HARRY POTTER, YOGA, AND THE DEVIL: DOES SATAN EXIST?

By Paul

The head of the International Association of Exorcists, Father Gabriele Amorth, has recently written that, while we may think of the Harry Potter books, and even of the practice of yoga, as more or less innocuous pastimes, they are in fact intrinsically evil, because the Devil himself is at work in them.  Most of us think of such claims as utterly farfetched and bizarre, and rightly so, but they do raise the question of whether an entity such as the Devil actually does exist.

Satan, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, the Father of Lies.  This is an entity that has long struck fear in the hearts of devout Christians, and in many others as well.  But the question of whether or not he (to use the masculine pronoun for simplicity’s sake) truly exists as a separate, identifiable, free-standing, if evil, being still remains.  Or is he instead the psychological embodiment, the dark symbol of all those negative forces and tendencies that are hidden at some level, buried deep within the unexplored and uncivilized parts of our psyche?

The concept, or if you prefer, the identity of the Devil cannot itself be explored without also inquiring into the notion of evil.  As seen above, we can hardly even begin any examination of Satan without also making reference somewhere to the words “darkness” and “lies,” which stand out in stark contrast to the notion of light and truth, those appellations so often associated with God.  All this brings to mind the ancient Zoroastrian belief in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the quintessential light and dark twins of that ancient faith.  Many mythologies, in fact, talk about a Creator God, who brings the world into being by somehow giving birth to a set of twins, who are separated at birth or otherwise set apart, one of whom brings light and life into the world, and the other of whom is the bearer of darkness and death.  These two then go on warring “until the end of time.”

But if this analysis sounds too academic, somehow too antiseptic almost, in any discussion of evil, we can think of it in another way: no matter how good or how moral we may normally think of ourselves, given a moment of utter honesty, could each of us not also conceive of ourselves as capable of committing deeds which might include us among the worst of humanity?  Can we not, for example, in the sheer folly and senselessness of youth, let us say, and within the all-encompassing ignorance of cultural conditioning, brainwashing, if you will, imagine having joined the Nazi Party during the Third Reich?  Or, if that is too evil even to consider, what of this?  Who could not see himself as capable of striking out in rage and a desire for vengeance under “the right circumstances” of a loved one grievously harmed or killed by another?  Indeed, as has been pointed out by more than one person in history, to be human is to be at some level capable of doing all those things which human beings have in fact done throughout the ages, from the most sublime to the most horrific.

In this sense then, there is no evil in the world except that which is created by humans.  Erupting volcanoes are not evil, nor are devastating storms or floods, or killer droughts, or ravenous tigers, or grizzly bears.  Yet all are more than capable of killing, more than able to inflict their degree of panic and horror and chaos on the world.  But still, we do not think of them as evil. We might say, “that was a devil of a storm,” but the vast majority of people acknowledge this only as metaphor, as a manner of speaking.  No one takes it literally, with the exception perhaps of the most outré, the most fringe of elements within religions, people who make connections between disastrous events and punishment by God for perceived sin on the part of humanity, or portions thereof.  And is that condemnation itself not also a form of evil in its own right?  One way or another, it turns out that it is only human beings who can actually bring about evil, and only humans deliberately inflict pain and cause death “for the sheer hell of it.”  And if this is so, does that then not suggest that Satan, the personification of evil, could also be the projection of the worst in the human psyche?

When I was a young monk many years ago, each evening we would gather together in the candle-lit chapel for Compline, the last of the so-called offices of the daily liturgy of the Catholic Church, and the cantor would intone (in Latin, though here translated) the following hymn:  “Brothers, be sober and watchful!  For your adversary, the Devil, like a roaring lion goes about seeking whom he may devour.  Resist him steadfast in the faith.” I remember this because it has always stuck me as odd that the Devil was being compared to an animal, a devouring lion in this case, whereas we have just posited that animals cannot themselves be evil (as much as they may be killers).  Maybe the message we young monks were supposed to get out of this prayer was that Satan was the embodiment of the “animal part” of our humanity?  This surely would fit in with Christianity’s bias for spirit, and its animus against, or at least mistrust of, the body.

But none of this negates the fact that there really is evil in the world.  What, for example, of violent rape, or of torture for whatever purpose, or acts of terrorism, which is killing for the sake of ideology, or of state-sponsored killing, or killing simply for the sake of killing, as some seem capable of doing?  And yet, as horrific and as abominable as these acts surely are, does it then follow that we must necessarily posit a single Evil Entity, a Prince of Darkness, who rules over and creates pain and lies and chaos?

There is no doubt that ours is a bifurcated world of opposites, where we are forever faced with the duality of choosing good or evil, right or wrong, that which is light or that which is dark, or at very least the appropriate over the inappropriate.  We must face the fact that most of us, most of the time, choose some of this and some of that.  This is the human condition.  It could be that what this points to is that the good is represented by God, and the evil is represented by Satan.  In this regard, the God we are speaking of is what might be called the more limited sense of the meaning of that word, and ought not to be confused with the Unnamable Spirit, about whom so little can be said because most things we wind up saying, due to the limitations of language, fall into mere categories, and when it comes to the All Absolute categories are entirely irrelevant.  The “God” that we usually mean when we so name him, though, is a different matter.  In this more limited sense, we are talking about the manifested part of the Unmanifest Being, the God of laws and of do’s and don’t’s, the namable God whose characteristics we can list.

