Sunday, 24 November 2013

Nature and the divine

I used to frown at the rows of English elms that line my walk to work each morning through Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens, but somehow I have fallen in love with them.

These are foreign trees, I used to say to myself. They were planted in the 19th century in that European sensibility of the promenade – the stately arboreal avenue framing the weekend strolls of couples and families at leisure. Whatever was here originally – red gums, yellow box, grassy tussocks – had to give way to an imported Europeanness with little interest in the indigenous quality of the land.

My view of the English elms began to change on a sunny day last autumn. The 30-metre giants were clothed in yellow – a vast golden dress shimmering along their length in the sunshine. Whenever a breeze blew, curtains of gold leaves descended on the path, a drifting dazzle. A stranger walking in the opposite direction with his head craned upwards stopped in front of me. “Isn’t that amazing,” he said. I felt blessed to be in the presence of this ordinary, extraordinary sight, this vision from heaven.

Ever since, my respect for the elms and whoever planted them has increased. I’m interested in the craggy, furrowed grey bark. In the way the trunk splits into two main branches and how the leaves cascade in wisps down the tree, as if it wears them like a boa. My morning walks to work have new grace and meaning, though it is hard to explain how exactly. The English elms have presence and character, soul.

Every day people walk past those trees without appreciating them; they’re simply a backdrop to busy thoughts cocooned in busy lives. Then we wonder why we are out of balance with nature and perplexed about how the situation can be fixed. The answer is directly in front of us: it’s in how we live our lives, in the quality of attention and consciousness we give to all life. Only a full re-enchantment of nature, a full awareness of everything as being alive, can lead to human harmony with and within the natural world.

I think there are three fundamental steps in human realignment with nature: appreciation, kinship and spiritual grace. In the first, we are moved by nature’s beauty and quality but we are outsiders observing it. This tends to be the most common attitude: we go to nature for the scenery, for the chance to see animals in the wild, for the fun and enjoyment of the beach, for the walks through magnificent forest. It’s important we do this because our lives would be impoverished if we didn’t and the default position in our culture is an almost complete mental separation from nature – many people feel disconnected even in the midst of great wonder. However, though we are being moved in some way, we are as outsiders looking in. There is a gap between “us” and what we define as the “natural world”.

In the second stage, that of kinship, we move beyond the position of spectator to recognising a relationship between us and nature. Thankfully, this appears to be a growing trend. Scientists, at least at the intellectual level, are rapidly coming to the conclusion that all life is related and all life is interdependent. That means we have a responsibility to nurture and care for all living ecosystems. In the position of kinship there is an implicit understanding that we are bound up with nature; we feel its pleasure and pain as our own. The inflated human ego is brought back to a point at which it can appreciate commonality with other beings. Ancient Western and Indigenous cultures established kinship relations with plants and animals knowing that mutual care and responsibility was the order of the world, and that great harm would result if those ties were broken.

Aspects of spiritual grace, the third step, can be found in the earlier stages. At the level of appreciation, it is something mysterious: we can’t fully explain why we feel a certain sense of harmony or balance, why there is deep contentment or even why at times we may be moved to tears. Spirit is the animating dynamic of the universe and it moves through and is in everything. Spirit is oneness: when we are conscious of it, we recognise the unity of all things. All is one and there is no separation. Spiritual grace opens us to a relationship of true depth with nature where we are in touch with the deepest essence – we act to further all life. With the benefit of spiritual grace, we begin to open to the different levels of being, to the different stages at which life operates in us and in everything.

Nature can be the gateway to Spirit, but so can any other aspect of living. The point is the development of a level of consciousness that is receptive to and aware of Spirit; once this consciousness establishes and grows in an individual the divine is increasingly experienced as ever-present. The challenge is to create the conditions in one’s own life and personality for Spirit, then to bring that reality to concrete action in the world.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Myth and the message

I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV
And I’ve seen all those kids on the soda pop ads
But none of them looked like me.
So I started looking around, for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him.

So begins the song John Walker’s Blues, by the great American songwriter-musician Steve Earle. Written not long after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, it’s the tragic and somewhat defiant story of John Walker Lindh, a young Californian caught fighting for the Taliban.

When I first heard the song, I was electrified. Here was Earle, hardly before the dust had settled in the rubble of the twin towers, affirming the life of a man most Americans would have considered a terrorist conspirator and traitor. With its mournful “There’s no God but God” refrain in Arabic, John Walker’s Blues was banned by radio stations and its writer roundly condemned.

Despite the outrage, the song is a classic on many levels. It tells the story of a spiritual seeker-warrior poetically and evocatively, but without judgement. Like all great art, what is left unsaid carries the most power: Walker Lindh’s certainty and religious passion is little different from the American ideal and the reality of many Americans, only he has the misfortune of being on the wrong side. Earle is provocatively asking the listener to see themselves in his protagonist, to identify with the enemy, the other.

What the song also does, as indeed all storytelling can, is elevate its subject or “hero” to myth. Through the power of story, a person or event can rise above the mundane to a region of mind that is eternal. The everyday suddenly takes on greater, richer meaning. Walker Lindh is no longer a mere two-dimensional figure described in news reports, he is magically transformed into a presence in the collective consciousness and memory, his life given depth and meaning. Earle, as the artist, is spinning myth.

This occurs in all the arts. In Australia, one can think historically of the myths of the bush and its independent, resourceful people in the work of nationalist writers like Henry Lawson and “Banjo” Paterson and the painters of the Heidelberg School. We can see the process of mythmaking in Sidney Nolan’s distinctive paintings of the armoured outlaw Ned Kelly. And more recently, examples can be found in the celebration of ordinary lives and everyday struggles in the novels of Tim Winton and the songs of Paul Kelly, and in the Indigenous fight for dignity and survival in the lyrics of Archie Roach and Kev Carmody.

In all these examples the mythmaking process meets with contemporary reality: these are no fairytales from a bygone era. Myth is connected to the complexity and tensions of the here-and-now, bringing its light (and darkness) to bear in the everyday world.

Not all stories reach the heights of myth. To get there, a story must have a quality of inspiration and aspire to the archetypal dimension of life, to the inner patterns of things. In John Walker’s Blues, Earle is working with the archetypes of the warrior, the martyr and the spiritual seeker. These are ancient, deeply resonant images in the collective human psyche, and their evocation is powerful.

Though some myths are enriching and enlightening, others may be disturbing or aligned towards separativeness or evil. All myths, no matter what their quality, reveal the inner workings of the human spirit in any given time. They link strongly to the energies of the psyche.

In our materialistic culture, we would do well with a greater awareness of myth and the mythic dimension. This would allow us to see beyond the surface, and get a sense of the inner stories that individually and collectively we tell ourselves and that are being told. We may come to know ourselves better and act with greater maturity. Perhaps above all, a greater appreciation of myth is invigorating and revitalising: it connects us with soul and replenishes the soul quality of the world. It allows us to drink from the deep wells of life and enter spaces of consciousness we rarely access in everyday reality, creating channels for those spaces of depth into the world.