beer and a thank-you card next to their letterbox at Christmas for the postie.  I haven’t met anyone else who does this, or hardly anyone who even acknowledges the person who scoots up and down their street daily delivering their mail. I try to say hello and thanks when I am at my mail box as the post is delivered, but the response is often one of surprise – as if anonymity is the ordained consequence of the thankless job.
My mechanic Mick may not be the poorest worker around, but in his concrete grease pit he’s certainly one of the less glamorous. Fundamentally it’s about what we value, and the ability to see and appreciate all the parts that make the whole.
Published in Eureka Street, August 2010

Ten Ants Only

Around the carpark of a block of flats in inner-urban Melbourne, signs say `Ten ants only’. The painter had mistakenly spelt ‘tenants’ with two ns, then painted over the second one.

The signs say ‘ten ants only’.
Passers-by long ago stopped wondering what they mean.
They ascribe the words to life’s imponderable truths:
like why some babies are born with hair and others bald,
and the movements of clouds.

Once I gathered twelve ants
and let them spill from my palm to the ground.
Two of them convulsed horribly,

Sometimes I’ve seen people meditating before the signs.
They say Zen teachers use them as koans,
the novice’s journey to non-attainment enhanced
by the bite of gravel on his backside.

Some people say they have seen the face of a woman
when the light slants on the letters in a certain way;
that she weeps and miracles occur.

I’m sceptical, but not like the grim man who shouted
‘Tenants only! Not ten ants.’
An old woman sweeping the gravel said ‘Silence!’
And the ant trails weaving through the minds
of the young people on the ground stopped,
briefly, before resuming –
ten ants, not one more.

Published in Wet Ink magazine, September 2009