Things Fall Apart: Why We Think Everything’s Getting Worse

Most Americans, year after year, continue to think that the country is on the wrong track. The older you are (i.e, the more experienced you are, and the more of history you’ve seen), the more likely you are to think everything is falling apart. And it’s not just in America: worldwide, people tend to think things are getting worse. And it’s undeniable that the world is facing horrible problems: climate change, pollution, terrorism, income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing in your own life. I don’t mean to be depressing here… but how many times have you failed to change a habit, or break an addiction? How many of your jobs have fallen through? How many times have you had to move away from your home? How many pets have you lost? How many of your friendships and relationships have failed, or faded away in distance or time? How many people you’ve loved are gone forever?

Almost all of us have tragic answers to those questions. The things we love in our lives always end; the patterns we love endlessly unravel.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

In nature, things unravel, too. But there, something else is always raveling up to take its place. Trees die, but their tall standing snags — monuments to themselves — are colonized by armies of insects, fungi, and other critters, which in turn become feasts for woodpeckers and other animals. And when the snags finally fall, they become nurse logs for the next generation of trees, nourishing a richer, more diverse forest.

A tree’s death is a catastrophe, but it’s also what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: a sort of deus ex machina, except that instead of a god swooping in from on high at the last minute to save everything, it’s a sudden unexpected change in fortune that’s consistent with the established framework of the milieu. It’s a miraculous redemption that arises inevitably from the world itself.

Oftentimes, a eucatastrophe is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals (humans, bugs, plants… doesn’t matter), each working for their own benefit or the benefit of their local community. Individually, each effort is barely noticeable, but when they’re added up, profound changes take place. Since these small efforts are self-directed, it can be extremely difficult to see what the final aggregate result will be, and whether it will, in the end, be good or bad.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. – Elrond, in the Fellowship of the Ring

So perhaps things look like they’re unraveling simply because we don’t have the complete picture. We as a species are young, and our vision is limited. We sometimes glimpse things that might happen, but for the most part, we only see the present and the past. It’s no wonder that most of what we see seems to be dying or dead.

The core of the problem, really, is that we can so rarely see patterns before they emerge. And so the world seems to be falling into disorder, and our lives seem to be full of endings, with precious few new beginnings.

It is an illusion, though. A new order is rising up, but we can’t see it. This is why eucatastrophes are surprising.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Oftentimes we can see the re-raveling only in hindsight. Human history is littered with dire disasters and intractable problems: the ‘population bomb’, the end of oil, war, the nuclear holocaust, monarchy, illiteracy, slavery… But it’s an undeniable fact that most of these problems have gotten better over the last few hundred years. Not solved — not by a long shot; even one person enslaved is a terrible tragedy. But better. Most problems, like human rights violations and non-renewable energy, have been improved through long years of thankless toil. Many others, like slavery in the US, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some, like the falling rates of crime and warfare worldwide, have just been slowly eroding away, though no one really knows why. And a few, like the hegemonic Soviet Union, have ended in a completely unexpected eucatastrophe.

This happens in one’s own life as well. I’ve left behind friends in six different cities, lost three jobs, lost a marriage… Many of these changes left me wondering whether everything I’d worked and struggled for was gone forever. But of course, I made friends in the seventh city, scored that fourth job, and found a true soul partner. After 40+ years of life I’m finally starting to glimpse the larger tapestry sometimes. There are still problems and tragedies I struggle with, but someday — sooner, perhaps, than I can see — they will pass, too.

Seeing the Raveling

How can we get better at seeing patterns before they’re fully formed?

First, practice. Look for the raveling. Too often we focus only on what is going wrong, or what we fear will go wrong. This is instinctive. As embodied beings, it’s natural to be wary, to watch for danger. But take time to look for what is going right, or what might go right, and focus on that as well. The old saying is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst; and both parts of that are important.

Also, study history. Look at how eucatastrophes happened. Most people were surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed, when monarchies ended, and so on — but the writing was on the wall for decades. What writing is on the wall now?

Trust your gut. Your conscious mind has access to only a small part of your complete consciousness. Your subconscious is always looking for patterns, and usually sees the big changes coming. Meditation, and talking to guides, can help.

And finally, have some faith. One of the things I struggle with personally, as a Druid, is what Alison calls the ‘Problem of Justice’. Just as Christians wonder why God permits evil in the world, we who follow a nature-based spirituality wonder what is natural and what is unnatural, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good. When you see an oil spill or a huge parking lot and you feel a visceral revulsion or sorrow, your body is telling you that it is unnatural, wrong, evil — especially when compared with a forest or pristine river. But obviously humans are part of the natural world, and what we do is natural; so in a sense, an oil spill or parking lot is natural too. So why are we always tearing things down, causing mass extinctions, and fouling the waters? How can these things be “natural”, how can they be “good”?

