Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Dialogue on Place

The following imaginary dialogue happened in a street in Athens sometime in the 4th century BCE. The two people involved are philosophers, Aristageles an older man and Xanthon a younger protégé.

ARISTAGELES: Ho, Xanthon! Where are you off to so hastily on such a fine morning?

XANTHON: I have much to do today, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: People have been talking and wondering what has become of the learned Xanthon. You haven’t been seen in weeks, not since the symposium at Alkaios’ house at any rate. Your friends miss you.

XANTHON: I’ve had very much on my mind, Aristageles. The weight of it has been such that I’ve had no time for friends or frivolity, not even for philosophy.

ARISTAGELES: May I enquire what has detained you in such fashion?

XANTHON: Oh, Aristageles, it is something about which I dare not speak for shame. My heart is a hollow vessel of sadness.

ARISTAGELES: Is it something that cannot be shared with one who cares? ‘A heavy sack between two is no burden’, the saying goes.

XANTHON: If only. I’m afraid the grief is solely mine to bear.

ARISTAGELES: But is there no way a friend could help? Remember, philosophy beats paths through all things.

XANTHON: Yes, I know it does, but for me? You see I have no way out.


XANTHON: I am going into exile, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: Ah, so this is the rock that sits on your soul?

XANTHON: Yes, it is. I was chosen for the expedition against the Macedonians, which as you know is only days away. I’m not a fighter, cannot fight, will not fight again. The very thought of the battlefield sickens me and I have a feeling in my gut that if I go to war again I will die.

ARISTAGELES: It is very normal to hate war, my friend. War is a plague, a curse, and it is a great stain on Athens, on our civilisation, that we have danced to the blood frenzy more than many other cities; even as much as some barbarians. Nor is it unmanly to refuse to fight. Reason is a divine gift, and it makes no sense to walk into butchery, even if sanctioned by the laws of the land.

XANTHON: You are right, Aristageles. But do you know what weighs on me heaviest, even more than being known as a coward and losing my honour? It is the thought of leaving Athens. It fills me with the blackest dread.

ARISTAGELES: Do you fear never returning?

XANTHON: Yes. Athens is home. I have only ever left Attica twice in my life, and then only to Corinth. Athens is everything to me; it is my life, my soul. What will I do without the sight of her hills every day, her temples and squares? The Acropolis, the life of the agora, the processions and singing of the Panathenaea, Boreas sweeping through the leaves of the plane trees by the Ilisos, even the chaos of the Piraeus – all these have made me, have built what I am block by block. And soon I will have only impressions of her for comfort, mere memories, and I will be entirely undone. So here I am, Aristageles, running around furtively making preparations for my voyage.

ARISTAGELES: Did you know that the Ilisos was one of Socrates’ favourite places to walk? It is said he often went there with his companions. They would pay their respects to Pan and the wood nymphs and talk philosophy for hours.

XANTHON: Ah, philosophy. What of it, now? What can it ever say to us when we are in such dolor?

ARISTAGELES: Well, it speaks to us most in the darkest times. It teaches us always to follow the gods, and as you have strived to do so here in Athens, so shall you, I am sure in ... Where is it you are going?


ARISTAGELES: By Zeus, that far! You will be missed.

XANTHON: But how is the pain healed by the gods? How is this city, this soft earth of Athens, to be replaced with anything I find anywhere else?

ARISTAGELES: The wise tell us that gods and men are kin. And as you stand on your ship watching the shore of the Piraeus recede in the distance and weep for your loss, so the great ones will be weeping with you. Every place has its own gods – its temples to a particular guardian, its goddesses in the sacred groves, its satyrs and nymphs in the hills and rivers. Where one city builds shrines to Artemis, another will honour Apollo or Demeter or Hephaestus. But what does the multitude of gods from all the corners of the world have in common? What is the shared thread, whether the sacred garment is woven for one or another?

XANTHON: I confess I don’t know.

ARISTAGELES: Do they not all represent the good, some variation of it?

XANTHON: They represent power, it is true. Of the good, I am not sure. Ares is rarely anybody’s favourite, and Dionysus has a wild edge of intoxication and violence.

ARISTAGELES: Power implies choice. The gods offer us a choice – do we respond to conflict with a neighbour in the way of Athene, with justice and dignity, or descend into bloodshed? Do we accept Demeter’s laws about the tending of the wheat fields or do whatever we like when it comes to nourishing our city and the land? Do we honour Dionysus with wine and song, or become prudish and miserable? If we truly follow the gods, we follow what’s best.

XANTHON: I have had no cause to think deep thoughts in the past few weeks.

ARISTAGELES: All that you have learnt in Athens, all that is noble in this city, all that has nurtured your soul, your family and friends and lovers, the wisdom of philosophy – take these in your heart to your new home. Will you not find the good in Olbia? Not in the same forms as here in Athens, not with the same people or the same soil, but in some local shape nonetheless. And if Olbia prove barren and inhospitable, go to another place and find what you seek there. The world opens to those with the mettle to grasp it.

XANTHON: They are kind, wise words, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: And as you go about your new life, friend, be sure to ‘keep your hands soft’. Have you heard that old phrase? It means to change as conditions arise; not in the way of a fool who has no idea what they are doing, but as someone whose hands shape fortune in their life and the lives of others. As Euripides says, ‘that I may lightly change my ways, my ways of today when tomorrow comes, and be happy all my life long’.

XANTHON: Thank you, Aristageles.

ARISTAGELES: And one last thing. Before you set forth on your journey, do pay a visit to Agathe. She hasn’t seen you for a long time and misses you terribly.

