Sunday, 9 November 2014

Old and new, affirming life

Walking through a peaceful park or bushland I often get the urge to say something to the land, to intone some words of acknowledgement. Speaking directly to the presence in that place, I usually say “Thank you, spirit of this land, for having me here and showing me your beauty and wisdom.” I bring my hands together and bow slightly to add small gravity to the moment.

I never intentionally decided that I had to acknowledge place, but the desire just arrived one day when walking along a creek in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. The words floated in on some mysterious vessel, felt right. Paying some due to the trees by the path, the flitting birds, the burbling water, the occasional skinks and blue-tongued lizards seemed the natural and proper thing to do, an expression of gratitude and joy.

My gesture of thanks accords with Indigenous ways of seeing and relating to the land. In Australian Aboriginal cultures, arrival at a place is an occasion for paying homage to its spirits or ancestors. Words are reverentially spoken and ceremonies held; smoke is sometimes involved, as is water, faces are painted so the spirits can properly recognise the newcomer.

The older human mind represented by Indigenous cultures, with its magical way of seeing the world and direct kinship with nature, is still present, though largely unconscious, in the psyche of modern Western people. We choose to project our magical stories into movies and the arts in general and experience their ancient, raw power in dreams. In these stories, the boundaries between objects soften and blur, the rules we understand to govern rational reality are undone and we move between worlds unseen in our “normal” everyday existence.

It’s important, from an individual and collective point of view, to be in touch with the many layers of the psyche. A person cannot be fully whole if there is not a connection and acceptance of the different dimensions of being within them. Some of these may shock or surprise the rational mind, while others may be easier to embrace. The challenge is not to accept a flat, one-dimensional picture of reality because that limits the scope of one’s humanity and, as depth psychology has shown, the mind is incredibly complex.

Collectively, we are in the early stages of what has been categorised as “post-modernity”, in which pluralism is an important idea. This holds that there is not one truth but many truths, many different ways of expressing what is right and valuable, and each expression is one small tile in the mosaic of what it means to be human. As we move through this new era, our challenge is to reconcile all the different voices – some echoing from the distant past while others of recent genesis – into a picture of humanity as a whole, a truly beautiful and varied creation. All the voices have something to contribute as long as we keep in mind the ultimate goal of life-affirmation. Where there are tendencies towards destruction and life-denial, and there are plenty in our world, we not only call them out and resist their spread but at some core level these too must be accepted and embraced as an aspect of the reality of being human. Nobody and nothing is beyond the pale, all is of the one Life.

If we examine extreme Islamism, for instance, as one difficult tendency currently in existence, we can see a version of a corrupted pre-modern view in which there is only one notion of what is right and true. But taken in context, it can be viewed as a reaction to Western global cultural hegemony and US military domination; it is in part fed by the resources of Saudi Arabia and other conservative Persian Gulf states for the extension of their power; it feeds on elements of racism and alienation experienced in certain communities and on the particular cultural/religious dynamics of those communities.

Taken as a whole, this ought to provide us with a path towards healing and addressing the threat that Islamism poses. The solution requires everybody to be a part of it, in the sense that we are not separate and that humanity is one living body. Global power dynamics affect everybody, as does the spread of Western values in relation to other cultures; security issues are global due to the global nature of transport, the internet, economic systems and telecommunications; racism and various forms of alienation affect just about every country in the world.

We are one, and if we don’t learn to act as one we may eventually die as one on this fragile, blue planet. The idea that some people are treated as separate, that young Muslims are a potential problem to be “re-educated” to our values, misses the mark by a long way. You only have to look at the fundamentalist currents in Western culture – religious, scientific, economic – to see that no group has a monopoly on partial, self-righteous viewpoints.

Coming back to my action of speaking to nature, I can see the life-affirming aspects involved. It draws me into greater conscious connection with the web of life, the myriad interactions of beings which support me in everything that I am and do. It reminds me of the value of the non-human when for so much of the day my mind is upon human things. It rekindles my imagination and simple gratitude. And though it may sit uncomfortably in the hard-edged world of modern rationality, I’m sure that it leads to other acts of compassion and kindness, which has got to be a good thing.