God (in this more everyday sense) can then be thought of as the embodiment of all that is positive in the world of opposites, and Satan can be conceived of as the embodiment of all that is negative.  In this sense, if you believe in (i.e., if you “give reality to”) God, then you also believe in (i.e. “you give reality to”) Satan, as well.  It could even be said that Satan cannot “exist” without God, just as God (again in the normal meaning given to that word) cannot “exist” without Satan.  Or we can put it this way, that some dark, evil Principle, however we may choose to name it, in some way exists and counterbalances a light-filled and loving Principle.  Still we must add that, having said all this, it is always better to follow and to focus one’s consciousness on the light-filled and loving (i.e. on God, if you will) than on the dark and the evil (i.e., Satan), as God is a far surer path to the realization that, in any final and ultimate sense, neither actually exists at all.

In the end, inasmuch as within the context of our normal, everyday lives, and given our usual state of consciousness, God and evil do actually exist, we all know people who could be called good, and some who can be called bad, or even evil.  The same can even be said of places, by the way.  I once visited the notorious prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (now a museum) called “Tuol Sleng,” where Pol Pot’s henchmen murdered thousands of innocent people.  I could barely remain for more than a few minutes within those walls, there was such a vibration of agony and terror that permeated and emanated from every molecule of the building.   I had to go outside and compose myself, in fact.  Later on, I went back in and made myself walk through the entirety of the place because I felt I needed to honor those who had died there.  But in my memory this will always remain an evil place.

So, can it be said that Satan exists as the personification of all that is dark and horror filled in our binary existence, just as God does as the embodiment of all that is good and light filled?  If you believe, yes, both do exist.  The names they are called are in the end not that important, and indeed they change from one culture to another.  No culture and no religion has a monopoly on these things.  Each religion (each mythological story, if you will) helps describe and fill out our knowledge of otherwise elusive and enormously complex principles of being, which cannot ever ultimately be fully and completely explained.  The converse is also true, that is, that these entities do not exist, not as stand-alone beings at any rate, if at some unfathomably profound level, you “know” they do not.  The Lord Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, was able to overcome all of his temptations and achieve Enlightenment, because he realized that everything he saw was nothing but a phantom and an illusion.

In this sense, the question of the existence of Satan, or ultimately of the God of most religions, makes little difference.  This is not the statement of an atheist, or even of a cynic, but instead of one who affirms that Spirit fills all, everything and every place.  Even Tuol Sleng, where evil also reigns.  The Unnamed Divine Spirit cannot not be in any place, although there are some locales, and even some people, where his presence is profoundly hidden.  Ultimately, what must be done is to see into and beyond the appearance of good and evil, beyond Satan and even beyond everyday notions of God, to where there is nothing to see, to where sight and even understanding are no longer applicable.  There, as The Buddha knew, these phantom images disappear like dew on the summer grass.  Here there is nothing left but light, and then not even light, but a thing far greater, so great that all we can do is wonder in awe, and ultimately in the silence that is beyond all expression.

IN MEMORIAM ON MEMORIAL DAY

By Paul

What, really, do we mean by memory?  Without it, it seems safe to say, we would hardly be human, inasmuch as we learn from the past, or we hope to, and without the recollection of past events, of people, or of our thoughts and feelings and reactions to all that has occurred in our lives, we would in essence be starting each day anew.   It has been shown that animals also have memory, and they are more than capable of learning from past experience, just as we humans attempt to do.

Given all this, in one sense, it seems strange that we have what is called Memorial Day, a time specifically dedicated to remembering.  It has its own provenance, of course, having been created soon after the Civil War by various individuals who mourned the passing of sons and brothers and spouses and friends, who died in the horror of that terrible, fratricidal conflagration.

When I was young, in fact, as often as not the day was referred to as Decoration Day, especially by people of the older generation, because we would go to the graves of those who had died, not just soldiers in various wars, but the graves of any and all loved ones, and leave tokens of remembrance, flags mostly, or flowers.  In this sense, it is akin to the Mexican “Día de los Muertos,” the Day of the Dead, when families gather at graves to eat and drink, and generally to celebrate loved ones who have moved on to a different place.

Memory is like that.  It brings to mind not just what has passed, but the emotion that surrounded, and still surrounds, those thoughts of the past.  For surely we do not remember everything that has ever happened to us, all that we have said and done and thought.  That would be too much for any individual to live with, especially as we grow older and we have done, and thought, and seen more and more of life.  The very word “recollect,” in fact, comes from the Latin “recolligere,” meaning to gather together and to collect again, even to pick and choose, which is exactly what our memory does.  Another related word in Latin is “lignum,” which means firewood.  At first, that might seem like an odd connection.  What has memory got to do with building a fire?  But its original reference was to wood that had been collected together, chosen for that particular purpose.

And is that not what we do so often with our memory?  Given various stimuli, different triggers, people, places, tastes, smells, words, songs or pieces of music, dates on the calendar, or wounds that seem only to half heal no matter how hard we try to cure or be rid of them, all these bring back a burning rush of feeling, of thought, or of sensation.  We experience, or re-experience over and over again, love and loss, pain and happiness, desire and repulsion, grief and joy, the hoped for, as well as what we most feared.  We have with us still the regrets we live with, the delight we experienced in life, people we loved and still love, those we may have fought with and those who brought us pain, and the people whom we, ourselves, have hurt, wittingly or unwittingly, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our follies, the roads not taken and the longed-for wonder of where these roads might have led.  No one escapes the power of memory, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we talk about it, or keep it buried in the tomb of our unconscious, from whence it springs on its own like unruly and destructive weeds in an otherwise ordered and well tended garden.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain said, “I grow old and my memory is not as active as it used to be.  When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon it shall be such that I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”  These words, as ironic as they may at first seem, point up what a mishmash memory can be, how it gets intertwined with our wishes, our deepest desires and our wrenching fears.  It sometimes seems to be indistinguishable from our imagination.  Did I really do that to my friend and how did he feel, did she say that to me, did my father despise me as much as I remember, and did my mother mourn my leaving home at a young age to enter a monastery, as I recall her doing?