XANTHON: I will.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Ask and it will be given

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Luke 11.9-10

I take the Bible as fascinating, not from the point of view of dogma to be literally believed and obeyed, but from the diamonds of wisdom that are studded through its pages. The above passage quoting Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, rich in poetry and meaning, is one of them.

One of the advantages of our times in the West is the abandonment of religious certainty. Heartbreaking though it is for many of us, it allows us to look back on the spiritual traditions with a different view – one tuned to the basics of the message, the core of the revelation and the wisdom it brings forth. We align ourselves not with the practical details of the tradition, the doctrine, rituals and sacraments (though these have their place and are important in their own right), but with the spiritual quality that is at its heart.

Ask, and it will be given you ... To ask, spiritually speaking, is to pray, and to pray is to establish and nurture a relationship with the divine. To ask is not simply to utter words to God, pleading for one thing or another; it is to place yourself in direct contact, in communion you could say, with the source of life. That’s no small thing, and all religions recognise the grave import of doing so, with paths of ritual leading believers to the right of frame of mind for divine communion.

Asking requires discipline in which a person is in touch with the centre of their own being. From this centre, which is the spark of the divine within, the atman as Hinduism calls it, the individual opens to the world and to spirit. Opening to spirit necessitates abandonment of ego, surrender to the will of the divine (“Islam” means surrender), which for all spiritual traditions is the aim and cornerstone of living.

Spiritual communion requires no goal, no reward – it is an end in itself which replenishes the vital purpose of life. Hence when you Ask, the answer is given you; to search is to find at the same time and to knock on the door is to see it swing open. This does not mean that pain and suffering is abolished for the person who asks, that the cares of the material world are somehow erased, but that there is grace for the true seeker, a spiritual core from which they act and which affords lasting peace.

The passage from Luke is also, I think, about the importance of intention. We have to truly Ask, build a genuine path to God, in order to find spiritual gold. A counterfeit relationship – one based solely around a person’s ego needs, petitioning the divine mystery to satisfy desires, simply does not work. The door will stay shut. When our intention is appropriate we set a course in the right direction and, perhaps immediately, perhaps after years of hard work and patience, by the will of the divine, the seeker finds.

There is another sense in which Jesus’ words are somewhat subversive to the practices of the Church as they manifested over the centuries of Christianity. He does not say “Ask, and a priest will give you God’s blessing” or “Knock, and the door will be opened for you in the afterlife”. There is an immediacy in the words which points to the imminence of God and the availability of unmediated redemption here and now. From the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.” To Ask is to see heaven in the splendour and beneficence of creation here on earth, and the only consequent action is to affirm and preserve that splendour.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

On humour

One of the funniest moments that I can recall happened many years ago when I was a university student and doing everything I could, in idealistic twenty-something fashion, to change the world.

I had traveled with a few friends to take part in a mass protest encampment in Canberra against an international weapons exhibition that was being set up on the edge of town. We arrived one morning and pitched our tents, like a few hundred other young folk, in a grassy reserve across the road from the arms fair. Nothing much was planned until later in the day, so we sat around and talked, ate some food and prepared for what protests would be happening.

Among our number was a tall, lean gent we affectionately called Stevie P. He was a few years older than the rest of us, was doing an Honours in politics studying the radical student movements of the 1960s, and loved to talk. Though affable, Steve was a bit edgy and shabby – he wore dirty, knee-holed jeans, had shoulder-length wavy hair and was rarely seen without a can of VB (a cheap beer) in one hand. He’d had a fairly rough working-class upbringing in one of Melbourne’s outer suburbs which took the shine off his idealism and he would bait the more romantic types like me with arguments about the imperfection of what we stood for and the impossibility of meaningful social change.

Stevie also had a nervous condition that made his hands shake. I’d taken little notice of this until that day in Canberra. At some point in the late morning clouds started to gather above us, the sky turned a shade of dark purple and an enormous storm broke, scattering everyone to their tents to avoid the downpour. All except for Stevie – he just happened to be hungry for a peanut butter sandwich. As I ran to gather my belongings I caught sight of him sitting on the ground, trying to spread peanut butter on a slice of bread with hands impossibly flustered. Everyone else’s agitation had accentuated his shakes and the bread was flipping around while he did his damnedest to shove some spread on it. I stopped what I was doing and roared with laughter, so determined was Stevie to have his way in the midst of chaos.

Now and again something will trigger the memory of that moment and it brings a smile. Sure the laughter was at the expense of someone else and their difficulty, but I couldn’t help it. It was a ridiculously funny situation.

Humour has that ability to bring something special to a moment, to lighten and ameliorate whatever is going on. In his 1956 essay Aboriginal Humour, the great Australian anthropologist Bill Stanner related a story of how on a field trip in the Northern Territory an Aboriginal friend of his kept stealing tinned milk from his stores. Eventually it came to a head: “I looked at him and he looked at me. We both knew it was a crisis ... Then he went to the case of empty tins, and held up one or two so that I could see the tiny holes through which he had sucked them dry. He held one tin speculatively, poked at the hole, looked across at me, and said: ‘Rust’.”

Humour doesn’t just make life more bearable, it makes it more whole, more balanced and in tune with the overall conditions of living. It’s telling that the hardest things humans can bear – war, grief, depression – close the door most to humour. Yet even in the middle of darkness unexpected rays poke through, such as when funny stories are told at funerals about the deceased. They demonstrate a kind of completeness of spirit in which joy is not absent even in the most dire of circumstances.