And it’s not just humanity. When beavers flood a forest, felling and drowning dozens of trees, or when wolves disembowel an encroaching coyote and defecate around its body as a warning to the others, we have the same problem:

Many earth-centered spiritualities look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness… How should we respond to them? — Alison Leigh Lilly

The resolution of these paradoxes (both the Druid paradox and the Christian one) may, in part, lie in our limited human understanding. Maybe we just can’t yet see how the evils of the world will be woven into the larger pattern of beauty. In nature, always, there is a subtle, organic order at work. Problems turn out to be blessings; tragedies plant the seeds of triumphs. Even in truly awful situations — such as a forest fire — there is a hidden raveling. Underbrush is cleared out, soil is renewed, seeds are germinated, diversity is increased, and diseases are cleared away. Forests periodically burn as naturally as the cycle of the seasons. Maybe what we see today as injustice is part of a great invisible cycle.

It can be hard to have faith, to believe in rebirth, when all you can see is death. But something wonderful is being born, right now. Study, sit in silence, and wait, and you will see it.

Hummingbird on a snowy branch

Meditation: Animist Consecration

Last night my awesome wife Ali and I joined in a set of consecration ceremonies at our Unitarian Universalist church. Along with the Reverend’s UU blessing and our friend Chris’s Wiccan consecration, we demonstrated a Druid / Animist method of connecting with an object.

I say “connecting with” an object instead of “consecrating” because in our tradition, all things are sacred. We cannot imbue an object with holiness. It is already holy. What we can do is recognize the sacredness of the object, and enter into relationship with it (or deepen our existing relationship). We do this by sitting with the object, touching it, and listening for its voice in the Song of the World.

I wrote a meditation to guide this process, and it seemed to go well, so here it is in full:

Animist Consecration Meditation

Sit and relax. Take a deep breath… and release. As you breathe out, let all your tension melt away. Relax your shoulders, relax your neck, relax your eyes. Take another deep breath… and release. Imagine that a wave of warm golden light is slowly rising in your body, starting in your feet, rising up through your legs, up into your torso. The warm golden light fills your body, down your arms and into your fingers, up to the top of your head… Let your body sink, growing heavier. Your arms and legs have become heavy and settle comfortably.

Now turn your attention gently to the object in your hands. Feel its weight there. Imagine that, like your body, it is becoming heavier. Feeling its weight and heft pressing in your hands helps you relax further. … Feel its texture. Is it hard? Soft? Smooth? How does it respond when you apply gentle pressure? … Feel the temperature of the object in your hands. Perhaps it has responded to the warmth of your body, becoming warmer as you’ve been holding it.

Think about history of the object. Where did it come from? How did it come into this room? How did it come into your possession? Do you know who else has held this object, if anyone else ever has? Was it crafted by a person, or by a machine, or is it completely natural? How long ago was it made? Where did the materials of the object come from? From an animal? A plant? If so, what do you know about those living beings, and the lives they led? Did they live nearby, experiencing the same summers and winters and rains as ourselves? Or did they live far away, in a distant land, under different stars? Has it been under the sea? Did it come from the earth, crafted from stone or crystal, formed millions of years ago?

Imagine what it must have been like to experience the history of this object — from the time of its making down to the present day. Think about what it must be like to be the object, now, today, surrounded by us in this warm and sacred space, being held and warmed by your hands.

Feel the warmth of the object again. The object has responded to the heat in your hands. The heat in the object is nothing more nor less than vibration; its atoms and molecules have begun to vibrate along with the atoms and molecules of your hand. If your ears were sensitive enough, you would be able to hear the vibration of the object in the air. Hold it tightly and feel the warmth. If it were making an audible sound, what would it be? Would it be high-pitched, or low? Would it be a single constant tone, or a chord of notes? A monotone, or a tune? …

Hear that sound in your mind. Focus on it.

Now, in a moment, when you are ready and comfortable, respond to the song of the object, in whatever way feels right. Maybe you want to hum along with it, or provide a bass or counterpoint. Maybe what is called from you is a chant, or a whisper. Sit with your object, listen to it, and respond. Sing the song of the world with your object.