Some things, it would appear, are true, or at least factual, and I know they happened in exactly the way I see them in my mind, but others, more fuzzy, less precise especially as time goes by, begin to look more like barely distinguishable shapes or images in a thick fog.  When I am afraid, I may recall events in a darker light, as if they were shadows or phantoms that haunt the mansions of the mind.  When the sun of a brighter day shines and I am feeling strong and, dare I say, more fully adult, do I see the remembered past for what it was, for the real forms it took and the ways I dealt with whatever was troubling or confusing or, for good or for ill, mesmerizing?

All this to say that we must trust our memory as we would a dear friend who, we know, has his own odd tendency to exaggerate, or to embellish, or even to tell tall tales merely to entertain us.

My own memory of my parents is like this.  They died so long ago now that they have begun to take on mythic proportions in the movie of my life.  I cannot, for example, remember a single time when my father kissed me.  But that was true of all fathers I knew in those years of the 1950’s, the fathers of my friends and classmates, as well as my own.  And if he had, I – we, all of us – would not have known what to do in our embarrassment.  I do, also though, remember the blows, the harsh words, the fear with which I approached him, and the tender mercies of my mother, protecting me from him.  But were there other things that I do not remember?  Who can say what he does not remember?  And, if there are things that go unremembered, why is that so?

Memorial Day is designed to bring these things to the fore, lest we forget.  We remember those who have died, first and especially in all the hellish or the just or simply the foolish and idiotic wars the country has fought.  We recall the days in late May, when the sun was shinning and the grass grew new and green and seemingly ecstatic after a long winter covered with the snows of January and the slush of March or April.  We see in our mind once again the picnics of days gone by, a snapshot of us all gathered at the lake or in a park or simply on the back porch.  We taste again the food cooked by those who loved us, by those who looked after us, by aunts and uncles who were part of our lives, giving us unwitting lessons in how to live like adults in a world that seemed to us at times only to be overwhelming and more than we ever thought we could come to terms with.

And each new day we make yet other memories for the day after.  That is the way we live, by acting in the present, by living the moment to the fullest, but by seeing it again and feeling it, experiencing it once more later, as we sit quietly, or lie awake in the long hours of a sleepless night.  Familiar faces, long gone perhaps, but still present in the moment of memory, visit us again.  We laugh or cry or rejoice, and feel the longing for what once was, and is still, but in a way different from what had been.

That’s Memorial Day.  That’s the day of remembrance.  That’s what it means to recall who we were, who we are, who we have become, and what it means to be fully, painfully, joyously, gloriously, and so yearningly, so vulnerably human.

EARTH: HOW FAR CAN IT BE PUSHED?

By Paul

The earth is alive.  It is a conscious being.  It suffers and rejoices and feels, just as you and I do, just as any animal or tree or other plant does.  That does not mean that it has consciousness in exactly the same way that human beings do.  It is emblematic of our human arrogance, and our ignorance, that we believe that only we have consciousness, that only we can feel and reflect.  That is not so.  All sentient beings, as the Buddhists say, are capable of doing these things, even if we all do them in very different ways.

Human consciousness is brilliant and glorious, if limited most of the time.  Plant consciousness is also limited, but plants are more than capable of feeling joy in the movement of the breeze or the falling rain.  Plants move and sway and feel and breathe, and, in a very real sense, they are quite aware of their surroundings.  They love their rootedness, their ability to continually grow and reproduce, and in cold climates they sleep, bear-like, for the winter months and awake to the warming touch of the spring sun.  They feel a kind of happiness, or at least an exhilaration, in being able to continually grow and produce offspring.  Each type of animal, too, has its own kind of consciousness.  Predators, for example, do not kill out of anger (unless they have somehow been tortured and tormented and rendered “crazy” through pain and confinement), but instead they do so out of a desire to survive and to feed their young.  It is also true that the preyed upon feel fear in the moment of the chase.  They do not, however, feel the same type of fear of death that human beings normally do, but experience it more as a continuation of the cycle of being.

The earth itself has a vaster, more all-encompassing consciousness.  It is quite aware of all of the transitory beings who live and walk and crawl on its body, and has a kind of love for these creatures, made from its own body.  This is why many people feel a natural tendency to refer to the earth as “Mother,” because we can, if we attune to it, feel that love.  But the earth takes what might be called the long-term view of things.  A few thousand, or even a few million years, as humans reckon time, represents only the tiniest fraction of the lifespan of the earth.  As such, the death of an individual insect, or a tree, or a wolf, or a rabbit, or a man, or a woman is not a cause for sadness to the earth.  The earth knows that all life is born, matures, and eventually passes away.  The same is true for its own life, just as it is and will be for the star of our galaxy, the sun, or for our galaxy itself, or for the entire universe for that matter.  There is no escaping this universal law, which all manifest creation must abide by.  Therefore, a great storm, or a fire, or an earthquake, or the eruption of a volcano, which wipes away “all life” in its path is recognized by the earth as part of this unfolding of creation, in a similar way to the death of a rabbit in the jaws of a coyote.  It is not a tragedy (as much as it may seem to be in our eyes), but a continuation of the change that must always move forward.

The earth strives always for balance.  It is balanced in its daily rotation and its revolution around the sun.  It spins for a reason, so that it experiences constant movement and with it an ability to go through its own set of regular changes, those of day and night, winter to summer, year to year, millennium to millennium, age to age.  It could also be said that the earth loved and rejoiced, that it felt something akin to pride even, at the emergence of the first tentative signs of “life” on it.  There is no need to attempt to define when life, as we normally speak of it, began on the planet.  The earth is already – has always been – alive.  What we usually think of as life is merely the culmination of certain processes that lead to movement or reproduction and to a different kind of consciousness of the self.