Humour of course can have a sting in it. It can be barbed like a javelin aimed at the powerful, the egocentric and corrupt. In those instances it brings a force of truth that is more irresistible and more palatable to more people because it is delivered in a funny way. Humour invites us to let our guard down and accept whatever is wrapped inside it. And unfortunately it is often used the other way – to belittle the already powerless, to wound and denigrate, and maintain an oppressive status quo.

Like any spark of creative act, humour can be inspired or miss the mark completely. It needs a person to be in the moment, spontaneous, fully alive. I’m a fan of the American stand-up comedian Rich Hall, a master of his craft, who in his routines of funny guitar songs and audience banter laughs as much at himself as at the people he sends up. Humour exposes humanity’s foibles, and in doing so is able to acknowledge without rancour the quirks and imperfections we all share. We can all do with just a little bit more humour in our lives.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The personality

“Do you know the road rules?! Do you know the rules?!” A bearded cyclist was shouting at a taxi driver sitting passively in his car at a rank in central Melbourne.

Clearly there had just been an incident the aftermath of which I was passing on my lunchtime walk from work – possibly one that had caused or nearly caused the cyclist to come off his bike.

There was a smattering of more loud words before the cyclist finished with a curt “I’ve got your number, mate” and took off. Before he disappeared, I was tempted to approach him and tell him his aggression was not on. Then I thought – how would I react if I was on a bike and this was the umpteenth time my life had been endangered by a driver? Would I be able to summon much grace or finesse? I hoped, come such a moment, I wouldn’t display the ugliness of that cyclist.

It made me think of the vagaries of personality, how it was possible for two people to react differently under the same circumstances, and how we can understand and work with our inner forces to make us better people.

Personality is the face an individual presents to the world, coming out of a complex internal matrix shaped by a range of factors including a person’s genes, their parents, life experience, cultural influences, gender, age and physical condition. The matrix also holds a large dose of mystery, the element of unknown as to why exactly someone is the way they are and which rounds off the full, unique package that is their personality.

The personality is, like everything else in the field of time and space, subject to continuous change and to the flux – the ups and downs, conflicts and tensions – that entails. Managing one’s personality is one of the most important things we can do because the good that we create in ourselves inevitably affects others and creates the conditions of loving kindness under which everything prospers. To master the personality is not to somehow get rid of or iron out life’s fluctuations, which is impossible, but to ride the daily waves up and down attuned to wholeness and the better parts of our nature.

The personality could be said to operate according to three principles: the self, the other and the image.

The self is the internally contained driver of the personality in the day-to-day world as well as the set of understandings a person has about who they are. The self responds to the raw facts of daily living and is ultimately responsible for the thoughts, emotions and desires that arise in the personality. Most of what we do most of the time seems automatic because the personality is able to learn from life and act in ways that keep it, generally speaking, functional. However, its own complexity and that of human society inevitably present a host of challenges to the health of the personality which require both a vital sense of self and self-knowledge.

A person with a weak or undeveloped sense of self is at the whim of social forces and their own emotions, thoughts and desires. The task towards a healthy personality is about understanding one’s inner dynamics – what arises when and why – as well as acquiring the skills to make conscious, discerning decisions for the good. These days there is a large variety of self-development modalities with the potential to increase a person’s self-knowledge and improve the functioning of the self. Whatever it is that helps an individual – a particular practice of yoga, meditation or therapy or a combination of things – the requirement is mostly hard work and patience over many years.

The other is a principle of difference that exists because the personality is aware of an external world and has to negotiate relationships. It is the personality’s means to understand and relate to external people and objects, with the personality creating groups, types and labels (often with the assistance of society) to separate the beneficial from the harmful.

For most individuals the other is identified with actual people and objects, but like the self it is actually a dynamic within the personality and not external to it. It generates a framework or structure on reality. And because the other is all about difference, everything within the personality itself that is not in accord or easily assimilated or normalised tends to be drawn into the other and can end up as a view on an external person or object. This is the sense of the term “projection” in psychology, when aspects of what is broken or irrational within are cast outwards. Whole societies as well as individuals can manufacture projections of the other, as happened with the witch craze in Europe and North America in the 17th century, the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and McCarthyism against Communists in 1950s America. The personality’s response to the other is influenced by its own self-awareness, for when the self is in healthy balance within the personality the other is also experienced with proportion and goodwill.

The image is the transpersonal factor in the personality that opens it to dimensions deeper than the everyday material world. Numinous, transcendent, archetypal, spiritual – all are words for that which is perceived, often dimly if at all, as reflecting mysteries about the nature of the personality and the world as whole. Out of this perception of the unknown comes an image, or multiple images, for the human mind to digest. Dreams are carriers of the image; religions build on and develop the image to create practices and beliefs that nurture relationship to the source of being. God or gods, demons, angels, saints and prophets are various manifestations of the image, pointing to the many layers and levels of the mystery of creation.

It’s healthy for the personality to recognise and find a meaningful relationship with the transpersonal because life is multi-dimensional, evolving, and can’t be reduced to any structure, system or way of thought. The open, inquiring, receptive personality allows the image to speak to it and makes use of the image to enrich its experience of life. Just as with the self and the other, the dangers that exist in relation to the image are about its strength or weakness in the personality. Too strong, concrete or fixed and the personality can become enslaved to the image; too weak or non-existent and the meaning and vitality of living is drained. The key is a creative response within an overall template of balance.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gaia calling

Back when I was a grassroots political activist in my 20s, the discussions that I had with friends and fellow travellers would sometimes turn to the need for vision.

We were always protesting against – against the Gulf War, against uranium mining, against cuts to university funding, against violence towards women – but almost never on the front foot for something. We struggled to bring our ideas of what we valued to light and to create a program or vision for the kind of world we wanted.

