Man in the Cave

April 4, 2012

Prehistoric cave art: my personal pilgrimage

In the beginning, Man and Nature were One. This oneness is an enduring truth, but the difference was that initially, Man felt at One with Nature. Somewhere along the way, we have lost our sense of oneness, or at least most people have, especially in “advanced” societies. But Nature herself is guiding us back into her embrace, which can be rather fierce at times, as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan so graphically showed.

Several years ago, when I was first thinking of myself as a writer, I wondered if I would ever write a book, and if so, what would it be about. I thought that I would want to write a book to my children about the importance of “religion” to their lives.  I knew that”religion” was important, because earliest prehistoric man had painted drawings of sacred animals on the walls of caves. Our “religious” nature was therefore an innate part of ourselves that we should not ignore.

I even sat down to write an outline of this book. When I did, I discovered that I knew nothing more than what I have just written in the paragraph above—that early man had painted pictures of animals on the walls of caves, and that this behavior seemed important to me. Period.

So I put my book-writing plans aside and went on with my life. It never occurred to me that my life’s activities were preparing me to write this very book. I noticed that the world’s major religions contained many similar messages,  so I read Huston’s Smith’s classic book on world religion to learn more. I read Elizabeth Lesser’s The New American Spirituality, described on the cover as an “account of a modern pilgrimage.” I explored mysticism, and learned that the mystic traditions of all religions all had Love at their core.

On my own blind pilgrimage, I became disenchanted with what I perceived to be the regular doses of guilt dished out by the Presbyterian church I attended regularly.  I explored the history of the Christian church and the integral role of the Roman Empire in shaping church dogma. Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing was ground-breaking for me, ushering in the understanding that the story of the garden of Eden was the story of Man’s divorce from union with Nature. In this story, not only was Eve subordinated to Adam, but all of creation was decreed to be under the dominion of man.

On a personal level, Inside Out by Larry Crabb made it clear that individuals must attend to the needs of their souls, especially to be successful in such rigorous interpersonal relationships as marriage and child-rearing. A personal breakdown made it clear that I had failed to attend to the needs of my own soul. During my recovery from that breakdown, the books that I needed to read seemed to literally fall off library and bookstore shelves into my hands.

But nowhere was my learning more profound than in my garden.

Tomorrow I set off on my journey to visit the prehistoric caves in southwest France. First, I will visit my daughter in Seville, Spain where Christian and Muslim religions have been intertwined for centuries, often catastrophically so. In France, Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens coexisted for a time, until Neanderthals failed to survive the evolutionary struggle.

The Neanderthal brain did not have the ability to articulate symbolic thought, which is what the cave drawings represent–a symbolic depiction of man’s interrelationship with the natural world. Ivory flutes have also been found in these caves. So our early ancestors even created music, perhaps the most transcendent, spirit-touching art of all.

I hope that I will bring back from these caves a spirit-touching message for our own times. 

How does my garden grow?

February 26, 2012

Mother Nature is a gentle teacher

I have acquired what I think of as wisdom by observing and thinking about nature, including my co-evolution with my garden.

I grow a lot of native grasses and wildflowers from seed. Each year, some plants take over more ground and some recede. I can choose to intervene and change the mix more to my liking, or I can let nature take its course, que sera sera. I have an overall plan for my garden, but within certain boundaries, serendipity plays a big part.

I like it that way. For one thing, it is a lot easier to work with nature than against it. In the end, nature usually seems to win, but not always. For instance, by relentless pulling of  a certain invasive weed, I succeeded after a number of years of ridding my property of that particular intruder. More often, though, I allow desirable plants to expand their turf if they are prospering, and I simply observe the effects as the mix of grasses and wildflowers changes each year, a garden kaleidoscope. But it is totally within my purview to give a favorite an assist, like when I moved some black-eyed susans so the summer phlox could spread its wings.

Plants that make me happy one year because they have spread quickly become a nuisance in following years when they become overgrown and must be divided and moved.

I learn a lot about evolution, and about life, working in my garden. I have learned that evolution is an iterative process, and that it is not possible to reach your goal all at once, but only through a series of small steps. Moreover, fixed goals are hard to reach in an ever-changing environment. Nature can seem to conspire against you, but sometimes in the end, the results are even better than you could have imagined.

Some of the iteration is between my garden and me. I know a little more each year because of what happened the previous year.  I know which plants flourished and floundered, and sometimes I’ve figured out why. I have a better idea how much sun and shade each spot gets at different times of the day and as the seasons proceed, an important factor that is constantly changing as leaves come and go and the trees grow.

I give unknown plants a chance to show their stuff before yanking. I admit that this policy has sometimes had undesirable results, such as colonies of weeds that must be purged. But the prettiest thing blooming in my yard right now is a wild arugula, returned to its natural state from the hybridized plant I grew in my yard last year.