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The Mind of a Rock: Musings on Orr’s ‘Wakeful World’

For thousands of years, Western civilization has been living with a striking paradox. On the one hand, we are clearly physical beings living in a physical universe. And yet, we have these thoughts, feelings, dreams, and perceptions… They seem related to the physical universe, yet fundamentally different in character. We have an ‘inner’ life, which has its own colors and sounds and structure, operating under a whole different set of rules. In the physical world, I’m 3500 miles from where my body was born; but my mind instantly recalls the name of the state, county, and town where that happened, and gives the exact date and time. And yet, since I have no memory of the actual event, in a way my mind can never go there at all — it’s as though I can visit the post office box instantly, but never get to the house itself.

futureneopaganismiiMind and body seem so different that it’s almost as if they belong to separate worlds entirely. No doubt this is why it’s been so easy for so many people to believe in a ‘soul’, a mind that can be separated from the body and continue its life, in its inner world, long after the body has died — or even enter another body entirely. This despite the fact that the mind is obviously affected by physical events: it becomes sluggish and unfocused when the body is tired or sick, and it can lose memory or skills or even suffer a change of personality if the brain is injured or chemically affected.

Over time, two main camps have formed around this paradox. The first, as I’ve mentioned, believe that the soul or mind is separate from the physical body, and is fundamentally made of a different kind of stuff; and when the body dies, it moves on to some other realm, or finds another body. The second camp believes that the body creates the ‘mind’, perhaps analogously to the way a computer executes instructions in a computer program, or the way a flautist plays a melody. The mind — the ‘inner world’ — is generated by the brain and will come to an end when the brain stops working, just as a melody stops when the flautist puts down the instrument.

In ‘The Wakeful World’, Emma Restall Orr tackles this paradox, and (1) shows that both the solutions above are lacking in serious ways, (2) points out a third solution — indeed, a multitude of other solutions, which have been suggested at one time or another over the past few thousand years, and (3) offers her own take on the problem. In this article I’m mainly going to skip over (1) and (2), since there’s no way I could do Orr’s treatment justice, and instead briefly (and necessarily crudely) describe some aspects of (3) and look at some things that follow from it. In particular, Orr’s take not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind.[Continue Reading…]

The Sea and the Soul

The Proto Indo Europeans of the steppe near the Black Sea had no word for “ocean”. They had mori or mari, meaning “lake” or “sea,” but this most likely referred to the sparkling quality of its surface (cf PIE mer, “clear, sparkle”) and did not carry connotations of vast continent-wrapping waters. When the Indo Europeans started moving and trading around Eurasia, riding their horses and carts and spreading their culture wherever they went, they often found they needed a word for “ocean.” Usually they simply borrowed the word of whoever happened to be living nearby.

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The Song of Self

A puzzle: Do you exist?

Descartes famously answered this one by saying cogito, ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Is it true, though? Does “thinking” have to be attached to a “thinker”? And what is “thinking” (cogitare) anyway?

For Christians, the Self definitely exists, and is in fact eternal: after you die, your soul continues on — perhaps in heaven, perhaps in hell, perhaps in some other intermediate state, depending on your sect. Obviously, death is a great change; but not so great that the individual selfhood is destroyed. The thinker, and the thinking, goes on forever.

For the Buddhists, the existence of the Self is one of the great illusions of the world. This belief is one of the trickiest of Buddhist tenets to wrap one’s mind around and really come to terms with, and is easily misunderstood. But although I’m no longer Buddhist, I think the Buddhist conception of self is very close to correct, and a good grasp of it is essential to the way I try to live my life as a druid.

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Sphere, Spirit, Stone

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Sphere

Sphere comes from the beautiful Greek word sphaira, which meant “globe” or “ball”. By the time it entered Middle English around 1300, it was spelled spere and referred only to the crystalline sphere believed to surround the world. By 1390, its meaning had extended to its original and modern sense. In Shakespeare’s time, when spellings were becoming standardized, the “h” was added back in and the pronunciation changed to reflect its distinguished Greek pedigree.

Sphere is a ball of energy. It starts with directed energy (”s”) that is completely free (”f”) — perhaps indicating that it can go in all three dimensions. The energy continues for an extended period (long “e”) with great force (”r”). The sound of the word sphere thus seems to imply expansion.

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Meeting the Dream Master

When I first laid eyes on the Dream Master, he was Death.

athenaeum2008zIn meditation, I had rowed my boat out to the Island of Smoke (a place in my Inner Landscape where I frequently go to ask things of gods and spirits), and docked it in its usual spot along the rocky, pine-forested shore. It’s a short walk up the sandy path to the clearing where I light virtual fires and give virtual sacrifices, calling to the great ones to hear my pleas and grant my prayers.

