Tuesday, January 26, 2010

These Few Things I Know to Be True

They say, whoever "they" are, that it's not wise in these contentious days to talk about either politics or religion, or too open about one's position on either. "They" say it only incites the fringe element to foam at mouth, even more than usual, and to target one for harassment, vilification, mockery, or worse. "They" urge us to be still, sit on our hands, don't make a noise, don't ruffle anyone's feathers, don't stand out, and don't state too strongly one's opinions lest they make one into a target.

Well, frak that.

This is what I want to write about today, so I'm going to write about it.

When I was 13, I very consciously and deliberately set out in search of what I framed, at the time, the "oldest religion" or "original religion." Being raised Lutheran, in a particularly rational and intellectual version of that faith, I had already been exposed at that age to beliefs and ideas that made no sense to me. I had already experienced several visionary and mystical encounters with Something beyond myself, beyond the everyday, and beyond anything my church ever talked about. Miracles and mysteries were something that had happened to Those People, from the Biblical stories, way Back Then, and couldn't happen now; or weren't supposed to.

It's always strange when a religion based on miracles in the past rejects them in the present moment, which contemporary rational Lutheranism tends to do. I suppose if I had been raised Catholic there might have been more of a framework for understanding my visions, more of an acceptance of them, and an ability to more strongly believe in miracles and mysteries; but if I had been raised Catholic, I probably would have been expected to enter the priesthood, which would have raised severe problems of a different nature. I would have run headlong into problems submitting my will to Church authority, and i would have had a severe problem with my sexual orientation. I am not celibate, and never want to be. I know at least three gay men who attended Catholic seminary, for at least a few years, before realizing it juts wasn't going to work out; every one of those men is well-adjusted and happy, and each of them is a profoundly spiritual individual with an active prayer life. I respect them very much.

When I was 13, I was introduced in Civics classes at my junior high school to comparative religion. We did units on the world's living religions, and we also studied the "dead" religions of ancient Greece and Rome. These are the foundation of much of Western culture and its values, so it was natural to cover them in Civics. I wonder if that's the way they're taught anymore. I remember I presented a talk before the class on the Roman Saturnalia, and its connection to later-formulated Christian festivals; it was my first understanding of religious syncretism, in which a major religion adopts the local customs in order to take them under its mantle, and co-opt them for its own purposes. (Haitian Voudoun, for example, is a syncretism of missionary Catholic Christianity and the West African tribal religions brought over by the slaves taken from their homes and sold into slavery in the New World. Several other of the Caribbean and South American "creole" religions have similar historical origins.)

When I was 13, I read Huston Smith's classic and irreplaceable overview of world belief systems, The Religions of Man. I also read a wonderful anthology titled The Choice Is Always Ours, which remains an important if little-known anthology of the universal human search for meaning and spirit. The anthology features thematically-organized excerpts from several hundred wisdom thinkers, ranging from psychology, to poetry, to scriptures from every mystical tradition, to quotes from religious teachers. The overall theme of the anthology was that there are many tributaries to the one river that is the human quest for wholeness, for oneness, for sacredness; yet all these tributaries truly lead to one ocean, the same ocean, the waters of our birth and life. The anthology was the first time I ever encountered Meister Eckhart's sayings, and Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry, and Carl Jung's psychological writings. Each of these encounters led to eventual thorough readings and re-readings of their collected works. The anthology opened many doors in my thinking; I can truly say that it changed my life, and continues to influence my perception of and thoughts about spirituality in general.

When I was 13, having read and absorbed The Choice Is Always Ours and The Religions of Man, two books that started me down a path of reading comparative religion and mysticism that I've never ceased pursuing, I began to sense, somehow, that all of the world's religious traditions, in their apparently irreconcilable diversity, also spoke to one single human quest for truth and Oneness with the Divine. By whatever name we call the gods, or god, by whatever "masks of god" we known them, there is something unitary and singular at the heart of it all.

So many wars have been fought over religious disagreements, which people are willing to die for, yet at the heart of every religion is the simply human encounter with mysticism, with revelation, with Mystery, with the Divine One. At the heart of each of the great religions there is a mystical core, an experience of Oneness, that is something that's available to every human being who has ever been born. It is our birthright as a species. All the rest is local detail.