This problem has dogged the anti-globalisation, Occupy and other mass movements for progressive change in recent times and made them easier targets for criticism from conservative elites and media. It becomes more convenient to dismiss a movement, to label it as "fringe", when it presents a potpourri of complaints attacking one institution after another and offering no overarching, constructive narrative.

The core of the matter is not about the laziness of activists, nor is it solely to do with human nature, which makes it more appealing to be critical than to aim for the positive. The issue lies considerably deeper, in what could be called the mythical dimension of existence, and specifically in the lack of correspondence to an available myth.

Myths are action-inspiring ideas that take root in the collective psyche, shaping culture and society and the way people understand their world. In the modern West the myths of Progress, Growth, Science and Equality have been perhaps the most important, motivating the creation of the kind of civilisation in which we live. Myths are the engine room of action while also providing the glue, the common causes that bind a society. When a myth breaks down, when it no longer serves the collective, a new one has to be found to replace it.

Myths are supra-rational – they relate to and influence the ordinary level of being, of thoughts and emotions, but are on a wholly different plane. And while people can strive to create myths, the dynamics of their existence are essentially a mystery. They arise organically in response to particular human needs at particular historical times and they die organically when those needs are no longer relevant.

Because they exist at a less tangible, and in some sense elevated dimension of being, myths can take on religious quality. They become magnets for devotion, attachment and zeal. One only has to think of the all-embracing regard that Science has in the West to appreciate this religious dimension, with scientists serving as pseudo-priests dispensing all knowledge about life. Myths have a non-rational flavour and they must be reckoned for what they inspire in the human heart and soul.

In our time there is one myth on the rise that has the potential to affect all others and radically reshape human attitudes and actions. That is the myth of Gaia, the blue planet that we and so many other life forms call home. This myth, given impetus by chemist James Lovelock in his Gaia hypothesis, holds that the Earth is a living being and an integrated whole. Like all myths it relates to material realities – the existence of the planet and its ecosystems – as well as a series of attitudes current to the time, most notably that human activity is dramatically threatening the Earth’s capacity to support life. The myth has an evocative impact on human feeling, calling forth the ancient respect and connection to earth, reverence for and communion with life, love of place, and a sense of the unity and solidarity of all that exists on the planet. The myth emerges out of thinking and understanding that is increasingly global in nature.

In her book on contemporary spiritual trends, The New Believers: Re-Imagining God, Australian broadcaster Rachel Kohn approached the Earth myth in this way:

"Believing in the earth has all the elements of a full-blown religion, with its idyllic Eden, its fatal hell and its ethical program of life that calls for some of the highest human virtues, such as diligent study, sacrifice, patience, love, humility and simplicity in service to ends that are not overwhelmingly focused on the self."

Though myths move according to the mysterious ways of the psyche, they are fed by the actions of multitudes of people over many years who in turn are energised and transformed under their influence. The work of creating vision for positive change then becomes, if not easier, more available to those who take on the challenge. For an example of such a time we can look to the 1960s-70s, when the world was charged with a liberatory energy that empowered millions of people towards new horizons of being. Some four decades later the stakes are considerably higher, namely the future of the very planet on which we live. Gaia calls us forward.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The value of wisdom

Many years ago I knew a man called Kyran, a rough old bloke who lived in a terrace house in inner Melbourne. Once a week after work I’d drop in to his place and walk his two bullish Siberian huskies. An acquaintance through a friend of mine, he was in his late-60s, had developed a heart condition and needed people to help him out.

Kyran grew up during the Great Depression and Second World War and, in a full and colourful life, had been a truck driver, cane cutter, tent boxer, builders labourer and union stalwart. Like many people of his generation, he had an exterior of concrete and stone while underneath there beat a soft and caring heart.

One evening after returning his dogs from their walk I sat with him watching the TV news. A story came on about some outlaw motorcycle gang members, all leather and tattoos, brawn and scowls, appearing in court. “Pretty tough guys, eh Kyran?” I said.

“Tough! They’re not tough,” Kyran snorted in disgust, and recalled a fight he’d had with some bikies on a building site.

“I’ll tell you what’s really tough,” he suddenly said after a pause. “Seeing your kids go hungry day after day and not being able to do anything about it. That’s tough.”

I came to Kyran for homespun wisdom such as this, and it seemed to pour from him regularly. As an old man speaking to a young one he took on the persona of the elder, passing on what helpful stories and insights about life he could. I was glad to hear them, delivered in fruity and unrefined language as they often were, and felt privileged to be in his company.

In our public culture, saturated with spin, ego and the creation of false value for private gain, wisdom seems to have been largely relegated to the margins. We no longer value elders nor cultivate the kind of patience needed to hear their words. The fast, the flashy and the superficial are given highest regard.

Wisdom and instant gratification are polar opposites. It took a whole, full life to brew the kind of insight on the world that Kyran had accumulated, and there was nothing easy about it – his words had to be pondered, strained through one’s own experience and imagination.

Wisdom has that uncanny ring of truth that seems to echo through the ages; sitting with Kyran in his terrace house and listening to his stories with his dogs slumped about him I may have been round a campfire in aeons past. There was a weight of knowledge, of gravity and importance.

The truth that wisdom presents has an enduring quality, garnered from thousands of years of human experience, which pierces through all pretence. It is essentially about the good, that which lasts and nourishes life. And it has the flavour of the archetypal, of that barely perceptible realm of existence that touches the eternal.

Wisdom does not intrinsically belong to any group or section of the community, not to a particular institution or external authority, gender or age. It is available to anyone who is able to reflect on their life with depth and draw lessons aimed at the good. It is radical in that it aims for general wellbeing across all divisions created by humans – not pandering to the varieties of desire, power, greed or fear – yet it also works to establish boundaries that protect and nurture life.