Vibrant and full of promise in May, overgrown and stressed by the August heat, refreshed with late bloomers and a little pruning in the cool of fall, structural and quiet in the winter, a garden is a cyclical thing. It refreshes me to participate in this natural cycle.

And, as with our spiritual selves, nothing degenerates more quickly than a garden that is left untended.


The spirit within you

February 16, 2012


I forwarded this blog post to my children, suggesting that they cultivate their intuition because it is God within them. By quoting this post in my own blog, I forward this important message to my readers as well. Credit goes to fellow blogger Yogaleigh whose blog is listed in my blogroll as Journey to Higher Consciousness. Enjoy:

When I decided to try yoga in 1986 I was living in Chicago. Although there were a number of studios there wasn’t the plethora that now exists and I quickly realized that the long travel times to many studios would lead to skipping lots of classes. As soon as I decided I wanted to find someplace closer I parked across the alley from my apartment building and when I stepped up on the curb I found myself starting at a sign on the door in front of me: “Hatha Yoga, Tuesdays 6:30 p.m.”

Well, that was close enough! I didn’t know enough about yoga to know that there are different styles (less then than now) or how to distinguish whether one might suit me more than another and it didn’t occur to me to research the teacher (for you young ones, I couldn’t have googled it, most people didn’t even have a computer then and the internet barely existed).  It just felt right and I showed up the next Tuesday and began my love affair with yoga.

The teacher was Bill Hunt, who’d practiced for about a dozen years at the time and taught on the side from another job. He was studying with Goswami Kriyananda (Temple of Kriya Yoga) and became a swami while I studied with him.  I’ve taken other classes—including a then-famous Yoga Journal teacher (my least favorite ever)–and followed various TV teachers like Lilias and picked up many tapes and DVDs. Bill Hunt has remained the best yoga teacher I ever encountered.

I attended his classes faithfully for five years, even twice a week whenever he offered a second class, including through the nine months of teacher training at the Temple of Kriya Yoga (he taught some of that too).  If I hadn’t moved away I’d still be taking his classes. Bill is now the director of Oak Park Yoga in Oak Park, IL.

I feel the universe sent me the perfect teacher at the perfect time and place and it changed my life.  My instinct, when I saw that sign on the door was that I’d found the right class.  If I’d second-guessed myself and searched for more classes or hesitated I might have turned off to yoga or have never started.  When instinct and all the elements come together, magic happens if you pay attention and say yes.

 

You read it here first

October 25, 2011

Yes, I am being shameless. But when no one else does, you must toot your own horn.

David Brooks, N.Y. Times editorial columnist, is perhaps the most insightful journalist currently writing about the American and world scenes. In today’s editorial, he argues that if Americans are to regain trust in government, the debate should refocus on concrete choices facing the nation, and steer away from ideology:

Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.

Don’t just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.

If you don’t trust voters to be serious, they won’t trust you.

In my June 5, 2011 post I wrote: Ideology doesn’t solve problems. Only real, tangible, on-the-ground, practical, pragmatic, nitty-gritty hard work solves problems. Let’s stop arguing about theories and face the facts. It’s time to get real.

Remember, you read it here first.

Finally. The people are speaking out about corruption and abuse of power.  The “Occupy” movement is here.

To learn more about Occupy and to see how technology is facilitating this movement, check out the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Together web sites.

In my “Time for a paradigm shift” post, I commented that individuals “must find a way to act that will change the course of our nation.” I hope that the Occupy movement is the beginning of that change.

To people who remember the protest movements of the ’60s and ’70s, Occupy may look familiar. A columnist in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel believes that is a misperception:

These “occupiers” are making a fundamentally different and more profound statement than has popularly been reported.

It is direct democracy. It is a new vision of change. It is community values in action.

It is also no wonder the media has had a hard time making sense of it. The “occupation” isn’t what we’re used to seeing. It doesn’t lend itself to the familiar narrative arc of a protest: “You meet these demands, and then we’ll go home.” Instead the occupiers are protesting our economic system by offering a direct alternative, by actively living out values of trust and representation and interdependence — values that the surrounding financial institutions obscure and repress.

Tea Partiers should take heart and journalists who don’t get what is going on should take note. The movement is not necessarily asking government to step in to solve all our problems. The corruption of government by monied interest groups is well understood to be part of the problem.

Instead, the movement is about “actively living out” what young people see as “new” values, and what older people should recognize is a return to individual responsibility, compromise, and consensus-building. The movement is promoting cultural change by acting it out in their people’s assemblies. Younger activists may not realize that the culture of greed and self-indulgence that became acceptable in the ’80s is very different from American mores of the preceding five decades.