So, when I was 13, I consciously and deliberately set out to discover the "oldest religion," the one that pre-dated all the existing ones, that was the oldest known human encounter with Mystery, and its unfolding. I set myself on a quest for the oldest truths that underlay all the more recent truths that everyone took for granted as eternal. Well, I didn't take them for granted, I wanted to look underneath and behind. In the church my family went to every Sunday, I was already looking for the man behind the curtain. There were doctrines, I had already figured out, that were not directly from revelation of the encounter with Mystery, but were human interpretations—and humans were prone to error, to hubris, to using religion for political ends, and worse. I had already seen all of this and understood it; although I would not have been able to formulate it the way I can now, years later.

I had already sensed that most religious rituals were habitual rather than inspired. That they were hollow if they were not heartfelt. That many took comfort from the ritual itself, and that the content of the ritual didn't really matter. I already knew that figures in authority were not to be trusted or depended upon—because I had learned from having been bullied that those in authority were often clueless or tacitly complicit.

What I later came to realize was that I was seeking the spiritual technology that is our human birthright, that is as old as our species, through which we have always been able to communicate with the non-physical planes of existence. I came to realize that I was seeking out those practices that underlie all religious practices: those means of connecting with the Divine, in whatever form It takes, or we conceptualize It as. The essentials of worship and dialogue. The root forms and the original experiences. Those things that probably had made us human, to begin with, and which were older than civilization. Those spiritual practices that are so old, so central, that perhaps they define us as human.

So I began to read in all the world's religions. I began to read everyone's scriptures and interpretations—and I do mean everyone. I've always been a fast reader, and I dug in deep. I read anthropology, folklore, ethnomusicology—which I majored in, later, in graduate school. I read psychology, theology, philosophy. I was a teenager in the 1970s, which was the beginning of the so-called New Age, and the personal development movements; it was the flowering of spiritual experimentation in the West, following the release of formerly unknown mystical texts from both East and West into the mainstream. So I read all of that, too. (In my library there are a lot of spirituality and psychology paperbacks from the 60s and 70s; many of these books seem to be relatively unknown these days, which is a loss in my opinion. Many of these books, I freely admit, molded and shaped my personal spirituality, and gave me the tools to understand and explain my own visionary experiences, and personal and idiosyncratic spiritual exercises.)

I found clues everywhere. I found a sense of how personal creativity is linked to divine Creation, from books like Rollo May's The Courage to Create and Matthew Fox's Original Blessing. I found some clues towards uncovering a core spiritual technology from Zen Buddhism, from the contemporary neo-pagan religions such as Wicca, from the Native American peoples of North America. (I know Turtle Island to be my true home, where I am rooted, if anywhere, even though I was also raised in Hindu and Buddhist India.)

Eventually those clues started to weave together into threads, and the threads began to weave themselves together into a tapestry—a bit frayed at the edges, at times, but nonetheless containing patterns that were consistent and revelatory.

I continued to have visionary and mystical experiences, from which I received guidance and inspiration. I have continued to do so. The earliest ones I can remember, I was probably 5 years old, when my family was still living in southern India. I can't remember any period of my life when some sort of visionary experience or altered state of consciousness has not been available to me, when I needed it. And there have been periods when the visions were taking over my life, and throwing me off-balance to the point where coping with "ordinary" reality was extremely challenging.

It's really funny if you think about it, and I doubt that the phone company cares that you forgot to pay your monthly bill because you were off somewhere having a vision! The biggest problem that I have sometimes had to cope with—and I am not at all alone in this—is being a mystic without a monastery: that is, having to cope with everyday life while not being divorced from it, not being off in a cloister somewhere where your needs are taken care of, where you have all the time you need to have visions and to engage in contemplative prayer. It's really funny, too, that all my life I've been given these visions, when there are probably monks off in a Carthusian monastery somewhere who have been praying all their long lives for something that comes so easily to me. Believe me, I don't take that for granted. I find it really funny, and I also am grateful for it, and humbled by it. There's a saying: "God is an iron." An iron is someone who commits irony. The Divine is nothing if not ironic and paradoxical, most of the time. Half of the challenge of growing up, spiritually, is figuring out that the gods want to laugh with us, not at us.

My experience and my research began to guide me to what I'd been looking for all along: shamanism.