In doing so it acts as a guide to living but not a prescriber of particular laws, for laws change over time but wisdom has the quality of timelessness. It may be an impetus for codes of behaviour, for cultures, institutions, social mores and movements but it cannot be reduced to them. Wisdom belongs properly to poetry than prose, and in that sense is of a more elevated if more elusive power.

In contemporary times it is fashionable to praise “disruptive” technology and practices that change established patterns in some beneficial way, but we rarely laud those that are “restorative”. Wisdom both disrupts and restores – it clears out the rubbish of false thinking while returning the mind and body to an understanding of what really matters.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

For Yourself Alone

O Lord, if I worship You
Because of fear of hell
Then burn me in hell.
If I worship You
Because I desire paradise
Then exclude me from paradise.
But if I worship You
For Yourself alone
Then deny me not
Your eternal beauty.

There is much wisdom in this small gem of a poem written by Rabia Basri, an 8th-century Iraqi Muslim mystic and saint. I came across it in a collection of Sufi verse, and even among the more elaborately imagined poems of masters like Rumi and Hafiz, it stood out for its truth and clarity. Great work requires no more than what needs to be said.

In just a few words Rabia answers one of humankind’s most basic and ancient questions – how can suffering exist in the world? The crucial line is: For Yourself alone.

The poem is a devotional appeal to God, but non-religious contemporary Westerners need not turn away as a result. If “Lord” is substituted with “Life” the sense of the poem remains. We worship life in the way we regard it, in our outlook, expressed in our day-to-day living. Rabia is saying that if our attitude to existence is egocentric – wanting only what is good and rejecting the bad and difficult, then we deserve to (and will) suffer. But if we ask of life purely what it gives us and love it for all that it is, For Yourself alone, then the desire (and presumably the outcome) is one of resting in eternal beauty, in the deep beneficence of creation.

The poem is also relevant to a great religious dilemma that has exercised the human mind through history, expressed in the question: How can a loving God exist in the midst of suffering? Again, the ego-bound attitude asks for goodness and avoidance of harm from the powers that rule the universe, when those powers cannot properly be known or encompassed by the human mind, the mystery of life being ultimately unfathomable. The disillusionment with God that arose in many people after the horrific events of the 20th century – two World Wars, the Holocaust, the dropping of the atom bomb – is in reality the disillusionment of humanity with itself, or its projection of ego onto the divine, seeking to avoid hell and to enter paradise.

Religions for centuries nurtured this projection, constructing a divine Father who rewarded the good and punished evildoers. This lasted as long as religion was at the centre of society and the majority of people were unable to penetrate the veil of its doctrine; once the rational mind became dominant and questioning and doubt were unleashed, the Father toppled from his pedestal.

Rabia upsets the role of conventional religion in providing a moral framework for human behaviour, where fear of divine retribution prevents wrongdoing and desire for divine grace encourages good acts. She wants none of that, only to experience a direct relationship with God, which she sees as all-encompassing. There is a ring of correspondence to our time in Rabia’s vision beyond God the lawmaker; many of the spiritual explorers of the present day in the West are looking for a pure experience of the sacred free of the rigid moral compass of the past.

In its rejection of self-interest, the poem expresses an elevated consciousness that, for most of us most of the time, is hard to reach. The difficulty arises, unavoidably, because all of us are creatures in time and space. In a very creaturely way we seek our own benefit from the environment around us; we seek to live, to grow and reproduce ourselves, while keeping away from harm. There are certain laws and dynamics that pertain to life in the created world. But the material aspect is not all there is to living, and this is what the poet is pointing to; the demands of spirit – of the depth dimensions of existence – run in some sense contrary to those of matter.

Spirit asks for a unifying consciousness, an acceptance of oneness beyond appearances, as the appropriate means to fulfil the core of the human journey. Matter, on the other hand, seeks a discriminating view of tangible subjects and objects. Resolving this tension is a difficult challenge. As beings in time and space we can’t deny what that entails, but neither should we surrender to the ego and cancel out the spiritual path. Each person ultimately has to look beyond him or herself and align with spirit.

For Yourself alone then becomes a call to embrace the fullness of life without reservation, its highs and lows, while orienting past the hurly-burly of phenomena to what really counts at the heart.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

God or Man?

God or Man? Which is it to be? That’s the rather-too-neat equation posed by Western culture which, since the 20th century, has been answered decisively for the latter.

Friedrich Nietzsche grandly announced "God is dead", but God inevitably had the last say, pronouncing Nietzsche dead at the premature age of 55. Touché!

The overthrow of God – that is, divine agency in human affairs and in the universe at large – has been perhaps the most important feature of what we call modernity. Gradually, from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, the Scientific and Industrial revolutions with concurrent economic and technological changes, Europeans concluded that humanity created its own destiny (indeed had always done so) and that God was just another production of the human mind.

When religion had always said that everything came from God, now everything was the result of the objective forces and dynamics of the universe that Western science revealed. Humanity was responsible for its own self, freed from servitude to a fictional Creator.

There are, it must be said, a host of problems with the modernist worldview, which have increasingly been voiced in recent decades in what many thinkers call the "post-modern" era. And there are those, some calling themselves "traditionalists", who have maintained the pre-modern religious outlook, pointing to the majority of the world’s people who are still directed by a religious calling.

While deeply flawed, I think modernism presents important opportunities for humanity’s overall development. Seen from a big-picture view of our cultural evolution it is in the end a phase, a particular period in history that needs to be treated with open inquiry.