Initially, this desire to live was mostly manifest in the need to reproduce, first of all non-sexually, and then later through sexual means.  The first bacteria had their own awareness, not self-awareness exactly, at least not in the self-reflective sense in which we usually use that term, but a consciousness whereby they knew they had a desire to keep on living.  Life, again as we normally think of it, was snuffed out more than once in various ways, most of which had to do with the crashing into the earth of fragments of the primordial universe.  However, the evolution of life was strong, and continued to show itself, and eventually to advance and expand.  Life is a glorious reflection of the aliveness of the Divine Spirit, and mimics that ability to go on and on, no matter what.   That is why it is foolish, and yet another example of our arrogance and ignorance, to maintain that there is no other life in the universe.  Of course there is, and its forms are vast and beautiful and almost unending.

Just as any parent has to sometimes discipline unruly children, so too the earth sometimes brings its own brand of discipline to the creatures that it supports.  While it is part of what it means to be alive in the usual sense of that term to grow and to propagate, there is also what could be called a kind of natural selfishness in that desire.  This impetus  is, in fact, so strong that one life form is quite willing to push all other life aside in order to take over, if opportunity arises.  However, the innate wisdom of the earth to maintain balance has so far always come to the rescue in such cases.  Otherwise, one species, or one animal, or one life form, whatever it may be, might utterly dominate all else on earth, leading in its most egregious form to the elimination of the others.  Additionally, the earth knows that life, which has evolved so beautifully and with such incalculable variety upon it, must have that variation in order to continue to grow and prosper.  As such, the over predominance of one single life form on the earth can ultimately result in the death of all other life forms.  This cannot be tolerated, inasmuch as that result could eventually signal the demise of all life forms on the planet, ironically including the life of the one species that had taken over.

This is the predicament in which we, human beings, currently find ourselves today.  And it is not completely unfair to harken back once again to human arrogance and ignorance as a cause.  Even so, as noted above, any life form would do the same thing, any one would take advantage just as humans have, if they had the strength and resources to do so.  It is in the very nature of what is meant by the overpowering urge to grow and to propagate.  There is clearly a kind of selfishness in our desire to exist at all cost.  But again, for the most part, over the course of millennia the earth has been quite able to maintain this balance, with periods of excessive heat, or cold, or long stretches of flooding, or drought maintaining the equilibrium whenever one life form, or a few of them, threatened to take over.  So, too, may be the case today with human beings.

We are unfortunately not nearly as smart as we usually give ourselves credit for.  Or at least our ability to see, and even to imagine, is quite restricted.  By nature, we are barely capable of thinking of our own lifetime – some seventy or eighty years on average – as “the long term.”  Add to that the innate urge to propagate, and we have what is happening on earth today.  Demographers tell us that there are already well over seven billion people on the earth.  It is axiomatic to say that the planet is vastly overpopulated.  On top of all this, we have a great ability to create new technologies, and in doing so, we have pushed back the earlier limitations on lifespan, as well as on our ability to raise and care for offspring.  This combination of too many people, and not caring what their predation causes, has brought us to the brink.  To be more precise, it has brought us, humans, to the brink, though not necessarily the earth.  We do not yet have the power to obliterate an entire planet, as much as it is not inconceivable that such a day could at some point arrive.  But unless we radically change our ways and make new and different choices, it will not be long before the earth, our mother, if you will, will chastise her wayward children.  Imbalance can only be allowed to go on for so long before something must take place that will redress the imbalance.  It is true that humans have evolved beautifully, but we are not the highest life forms in the universe, as we normally think of ourselves.  And the earth is capable of making whatever changes are needed in order to rebalance itself.

In spite of this, all is not lost for humanity’s survival.  Not yet, at least.  The earth is a patient mother, and is willing to put up with wayward children, in a way similar to a mother bear, huge and powerful as she is, who willingly endures her cubs biting her ears and tail.  But she may occasionally give them a warning swat from time to time, just as a reminder not to go too far.  We have seen some of these warning swats already delivered by the earth, although so far with depressingly little effect in the longer term.  Many human beings consider it an impossible leap of faith to think that even animals have consciousness, let alone plants, and there are fewer still who can imagine the earth itself as having a kind of consciousness.

I understand that some may see these views I have expressed as being extreme.  Others may consider them utterly fanciful, or at best symbolic or allegorical.  To me, they are simple, straightforward, and truthful.  However they may be viewed, it seems clear enough that one way to unburden the earth is to lessen the population of human beings inhabiting it.  Let us hope that it will not come to a kind of radical cleansing, due to unpredictable weather patterns that could devastate large swaths of humanity, but that we can do so voluntarily by reducing the number of births.  As is so often the case, though, religions have not been of much help when they preach against and even outlaw reasonable forms of birth control.  It is a travesty, and a sin (to use their own language) to cite books written thousands of years ago, when the planet was far less populated, to justify an outdated belief that people ought not to limit the number of their offspring.  No matter what may have once been the case, these days no one couple should give birth to any more than one child, and the more people who produce no children the better.

Overpopulation is, of course, only one part of a long list of problems.  Overuse of fossil fuels, fracking, and other ways of pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere are others.  What I return to again, though, is the place of the consciousness of the earth itself in the equation.  The earth insists on balance, and balance will be achieved one way or another, with – as it were – or without our cooperation.  Morally, ethically, spiritually, even economically, however, it is our duty to make an all out effort to do what we can to help restore that balance.

Let us remember that humans have lived and bred and dabbled in life here for only an extremely short period.  In “earth time,” if it can be put that way, it is the length of an infinitesimally brief flash of lightning in the summer sky in comparison to the four and a half billion years lived by our mother planet.  We forget this, and mistakenly feel as though we have always been.  But it also behooves us to imagine a time when we might not to be here.  The great Creative Force of life would then have to carve out a new path, some new race perhaps, which might live and grow and prosper and reflect intelligently upon itself.  If that were to happen, all of the great inventions, all of the knowledge gained by science, all the most insightful books, all the deepest thoughts and most inspired art ever made by women and men would be utterly lost.