Who is the Dream Master? Easily told — he is the one who brings dreams. Maybe you know him better as the Sandman. He decides what dreams you will have, and when you’ll have them. He is your guide through the one third of your life you spend asleep.

I’ve had an odd relationship with sleep for the past few years. I tend to do pretty well with it — I fall asleep easily. Then I stay asleep a good long while (usually eight or nine hours). I can frequently “program” myself to wake up at a time of my choosing (though not so reliably that I can give up my alarm clock). I can nap for fifteen or twenty minutes and wake up completely refreshed. For about 15 months, I was polyphasic, getting by on as little as three or four hours of sleep per day.

However, I don’t do much work with my dreams — I’m not a lucid dreamer, and usually the meanings of my dreams are pretty mundane. I get a lot more out of meditation.

Nevertheless I had been wondering about the Dream Master for a while, off and on, before it occurred to me that I could try to meet him in “person”.

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Subjective Reality and the Structure of Consciousness

I have lined up a whole lot of little black letters talking about the structure of consciousness, and I imagine that a broad cross-section of both of my faithful readers wonder why on earth I’m wasting so much time on it. The simple answer is that the structure of consciousness is the structure of our experience.

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The Structure of Consciousness III: Imprints of the Fourth Circuit

In my earlier posts on the 8-circuit model, I’ve described some possible imprints on the first, second, and third circuits. According to Wilson and Leary, the first and second circuits can have two imprints. I suggested that the third circuit might have three possible imprints (be sure to read the comments on that post for some insightful discussion by Adam of adamspeace.com). Here, I’m going to talk about imprints on the fourth circuit, and the implications that has for possible human societies. Watch out, I’m going for a record on this one: I’m going to suggest eight possible imprints.

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On Subjective Reality II: the Belief Community Model

As I noted in my previous post, believing in subjective reality as Steve Pavlina defines it requires struggling with some strange and thorny questions, including to what extent you can trust your own memory, how the “rules” of physical reality are learned, and whether you can use the Law of Attraction to generate other conscious beings with true free will. In this post, I’m going to lay out an alternative model that addresses these issues.

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On Subjective Reality I: Strange Questions

I’d like to take a couple of posts to talk about Steve Pavlina’s recent remarkable podcast on subjective reality. Steve tries to explain the Law of Attraction — that is, the observation that your reality strongly reflects your thoughts — by proposing that everything you observe is caused by your own consciousness. In fact, nothing exists outside of yourself. This is a pretty serious break from the belief systems of most folks, and I began to wonder if there were some other way to explain the Law of Attraction — to explain it in a fairly rigerous way, as he tries to do — without accepting the idea that all of reality is simply a reflection of your own personal consciousness. Subjective reality, in Steve’s terms, is consistent, makes few assumptions, and is impossible to refute — but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. There may be other ways to explain the Law consistently, and I want to explore one of them in this series. In this first post, I’ll talk about some of the stranger consequences of Steve’s conception.

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The Structure of Consciousness, Part Two: Astrology

This post is the second part of a series on the integration of several theories about the structure of consciousness. I’m going to charge right into the middle of it here, so make sure you’ve read the first part!

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Neurolinguistic Programming: A Linguist Druid’s Review

As I described in this previous post, one of the requirements of the Magic Spiral in the candidate year in the AODA is to learn about magic through reading and meditation. The books I selected to start with were three on “neurolinguistic programming” by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. I started with Bandler’s book, Use Your Brain for a Change, which is an edited set of lectures from the 1980s, and The Structure of Magic I & II, which were written in the 1970s. Use Your Brain for a Change especially comes highly recommended. As a linguist, I was very interested to see how linguistics would play into these techniques. I’ll lay out some of my thoughts below.

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The Structure of Consciousness, Part One: Archetypes and Circuits

This is the first of a series of posts on how human consciousness is structured. There are dozens of hypotheses from all over the world about how consciousness can be raised, lowered, changed, and so forth. In this series, I’d like to present some of my favorites: mythological archetypes, the Leary eight-circuit model, western astrology, the chakra system, Rudolf Steiner‘s ideas, David Hawkins‘s 12 levels of consciousness, and the Tarot. I’m going to describe them briefly and try to integrate them into a single model. (Then I’m going to try to run a 1.5-minute mile, fly to the moon, and cure cancer. Then I’ll have breakfast.) This is going to be challenging, but fun.

In this first post, I’ll describe Jungian archetypes and the Wilson/Leary eight-circuit model, and show how they may be describing (at least partly) the same thing.

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