In raising human agency to the fore, modernity pierced the fiction that social circumstances were divinely ordained and somehow fixed for all time. As the core of pre-modern society, religion had sanctioned much that began to be open for questioning: slavery, wars, hierarchical power structures, class injustice, the inferior role of women etc. Religious reformers tried to breathe new life into their institutions, but as change and human agency became more important to society, there seemed less place for the eternal dimension of reality – for God. In the end He retreated to the seemingly changeless environment of the religious sanctuary, the church, there to rule over a vastly diminished domain.

Modernity raised a crucial question that religion has struggled with ever since: If the divine is the true source of all reality, what is its relationship to a changing world? For thousands of years there had been no separation between the social and spiritual dimensions of human life, but the two were now noticeably apart. Adding to that, it was clear that throughout history religious institutions had muddied the nature of the sacred by attaching it to that which was clearly human in origin and fallible. Sacred texts like the Bible were written so long ago that much of what they contained seemed of little or no relevance.

What is the relationship of the changeless to a changing world? I think the sacred needs to be restored to its proper place at the higher or meta-dimensions of being – at the levels of inspiration, revelation and wisdom. At these more refined spaces it is still there to guide us, still there for us to apprehend it as the source of all life, without being reduced by human desires to fit human ends. When prescriptive morality appears, when God is said to will this or that, we know we are in the hands of the mortal and not the divine.

To be sure, morality and good behaviour are important and indeed indispensable for a properly spiritual life, but we also need to recognise that much about society and its mores changes over time and spirit can never be reduced to human particulars. The divine always exists at higher levels of our apprehension, and with anything concrete in the world we ought to ask "What is the higher Truth here?”, "What is the inspired or soulful response?" in order to approach the sacred.

The divine is not remote to human concerns at the higher dimensions of being when it’s appreciated that these dimensions are very much woven into the fabric of everyday life and accessible at any moment. The more that we are able to open to inspiration, revelation, wonder and creativity in daily living, the more the sacred is available to us. As we bring it into our lives, the separation between the human and the divine starts to lessen until, at some progressed point of development, the "divine human" is actuated. This is where God, once again, is fully in charge of existence but where the human – the changing, mortal aspect of reality – is in no way diminished; the ego is translucent to God while participating in the unfolding drama of life.

The God versus Man dilemma is then seen to be irrelevant because Man participates willingly in the divine calling and recognises the essence of his own self in the mirror of the sacred. The path to God is no longer blocked by uncertainty and antagonism as the human vessel is properly tuned to receive spirit.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Islam and the West

I’ve always enjoyed reading the books of Karen Armstrong. A former Catholic nun, she has been prolific for more than two decades on the history of religion, most impressively with A History of God in 1993.

Armstrong is measured, balanced and open-minded, and one of the few contemporary Western authors of standing who writes sympathetically but expertly about Islam (Islam: A Short History and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet). Reading her I reflect on the anti-Islamic bigotry that runs deep in the West. In Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time, she says:

“We have a long history of Islamophobia in Western culture that dates back to the time of the Crusades. In the 12th century, Christian monks in Europe insisted that Islam was a violent religion of the sword, and that Muhammad was a charlatan who imposed his religion on a reluctant world by force of arms; they called him a lecher and a sexual pervert.”

Islam, in this early part of the 21st century, is the Western world’s psychological “other”; one of its chief bugbears. An “other” is simply a projection of the dark side of ourselves onto someone else so that we maintain a self-image that is whole, papering over cracks we’d prefer not to face. In the collective Western mind Muslims are associated with intolerance, fanaticism, violence and terrorism, but this hides the West’s very chequered record towards Islam – namely the several centuries of colonialism, imperialism, invasions, racism, and forced economic and cultural modernisation continuing to this day.

Power is the central issue here, as those who are on top seek to maintain and extend their power while keeping the marginalised at bay. It’s an ancient human story but one that throughout history has been moderated by the better side of our nature. In our time, we can ask some pertinent questions: Can the dominant forces of the world, led by the West, allow a broader and fuller expression of what it means to be human to exist? Can cultures that are very different co-exist in mutual respect without any one group asserting overall control? Can power be ceded in some fashion and become much more diffuse, encouraging diversity to flourish? It is the consistent abuse of power that leads to the appearance of extremist groups like ISIS and the Taliban, as those who are the abused aspire to become abusers in an atmosphere of despair.

The moderating force to power is, of course, love. In the hard world of politics and international relations one senses that word is never used, but it is evident in every instance of practical solidarity and humanity. Every conflict and crisis is an invitation to love – to see the face of the “other” as our own face, provoking dialogue and reconciliation. When the boundaries between “us” and “them” break down we see the oneness of life and the value, the necessity of each part in the whole. A realisation of oneness gives us the impetus to cherish all life.

Love is a challenge to the narrowly conceived ego that seeks power for its own sake regardless of the consequences. It is hard to say whether humanity will ever evolve a mature enough collective ego that will enable us to live in harmony with ourselves and the natural world. At times we seem a great distance from that ideal. Yet if we can imagine it perhaps it’s not as far away as we think; what, after all, in the long span of the development of the human species, is 200, 500 or even 1000 years?

I think of the wonderful mystical tradition of Islam called Sufism, timeless in its appeal, that revolves around the idea and experience of love, in its highest expression the love for the Divine that extinguishes the separate ego. In one of his poems, the Sufi master Mohyuddin Ibn ‘Arabi writes:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a
pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Kaaba and the
tables of the Torah and the book of the Qur’an.