This is not what the earth wants.  It remains a loving mother, who has so far had compassion on her wayward children, but even the patience of the most loving mother can be pushed too far.  Therefore, the time for us to act is now.

SILENCE: WHAT IT ONCE MEANT TO ME, AND WHAT IT HAS COME TO MEAN

By Paul

It would seem that few people require, or can even tolerate, absolute silence.  Such a state at any rate, at least in the physical sense, is extremely rare, and may even be something of a physical impossibility in the world.  Usually, there is something that interferes with or interrupts the soundlessness, even if that something is only the wind in the trees, or falling water, or the tiny clatter made by an animal or an insect, let alone the endlessly deafening array of noises made by humans and our machines.

As a child, I remember I would sometimes try to escape, hide out might be a better word now that I look back, from my friends and even from family.  My refuge was St. Patrick’s, the big, red brick church across the street from where we lived. Those were the days, in the mid1950’s, when churches were still open to the public at anytime, all day long in fact, as they no longer seem to be today.   Going in, I would do my utmost to close the doors as quietly as possible, so as to avoid any sound.  As it turned out, though, this was something of an impossibility.  The big wooden portals would creak and bang with a deafening echo no matter how hard I tried to ease them shut.  Once inside, I could usually hear nothing of the outside world.  The church building itself was huge, and cool even on the hottest of summer days, and I would sit there trying to hear what could not be heard.  Because it was unusual for anyone else to be there during the times when I was able to go, the only sound I could hear was that of my own breathing, or the beating of my own heart.  I remember wondering how many breaths, how many beats a person had in his heart before the end, before beating and breathing stopped.  How many did I have, and how many did my mother have?  I calculated that there had to be some specific number, although at the time my own numeral seemed as if it must have been so huge as to be almost immeasurable.  I also hoped the same would be true for my mother, and I now understand what a mercy it was that I did not know how few, in fact, she had remaining.

Later on in life, I learned how to “watch the breath,” as Indian yogis might say, and that this is one way to begin to enter into the quietude needed for deep meditation.  It goes without saying, I guess, that as a young boy I didn’t know I was practicing a kind of yogic technique, and surely would have been horrified if I’d had any inkling, because at the time I considered all religions except the Roman Catholic Church to be false and even dangerous.  Little did I know then, either, that the Catholic faith could be every bit as dangerous as any other organized religion.

Sitting there in the empty church, the very first thing I noticed about silence was that it felt soothing, almost as if it were a kind of balm that calmed me, and this calmness was a state that my heart and my spirit needed and craved.  In those years, in fact, as strange as it may seem, I had formed a kind of habit of retreating into the church whenever I heard the sound of a siren.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I always made the assumption that the sirens came from fire trucks, not police cars, and I can still recall now, sixty years later, saying to myself:  “Everybody else is running to see the fire, but I’m going to church to pray for those whose house is burning down.”

All right, I’ll agree with you that maybe I was something of a strange child!  And why I always automatically assumed that it was a house burning I can’t really say.  A psychologist might possibly read much into this and interpret it like a dream, that is, as a symbol of the house-afire relationship I had with my father, or more widely still as a kind of generalized fear of living in the world.  Both of which might have been true.  At any rate, for whatever reason I would rush off to the church and pray earnestly for those who, I thought, no longer had a home, that they might soon find one, and that no one would suffer for long.  Such prayers, such musings, if you will, offered me the greatest solace.  Afterwards, I would leave feeling energized and uplifted, and frankly sometimes with a holier-than-thou sense in comparison with all those who, in my mind’s eye, had rushed to watch the fire instead of sitting tranquilly in the church praying for its victims.

Much of this, I now realize, masked for me the other side of silence, its opposite, if you will, that I also experienced as a child, a side that could make me feel sad and depressed.  I could not, and did not admit it then, but I sometimes felt oppressed by my own internalized fears and inhibitions.  I would have had trouble admitting that I also craved a very different thing, not silence, but the messiness, the unfettered and tangled clutter and chaotic disarray of living in a rebellious and bothersome body (or so I thought), in the midst of an exciting, confusing, frustrating, and terrifying world which existed out there, beyond the protective, silent, enclave of the church.

To an extent, I suppose, that dichotomy still exists for me.  Although over the years I have done much to embrace that chthonic chaos, and rightly so (it is the stuff of life, after all), still the older I get the more I seem to opt again for silence.  But is there a difference, it could be asked, between silence and quiet?  As a young boy, sitting in the cool darkness of St. Patrick’s church, I probably would have said no, but I have now come to think there is, and I that I like both of them.  Quiet, as I define it, has more to do with the absence of something, namely, all that is usually lumped under the catchall term of “noise:” cars, trucks, motorcycles (especially), airplanes, machines of all kinds, including radios and televisions and music making devices of every stripe (unless they happen to be playing Mozart), even the dull hum of appliances like that of the refrigerator in the quiet stillness of the morning before the world wakes up.

Even these words I’m writing, if read aloud, could well fit under the category of noise, depending on where and when or how they were uttered, or on the manner in which they were received by anyone listening.  If you were, for example, sitting by a quiet lake, and the most you could hear was the sound of water lapping gently against the shoreline, or the merest stirring of the breeze amid the pine needles above you, then everything else, these words included, might well be thought of as noise.  Indeed, if in such a place you had to speak, you’d better whisper in as quiet a voice as you could contrive.  But even in such circumstances, as hushed as it might be, it is still possible that you, yourself, might not be silent.  Not if silence is a quality of the mind, and if that mind or yours, or mine, were chattering with its long list of worries and obsessions.