Shaman's Dance

Within a few years of beginning my quest for the original religion, I came across shamanism, which comparative religion and mythology scholar Mircea Eliade, in his seminal book Shamanism, labeled as "archaic techniques of ecstasy." By now no doubt almost everyone has heard of shamanism; and, possibly, some who have bothered to read this far into this essay have taken an experiential workshop in shamanic practices. But in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly anyone knew of shamanism but scholars and anthropologists; shamanism had not yet gone mainstream. It was not a subject generally well-known or understood; I sometimes feel that it remains that way.

Shamanism is a form of spiritual technology as old as humanity—at least 40,000 years old, based on the evidence of the shamanic art left to us in cave paintings, pictographs, burial sites, and other surviving archaeological materials. Shamanism is practices of healing, of knowledge-seeking, of community-binding, that interact with the spirits all around us, and the Divine, to bring that knowledge and healing into everyday life.

All about the same time, around my twentieth year, I ran across lots of material on shamanism. I discovered books by Joan Halifax, Michael Harner, and several others: books that were moving at that moment from the purely academic shelves and onto the popular shelves. A lot work and wisdom has come into print on shamanism since then, and the shelf has grown from three or four key books, which remain key books, to several shelves of books ranging in quality and usefulness from beginner introductions all the way up to advanced healing work. None of us discovered this work alone; it was in the air, and a lot of people came to it at the same time. I make no claims for being a prodigy of quest, when it was more a matter of my personal needs being met by the world, when many in the world were searching for the same things.

Since there is now so much available to read on shamanism—most of it following on the heels of the contributions of those like Eliade, Harner, and Halifax, and often simply recycling their findings—I won't give a list of books here. Such lists are easy to find, nowadays.

Instead, what I'll say is that the shamanic worldview, which is remarkable and universally similar no matter where or when it comes from, is one that I now live by on a daily basis. It's my monastery, if you will. The shamanic worldview is the framework which gave me understanding of myself, my visionary experiences, and both my needs and my purpose in life. I interact with those other realities every day; usually very quietly and simply, with no drama or fanfare or announcement. Nothing is more ordinary.

My attitude about spiritual technology is that of an engineer of energetic anatomy and energetic interaction. My mindset is not mechanistic, however, but very organic, intuitive, and adaptive.

The point is: Shamanism is personal, and experiential. It is even experimental, in the scientific or engineering sense of the word: you try something, and if it works, you develop on it. You learn from experience, and any wisdom you accumulate is based more on experience than on any other mode of learning.

One universal truth that all the mystics tell us is that: Everything is always changing all the time. Nothing remains static, not even the dead. And everything that is, is alive. Everything. The Universe is a living being, and all its parts are alive. When you can feel that, know that, sense that, every day, in your bones as well as in your mind, you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about.

And since everything is alive, it all deserves our respect, our love, and our compassion. We are given amazing gifts of grace, once we tune into this. And there is no greater gift than to give it all back, thereby increasing the Universe's own constantly creative growth and change.

Shaman, from Spiral Dance

Thus my own search for the original religion—although "religion" is no longer the applicable term—was satisfied. This is a search I still pursue, still experience and practice, and see no end to the roads it has led me to discover. I continue to research, learn, and have experiences. I can say this for experience: given enough practice, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. I don't mean that it becomes bland or mundane. Rather, it become something you just deal with, daily, without making it into some big deal with a lot of drama or bells and whistles around it. You just live your life, as before, while being simultaneously aware of those other planes of existence going on around you at the same time. You pay attention to messages that come from those other planes, no matter what form they take—the ability to recognize those messages is something only experience can teach you—and you work with what you're given, and given to do, with what lands on your plate every day, and a little bit more. It's a life that's full of paradox and contradiction, yet those contradictions and paradoxes are held in dynamic balance by Mystery, on some higher plane of order and meaning. You don't always get to know what's going on, and you don't always get to know the end of every story you're a part of, however temporarily. You learn to embrace that. After all, Unknowing can be as great a power in your life as knowing.

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for providing by far the funniest sentence I've come across yet this year--"well frack that."

11:47 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My pleasure. Although you really need to thank the writers of "Battlestar Galactica," who came up with it as all-purpose swear-word that would get by the censors' sensors. Being a big BSG fan myself, I've found myself using it more and more as time goes on. It's a very useful word. Especially if you imagine it being mouthed off by Starbuck.

1:28 PM  

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