I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s
camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Thoughts on revelation

One of the advantages of rising early, as all early risers know, is the feeling of being present in the waking of the world. All is hushed, quiet, dormant, dark, and slowly stirs into the passion of life in a remarkable transformation of movement, sound, light, being and soul.

I have the privilege a couple of times a week to be on an early-morning bus to work from my home in central Victoria to Melbourne, starting the journey in inky darkness and moving through the grand spectacle of dawn and sunrise along the way.

As light appears on the horizon it is a faint orange, a first smudge that gradually changes to pink, sometimes with delicate red and purple hues above. In the east, where the main show happens, clouds take on pinkyness, break up and swirl in a sea of blue. Pinks change to fiery reds then yellow as the sky comes ablaze.

By the time dawn is in full array the bus passes the Macedon Range on our left, a dark hulking facade that blots out the action. We climb into the Great Divide, with its refined air and subtle colour; shreds of mist fly past, a flock of ibis in v-formation flaps overhead. Then, down into the plain again, the sun finally rises, breaking open the horizon with a flood of light.

The grace, the intensity, is deeply moving. The book I had taken to read lies idly on my lap.

To an open and receptive sensibility, the process of world-waking is a miracle, a revelation. Thinking of the great historical revelations of humanity – that of Moses, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed – none of them compares with this ordinary, everyday event. Or rather, for all of them it was the ground, the Mother, the vehicle that brought their Word to birth.

I would define revelation as “coming into being”. That is, a spiritual manifestation of some kind experienced at a point in its process that engenders inner transformation. The revelation appears autonomous, a discreet event, if we speak of a particular sunrise or of a particular mystical vision that occurs to an individual, but in reality the person is catching a moment in an unfolding process and experiencing it as a soulful awakening.

The sunrise is part of the turning, changing life of the Earth as a mystical vision is an emanation of Spirit to a developing individual in a certain time and culture. It’s important to be aware of this dynamic nature because of the human tendency of attachment to revelation which at times has caught them as if in a static bind. Powerful religions with global reach have been formed around them when their inner nature, their core, defies any hard concretisation. Jesus’ revelation was of the nature of Love, Zoroaster’s the relationship of Light and Dark, Buddha’s the Path beyond suffering. When a “holy book” is created around a particular revelation, the danger arises that it becomes lifeless over time and open to the uses and abuses of power. Treated as poetry, as story, as a gateway to the mystery of being, a revelation lives; as theology or doctrine it dies.

At the same time, it is inevitable and, indeed, desirable that a revelation effect change in the world and its redemptive goodness and transformative power be shared with others. “Proclaim!” is the first, urgent word spoken to Mohammed in his rapture at the Cave of Hira. Yet there is no guide of certainty as to what is to be proclaimed, what is to be done – only that action is consistent with the nature of the revelation.

It is also inevitable that people respond differently in the presence of Spirit according to their personality and inner development. The same numinous moment, the same sunrise may yield a variety of results. In that sense, a revelation is like a comet – some will apprehend only parts of its long tail while others are able to approach somewhere near the head. The tail represents the revelation taken at its most concrete and literal, while the further one moves towards the head the more metaphoric and refined it becomes. It is the one spiritual manifestation for everyone who partakes in it, but translated differently by each person. The task, then, is for those nearer the crown of the comet to lead a movement of the rest towards the apex of refinement.

Just as the sunrise is available to everyone, so revelation in general is the common endowment of all who are receptive to it, and any claim of ownership by a religion or institution is absurd. In creating sacred rites and rituals around a revelation the challenge for a community is to remain open to the changing call of Spirit over time and avoid idolatry of its own symbols. The task of a priest is not to be “a keeper” of the sacred but a guide towards the transformative power liberated by the revelation.

In our contemporary globalised world there is a process of convergence of cultures and a tendency of democratisation that undermines established hierarchies. What was previously buried or undervalued begins to have its day in the sun; women start to be properly recognised, non-human nature is seen for its own intrinsic worth. Through this prism, revelation too is made “democratic”. No longer is it reserved for men or a priestly class or spiritual elite, but belongs to all who can experience it and who are able to turn it creatively for the benefit of the world.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Simplicity, complexity

Simple things are often not quite as they look. Take the work of Australian artist Ben Quilty as an example.

From a superficial view a Quilty painting seems remarkably straightforward – a smattering of thick brush strokes on a large canvas producing a fairly uncomplicated depiction of a person or scene.

Yet the emotional power typical of the artist’s work – whether in a portrait of an Australian soldier mentally scarred by service in Afghanistan or in a glimpse of the inner reaches of his own psyche in self-portrait – can only be carried off by an underlying complex mastery of technique.

Such is the way with masters in all fields: they make things look astonishingly simple and elegant, masking the years of training and development of skills and inner resources required to attain such a level of grace.

Simplicity and complexity, like the Taoist yin and yang, are best seen as bedfellows, inseparable in any way you care to see them. Look anywhere and their dual relationship appears: a single lightning bolt can trigger an enormous bushfire; a single car accident can throw a city’s complicated road network into chaos; a small fault can shut down a corporation’s entire computer system; a giant whale is dependent for its survival on tiny plankton; the magnificence of life on Earth arose from the activity of single-cell organisms.

All life is a mixture of the simple and the sophisticated, and even the most basic forms of life – as scientists have discovered – when examined reveal more basic components and antecedents.

American theorist Ken Wilber, in his book The Eye of Spirit, says: “In any developmental sequence, what is whole at one stage becomes merely part of a larger whole at the next stage. A letter is part of a whole word, which is part of a whole sentence, which is part of a whole paragraph, and so on.” The result is a nested hierarchy of being moving towards ever greater sophistication, at the same time reflecting the earlier stages of its own self.