So, it would seem that there is a difference between silence and quiet.  Could it even be said, in fact, that it might be possible to be in silence while in the midst of noise?  It is not an easy state to achieve, but I believe it is a possibility, because silence in this sense has more, much more, to do with an inner condition than with any outer circumstances.

But if that is the case, how do we go about finding such silence?  It is not as simple as slipping into a church at the sound of a siren, or even of retreating to the distant mountains with their pristine streams and cooling pine trees, far from the unending din of what passes for the civilized world.  After all, in some ultimate sense, the chatter and clatter of the world emanate from within.  If we did not feel such inner unquiet, would we feel the need to create such outer noise?

In the end, silence is not a place of no noise (although that may help); it is not a place at all, but instead a state of consciousness.   It is that “no place” where all things come together, time and eternity, and where vibration, the very stuff of noise making, loses itself in the endlessness of the conscious moment, where thought both begins and ends.

Whoever speaks of heaven and hell remains still in the thrall of the vibratory world.  Leave sin behind, and goodness, and right and wrong, too, for that matter.  Not that morality is unimportant, but only in the context of the universe of the play of opposites.  Leave heaven and hell, themselves artifacts of the dream of opposing sides.  And leave dreams, as well, as they wander the star paths of the shinning or the fiery.  Step instead where there is no step, and enter what cannot be entered.  Leave language, too, and seek the empty plenitude of silence.  Or, rather, do not seek at all, because there is nothing to be sought after.  This is the nowhere, where there is no longer any need to reach the Unreachable.

“SAVING THE WORLD” — Confessions of a Reluctant Climate Change “Activist”

by Kevin 

"Utopia," 2013 digital illustration by Kevin

“Utopia,” 2013 digital illustration by Kevin

When people ask me what I am doing these days, I say as casually as possible, “Oh… I’m saving the world.” It’s meant to be a joke, of course… as if I could save an anthill!… But at heart it’s also a serious response to the question. I know I’m tilting at windmills (or perhaps oil rigs,) but I don’t think I have a choice. It feels like a moral duty to do anything I can to call attention to our potential mass extinction due to climate change, work with others to invent and push solutions for avoiding apocalypse, and then pray for a miracle. I just have to.

We do still have the actual wherewithal to save ourselves if we can find the courage. In other words, we have already developed the clean renewable energy technologies that can wean us off of carbon-based energy and give fossil fuel companies another way to get rich. All we need is the social and political will to implement these solutions and changes. If we human beings want to think of ourselves as a life form with “higher intelligence,” then let us prove that we can hold in our minds at the same time, the scientifically proven threat of apocalypse due to climate change, AND the vision of utopia built on our existing skills, technologies and creativity. This is very hard, but we can and must do it. The cognitive dissonance brought on by holding two powerful and opposite ideas in our heads at once will sometimes make us laugh and then suddenly weep and wail. That is natural and necessary. In order to fix this disaster, we must be willing to face and feel “eco-anxiety.”

"Global Warming Apocalypse," 2013 digital illustration by Kevin

“Global Warming Apocalypse,” 2013 digital illustration by Kevin

On April 19, 2013, exactly one year after Rolling Stone published Bill McKibben’s climate change bomb that went viral, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Anna Fahey spoke at the Whidbey Institute Climate Conference and offered a roadmap for future hope and action. See http://insidepassages.com/2013/05/03/tappimg-into-dark-optimism-whidbey-institute-climate-conference/  Anna said, “Dark Optimism” is our capacity to face dark truths, while believing unwaveringly in our human potential, and I think we can harness that.” This is required reading for anyone who is concerned about Global Climate Change, especially if it overwhelms you and makes you feel powerless. Ms. Fahey points out that research shows that 10 – 20% of the population can sway the direction of history. This is truly possible. It is happening with marriage equality. Robert and I never expected to see legalized same sex marriage in our lifetime. It can happen for the survival of all life, too.

"Captain Agape," 4 x 6 ft actylic on canvas, by Kevin, in progress

“Captain Agape,” 4 x 6 ft acrylic on canvas, by Kevin, in progress

Robert and I live deep enough in the woods that we seldom hear anything but the wind, weather, and calls of the birds and other animals, including our own five dogs and a dozen parrots and cockateils. The 100 big koi in our half-acre pond only make noise when they breach the surface of the pure spring water and slap it with their tails – magnificent entertainment viewed from our deck on Buddha Hill. Even better with a glass of wine.

We love it here, more with every day of the past seven years. We feel so grateful and fortunate to have this golden time living in peace and love, surrounded by Nature. It is tempting to withdraw completely from the world into meditation, art and gardening. What could be better? But I can’t quite let myself do that… not yet at least. There may come a time when the tipping point has been so completely passed and the chain reaction toward devastation and mass extinction is so clearly underway, that I will feel justified in retiring to the woods to make my final peace with Spirit and prepare for the end. Just lately I have begun to suspect that such a time may be closer at hand than any of us had thought, because of the tragic news that the vast frozen arctic methane beds are releasing their store of gas that is 20 times stronger than CO2 in its greenhouse warming effect.

I am so grateful to Paul for his wonderful post, just prior to this one, entitled “What’s Important in the News?” in which he elucidated five worthy subjects in the following order:

  1. The Survival of the Earth
  2. Equality vs Inequality
  3. Help Those in Need
  4. Do No Harm
  5. Freedom (to Act Responsibly)

I especially appreciate the fact that Paul placed the Earth and survival of all life at the top of his list of priorities, where it belongs. After all, if we do not arrest climate change and prevent a catastrophic chain reaction from rapidly degrading the climate and our home environment, there will be a mass extinction event. If that happens we will not have the luxury of addressing any of the other long-term issues confronting humanity and the world. We will be done for a long time, until evolution brings us back again in a few million years. There is one final shred of hope, if all else fails – perhaps geo-engineers can succeed in the highest stakes science experiment in history, using the Earth as their test tube while all of life hangs in the balance. It would be so much better to reverse course now!