Rapid technological change, government corruption, and consumer economy ethics are world-wide phenomena that have led to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. So the Occupy movement is part of a global movement that includes the Arab Spring and activism across Europe earlier this year.  American young people (are) collaborating with young people around the world to invent a future that embraces a common good.” 

Just when mainstream American politics seems to many to have reached new depths, the pendulum of history has begun its inevitable swing back from right-wing extremism. But the arc of history is more than the simple back-and-forth movement of a pendulum. The shape of history’s movement is a spiral, ever pushing its way upward toward a higher plane of consciousness.

The spiral is repeatedly expressed both in nature and in the religious symbolism of many cultures from ancient to present times. To understand history’s spiral-shaped trajectory is to glimpse the divine. To trust that the unseen future will be better than the past is to have faith.


I don’t want my friend Thomas to become a cause—a poster child for what happens when someone falls between society’s cracks. But I fear this result if Social Security denies his disability application for the third time. Another denial will sentence him to a long continuation of his state of homelessness that I don’t think he can endure. The light of hope would be too faint, too far in the distance for him to continue to bear the coarse life in the men’s shelter—a life too rough for a man with the temperament of a gifted artist like Thomas.

Without hope, it is easy to imagine him erupting into a violent outburst that would land him in prison. Thomas himself frequently speaks of his own fear of such an outcome. Without hope, a relapse into drug use from which he would not recover is a real possibility. Without hope, he could choose to end his own suffering. The last time I dropped Thomas off at the homeless shelter I sensed that the thread of hope on which his life dangles has grown dangerously thin.

Over his lifetime, Thomas’s mental illness has caused him to ricochet from one precarious situation to another. In his fifties now, he has been homeless off and on for the last 10 years. Last spring, to escape the violence and regimentation of the shelter, he set up a tent camp by the railroad tracks. This attempt to take his life into his own hands nearly ended in disaster when an unwelcome visitor pulled a knife on him in his own camp.

A well-intentioned group of friends tried to help by providing temporary shelter and short-term employment until Thomas could “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” The friends underestimated the amount of effort it takes for a penniless person without transportation to get himself to sources of free meals. His well-meaning employer encountered the personality problems that no doubt have interfered throughout Thomas’s life with his ability to maintain steady employment.

Although Thomas has received mental health treatment in the past, the suggestion that his mental illness might be a disability that would prevent his future employment was a surprisingly uncomfortable confrontation for him. As I consider his reaction now, I see that if you are desperate and have only your self to rely on, facing a diagnosis of impairment due to mental illness would be devastating.

This is a warning to all those who want to dismantle government, and to all who stand idly by while this travesty of the American dream is foisted on a naïve and unsuspecting public. As long as you are of sound mind and body, America offers you great hope for a secure and prosperous life. But if you should suffer a misfortune that impairs your mental or physical health beyond what your own resources can provide for, you will find, as Thomas and I have, that the much-vaunted private sector offers you no safety net at all. With no resources and no safety net, you will find yourself in a hole with very steep walls. As a beggar, you will lose your dignity, your self-respect, and eventually your hope. You will become a permanent dependent or you will die a premature death from illness, violence, or simply despair.

If you measure life in monetary terms, you will be impressed that Thomas’s artworks sell for thousands of dollars. But is that really what life is all about—how much money you can make, how much stuff you can acquire? Ironically, a keen focus on money makes the most sense for those who don’t have any at all. But often it is people who have more than they need that maintain the most anxious grasp on their cash. What causes financially secure people to act like that? Could it be mere selfishness and greed, all wrapped up in a red-white-and blue political ideology?

Time to Get Real

June 5, 2011

Political dialogue has become an endless repetition of Bill Clinton’s famous quote “that depends on what your definition of “is” is.” Politicians at either end of the spectrum, the ones who tend to dominate media coverage, seem to believe that only their ideology contains the “truth.”

I don’t believe that real Americans are foolish enough to fall for this false dichotomy.

Wikipedia says that “reality is often contrasted with what is imaginary, delusional, in the mind, …what is abstract.” In other words, reality is that which is tangible, as opposed to the intangible.

We describe reality in terms of a multitude of polar opposites such as big or small, pretty or ugly, black or white. But just as no one on our planet actually lives at the North or South Poles, reality is very rarely found in the extremes, but exists somewhere in the middle of the opposites we use to describe existence. In the middle, where we find reality, is where we should be looking for solutions to our problems.

The obsession with polling tends to obscure rather than illuminate what real Americans think. This is because survey questions, often absurdly dumbed down, give respondents a choice of a polar position that they can only choose to agree or disagree with in varying degrees. Polls tell us nothing about people’s preferences when faced with a set of facts in a real situation.

Ideology doesn’t solve problems. Only real, tangible, on-the-ground, practical, pragmatic, nitty-gritty hard work solves problems. Let’s stop arguing about theories and face the facts. It’s time to get real.

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