In one sense, simplicity can be seen as a state of rest and complexity one of movement, action. When we experience something pleasing, as say a fine work of art, it is the perfection of simplicity that appeals. Though the work may be of high complexity, of great degree of difficulty, it is the beauty of the final, apparent manifestation that strikes the senses. In a way this is an illusion because nothing is ever static – and this is where complexity comes in to upset our balance. Complexity is always chipping away at what is apparently “final”, always moving on to something new. We may still be emotionally affected by a painting many years after having first seen it, but we and the painting (its colour, consistency of paint etc) would have changed over time and the experience is inevitably different in some way.

The entire dynamic is one of evolution at work – life moving from the simple to the more complex, which at the next stage of development is the simple on the way to greater complexity ... rest, movement, rest, movement, rest, movement.

Of course the process is not a smooth one. Evolution involves tension, the conflict of opposites, and there are snags and inconsistencies along the way. The old does not disappear with the arrival of new forms but may set up points of friction with them, the resolution of which is typically key to further evolutionary stages. In the grand unfolding drama of humanity there are older and newer dynamics in co-existence with each other, older and newer cultures, older and newer modes of living and understanding the world. One or the other ought not to be rejected or treated with disdain: each can learn from the other if the project is the overall wellbeing of humanity and the planet. Ben Quilty could have refused the opportunity that he took to be Australia’s official war artist in Afghanistan in the name of the primitivism and brutality of war, yet what he brought was compassion for the soldiers that in his paintings seeks a liberating path beyond conflict and suffering.

It’s important to be aware of the complex and the simple and the many ways they relate in life not only for what such awareness brings in enriching and deepening experience, but as a kind of mirror to the soul. Behind the manifestation of their duality is a single current of light, a single inscrutable source that shines through the infinite variations of form in the world. We can admire the interplay of the apparent forces or see them as a door to the ultimate font of being.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Immanence and transcendence

Sometimes something small that you see or hear, despite all the distractions that fill up the day, sticks in your mind and gives you cause for reflection.

Not so long ago I went walking in the bush with a friend I hadn’t seen in many years. It was a mild summer’s day, our boots kicking up the quartz stones as we tramped over part of the hill country in central Victoria.

Several times we stopped to look at particular plants or inspect the sweeping lay of the land and met passers-by coming the other way. On a couple of occasions we spoke to the strangers and each time my friend in parting wished them a good day in a pure, heartfelt way.

I was moved by the way she spoke those words. It seemed their quality was spiritual, in the way that a pure heart expresses the life of Spirit, which was fascinating given my friend is a scientist and an avowed atheist. I was reminded of religious goodbyes along the lines of "May God be with you".

It’s a very contemporary development to be able to speak about spirituality and religion as separate things. Once it was thought that organised religion, with its beliefs, rituals and sacraments, provided the only frame through which the inner life could be expressed. Now there is an emerging realisation that spirituality can be autonomous and that for each person it may or may not be expressed through established religious means. Some atheists, like the philosopher AC Grayling, are happy to call themselves spiritual but strongly reject religion.

In this change there is a powerful move towards immanence, where the depth and meaning of life is located through the experience of the individual in the elements of life itself, without reference to a powerful Other – be it God or anything else considered “supernatural”. This shift has occurred alongside the decline of Christianity in the West, which has insisted on belief in a transcendent God no longer relevant to modern culture and upheld only one Truth in an age of multiplicity of beliefs.

The spiritual immanence that is putting down roots in our time appears in a rationalist culture that so often seems inimical to the sacred. And yet people like my friend are able to see and appreciate spiritual quality in nature, in beauty, in relationships and in many other ordinary instances that elevate life beyond basic materiality and make it worth living.

What has happened, then, to the transcendent principle, if we can call it so, that was so important to humanity for so many thousands of years? Where has God gone? Has he disappeared entirely or just in temporary recess, waiting to surface eventually in another guise?

It all depends on the future of the scientific rationalism/empiricism that is so central to the modern West. If over time its exclusivist orientation (mirroring that of the Judeo-Christian tradition) breaks down, as it might with the help of a maturing process of immanence, a new spiritually charged worldview could develop. Immanence and transcendence are really just two sides of the one reality, and ultimately neither is sufficient without the other if the aim is spiritual wholeness.

Transcendence is fundamentally about mystery. It is the great Unknown attached to life, death and ultimate purpose that is also experienced as the generative force of the universe. It is other to created forms but linked intimately to them. It is invoked in the dark, expansive reverence of places of worship. It is Spirit ultimately unnameable and unspeakable that has been given many names throughout history – God being one of them.

The divine is both contained in material form and other to it, imminent and transcendent. God’s downfall has left a tragic void in the Western psyche, felt most acutely by the artists and mystics of our time, those "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" as poet Allen Ginsberg beautifully described them in Howl. Many such souls (Ginsberg included) fled the Judeo-Christian tradition to Eastern spirituality – Buddhism and Hinduism – to find transcendence there.

The spiritual challenge of our time is two-sided: recognising and acknowledging the process of immanence, the desire for the in-dwelling sacred; and finding suitable new forms for the urge to transcendence.

Some people are already doing this work, away from mass culture on the fringes of society. They may be coming together for new moon rituals or other neo-Pagan ceremonies that relate humans to the cycles of nature, or meeting in small affinity groups to explore shared spiritual directions, or weaving new ways of understanding the dynamics of plants, animals and the cosmos as a whole. What they share is a calling for the sacred, an orientation towards wholeness, and the capacity to be explorers in the creation of new syntheses of immanence/transcendence.