Using his paintings as illustrations, Kevin discusses Global Climate Change with a group of participants in "Healing Earth Pain Through the Arts" at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, April 20, 2013

Using his paintings as illustrations, Kevin discusses Global Climate Change with a group of participants in “Healing Earth Pain Through the Arts” at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, April 20, 2013

The upshot of all this for me personally, is that I accept speaking, facilitation, and performance gigs from groups that ask me to bring my large climate change paintings and talk about their apocalyptic and utopian themes, in combination with facilitating an ideation session, or presenting concerts with poets, musicians, performance artists and others. When I have complained to Paul that I would much rather stay home to make art and tend my garden, he generously says that he is glad I am willing to go out into the world and make these statements. When I ask, “Why me?” he points out that perhaps it is my karma. Maybe it is time to pay the world back for the money I made serving corporate America and Fortune 500 companies for nearly a quarter century, lending my art and facilitation skills to their efforts to invent new products and strategies. Paul is right, although sometimes continuing public involvement feels more like atonement for sins than fulfillment of karma. But that may be a distinction without a difference.

The other night I dreamt I was a student at university awaiting the results of my final project. I thought I had submitted a symphony, but when the pretty young professor returned my manuscript, I saw that it was a 50-page photo essay. It began with the words, “I have the right to be a nice guy. A rock in the stream has the right to enjoy the water passing over it…” Then there was a series of beautiful photos of a colorful rock just under the rushing stream water. The words of the essay melted into the colors of the rock and disappeared altogether. It became a wordless essay, but none of the meaning was lost.

I was sweeping the sidewalk when Professor Pretty surprised me by saying, “The judges have awarded your final project an ‘E’ – the highest evaluation given to any project in the last 50 years. You must prepare yourself for a strong reaction from the media and the public when we release this news.” I realized that to avoid the crowd, I could wade into the river, but there were already people standing waist deep in the water, waiting for me. So I waded past them into deeper water and allowed the river to wash me downstream, where I was once again alone in Nature. I was happy and everything was fine.

I don’t like having to bother people with bad news. I have the right to be a nice guy… So I spend as much time as the world will allow, enjoying life as a hermit artist in the woods, where words dissolve into colors, but the meaning remains evident. I would much rather sweep my walkway than face a crowd or the media. But I’ve learned that if I am willing to wade into the deep water, the river will wash me downstream and everything will be fine.

"Celebration of Life," 11" x 14" acrylic on canvas by Kevin, 2007

“Celebration of Life,” 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas by Kevin, 2007

I shall willingly produce the next event at Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg on June 12, 2013, 6:30 to 8:30, starting with “Theatre of the Arts,” then expert panelists will present, and finally I will facilitate audience interaction/ Q&A with the panel. Everything will be fine. I will do it for my unborn great-niece Samantha, who is expected to arrive into this world at any minute. I gave her the painting above, entitled “A Celebration of Life,” at her baby shower recently, hoping that she will live and thrive to enjoy the painting and her life.

I am an old man now – older than my 64 years. I have lived a long, fulfilling life. I have known true and enduring love, enjoyed fascinating adventures into the history of human art and thought and culture, created a significant body of art, communed with Spirit, and spent a very peaceful time in Nature. I am satisfied. But what can we say to the children and the grandchildren now? They will soon begin to ask us “Why did you not take care of the Earth? Did you forget that this planet is our home and we cannot live without it? What did you do to save our home after you set it on fire? What are you doing now?”  I wade into the deep water of the river because I want to be able to say to the children, “I am sorry that we were so greedy and careless and damaged your home. I am doing what I can to save it.”

 

WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN THE NEWS?

By Paul

With the ever-increasing use of the Internet and all manner of social media, it seems to me of late that we have become inundated with news bits of every description, and in fact that we are in danger of becoming so overwhelmed as to find it difficult to distinguish between what actually may be important and what is not.

In an attempt to filter and to prioritize for myself, I have come up with five categories that assist me in (informally) deciding between those things that seem to be of vital importance and, by the process of exclusion I suppose, those things which appear to be less so.

Here, for your perusal, are the categories I have come up with, and a few words about each

  • The Survival of the Earth

What in fact could be more important than this category?  I virtually always read or listen to what is reported on this topic.  Upon it quite literally depends all else, because without a physical home we have nothing to act from, as it were.  Just recently, for example, my friend and fellow blogger Kevin sent me an article entitled “Methane Outbreak Alert!” by Robert Hunziker, published in an on-line magazine called “Dissident Voice” (see http://dissidentvoice.org).  The purport of the article has to do with newly identified methane emissions coming from deep in the Arctic Ocean, and on the devastating effects methane has on the climate.  According to scientists quoted in the article, if we have not yet reached the tipping point, we soon will do so, unless stringent action is taken immediately.  Methane in the atmosphere, as they describe it, is far more harmful even than carbon dioxide.  And there are vast reservoirs of methane gas in the arctic region, both undersea and beneath the tundra.  The rapid warming of the planet in the last 100 years, but even more so in the past 20 to 30 years, is releasing more and more of the methane that had been trapped for millennia beneath the water and the land.  The more methane released, the more it affects the atmosphere, and the more it affects the atmosphere, the more methane is released, creating a vicious cycle that will soon cause the complete meltdown of the arctic region.  The result will be a total disruption of global weather patterns, which itself will engender either devastating drought or catastrophic flooding, and the consequent disruption of world agriculture.  The article goes on to describe what it refers to as a potential “mass extinction event,” otherwise known as “The Great Dying.” These are not pleasant things to read about, it goes without saying, but I believe it is necessary to consider them as real possibilities, given our recalcitrance and inaction in the face of the continual warming of the globe.  Perhaps scientists can save us from ourselves by coming up with ideas to geo-engineer a cooling of the planet.  One such concept that has already been proposed is the injection of large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, essentially mimicking vocalic blasts, which in the past have had a cooling effect on temperatures.  Let us hope that this is not what we will be reduced to, but we shall see.  Who knows what unintended consequences could come about as a result of such deliberate massive human intervention into world weather patterns, even if we could get the nations of the world to agree to it?

  • Equality vs. Inequality

I suppose inequality has ever been with us pretty much from the beginning, when one group of hunter-gatherers got the jump on another and was more successful in feeding and clothing itself than its rivals.  In that sense, it could be argued, we aren’t doing anything that our ancestors didn’t do when we live in our current world where the “haves” possess so much more than the “have nots.”  But lamenting that it has always been so does not mean that it always should be.  The question, I suppose, really is what can anyone do about it?  One thing, as is always the case, is to keep ourselves informed.  And there is plenty to be informed about, everything (in the recent news) from the terrible collapse of the garment factory building in Bangladesh, to issues of homelessness, lack of jobs, problems with the minimum wage, inequality in pay between women and men in the workplace, racism, sexism of every stripe, scurrilous and scandalous language about the LBGT community on the part of certain politico-religious leaders (not just Christian, but Muslim and Orthodox Jewish, as well), the right to marry whom you please, and on and on.  Not a single day goes by when at very least one, and more frequently several, of the above topics is not discussed in some respected news source.

  • Help Those In Need

Just taking a look at the front page of the Los Angeles Times for Thursday, May 2, 2013, we see articles on both the “nasty side effects” of the new health care laws coming into being, and one entitled “Misery in the Sinai,” having to do with a man from Eritrea who had gone to the Sudan to look for work and who was subsequently kidnapped and held for ransom.  It could hardly be clearer that both have to do with people in grave need, in the former case, all those who want to work for themselves and their families, and who are then limited to just under the cut-off point in terms of hours before getting mandated health insurance.  One example given is the city of Long Beach, CA., where I happen to live, which limits part-timers to 27 hours a week, specifically so as to avoid providing health care insurance for them.  As one employee said, “It’s ridiculous that the city is skirting the law,” and who could disagree with her?  In the case of the kidnapped Eritrean migrant worker, his captors are demanding $33,000 in ransom money from his family.  As the man’s father said, “That amount is bigger than our dreams.”  And should it not be the dream of all of us to help such people in need?

  • Do No Harm

This is truly a motto for the ages.  Westerners probably first heard of it in the Hippocratic Oath.  Doctors are enjoined, first of all, not to harm patients, and then after that to do what they can to heal them.  “Primum non nocere”(first, do no harm), as they say.  We also know of it from Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and his insistence on non-violence, from the great Mohandas Gandhi in attempting to rid India of British rule, and from Martin Luther King, in all of his efforts to bring justice and equality to a people who have been discriminated against for centuries.  But “ahimsa,” as it is called in India, where it is practiced not only by some Hindus, but also by Buddhists and Jains, is not only a relic of the past.  Can we not see its effects in almost any news story current today?  All we have to do is take a look at what terrorists have done the world over (and only recently in Boston) in the name of ideology, or what is happening in Guantanamo Bay, or the bullying of gay children in the school yards of our own nation, or the death of over 130,000 young children in Somalia because Islamist rebels banned the delivery of food, or the devastating harm done to the earth itself in the terrible practice of so-called fracking, to remember all of the harm that is being done these days both on and to the earth.  Let us, therefore, as much as possible not participate, and let us inform ourselves of instances of it and do what we can to prevent it.

  • Freedom (to Act Responsibly)

We Americans frequently pat ourselves on the back, and rightly so, for all of the freedoms we enjoy.  Surely, in spite of all of our problems and, yes, even our defects, it is a great privilege to live in a democracy, and a thing for which we all ought to be enormously grateful.  But let us also remember that not everyone enjoys the same rights and privileges.  There are dictatorships abroad, for example, some of which we have at times lamentably propped up for our own gain.  There are horrendous civil wars, such as the one currently raging in Syria, where tens of thousands of innocents have been killed by a brutal dictator.  Kim Jong Un crushes his own people practically on a daily basis, and threatens the world with nuclear warheads, and no one seems willing or able to do much about it.  Closer to home, millions of immigrants, whose only crime is having entered the country without proper papers, live a marginalized and frightened existence.  We are subject to the most vile and disgusting hate speech by religious extremists of every stripe.  The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, proclaims at every funeral they can manage to picket that “God hates Fags!”  Only slightly less hatefilled speech comes from groups such as the National Organization for Marriage, or from the former, now emeritus, pope who is on record as having said that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” and that gay marriage is contrary to God’s plan and “objectively sinful.”  Millions of Americans own guns in the erroneous belief that more guns will make them safer, and Congress itself does not have the backbone to pass the meagerest of gun-control legislation.

These, then, are five of the general categories that I use in order to distill the onslaught of information that comes at each of us everyday from every direction.  Not everything is important, and some topics rise, or ought to rise, to the top, lest we become quickly overwhelmed and buried in data.

It’s not that such items as “Funds for Raises in Mayor’s budget,” Tech Tackles Cheating,” “Measure Would Go After Bad Doctors,” or “Depression Era Film Starlet Dies” are not interesting or even important to some in their own right (all, by the way, can be found in the Thursday, May 2, 2013 edition of the LA Times).  It’s just that no one has unlimited time.  And so, in the end, all of us are obliged in one way or another to sift through and strain out what we cannot, are not willing to, or choose not to handle.