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. Read more

The Upper Airs: Layers of Landscapes in Meditation

In meditation I almost always return to an inner landscape which I’ve described in a lot of detail elsewhere, but starting about a year ago I discovered I had access to another world, one that felt like it was directly above the old one — as if it were a mile or two up, floating in the air, invisible.

One of the first times I reached it was when I visited the “Man of the Delta”, who I think may be one of my muses. He is a crooked old man with leathery skin and a wry smile, and he lives in an earthen / adobe tower in the midst of a swampy, sandy delta. When I first visited there, I didn’t know how it was connected to the rest of my inner landscape; but in April of last year I found the path. I was doing a meditation on my fiction writing (which had not been going smoothly) and had drawn the Hermit card. Here are some notes I took at the time.

The Man of the Delta

“I returned to the Hermit’s tower in the Forest of Branching Paths (which I’d first visited last summer, when I was working on that whole ‘deserving success’ issue), and he introduced me to an old man. The old man was old because his energy was spent moving from task to task, never setting his burden down or allowing the gods to carry it for a while. It ran him to age and thus to dust. (Definitely a warning!) What was the alternative? The Hermit pointed me towards a monk, a young man dressed in red with black eyes dotted with stars. He had infinite strength because the gods do his heavy lifting. It’s a matter, the Hermit said, of taking the time to rest, recharge, and allow the gods space to work.

He then showed me a doorway that led to a room where sunlight was falling from high, high above. This room was at the bottom of a tall tower. All up the sides of the tower spiraled a wooden staircase, and I started climbing it. I climbed forever and ever… At last I arrived at the last place I expected — the top of the adobe tower of the Man of the Delta. Everything was pretty much the same there, but now I understood it to be a very ‘high vibration’ place. My sense was that I should visit this area more often, and work with the two men here (who I now understand to be reflexes of the “two” hermits in the tower below).

My big take-away is to allow Spirit to work through me. With rest, exercise, and meditation, the energy will flow and everything will unfold the way it should.”

The Sea-Cedars

Since then I’ve visited other upper, ‘high-vibration’ areas. Sometimes I have to climb up to them; other times I slip into them as soon as I enter meditation. This is how I described it in notes last July:

“It’s usually very misty, and the colors less vivid. Also, it’s harder to ‘see’ things; and I have less freedom of movement. It’s as if I am a ‘child’ here — I can’t see the tops of things or around them without a lot of work, and there are some areas I simply can’t go at all.

There are two areas here I’ve explored. One is the Delta area, which I’ve described before. If I get on a boat on the sea at the edge of the Delta, I’ll arrive at a wooded coastline. The coast is cedar trees I think mostly, with a forest floor coated with needles. The woods are inhabited by beings I think of as ‘elves’, with slate-white robes. They are exceedingly tall and thin. Some are bearded, some have long white or blond hair; they are kindly, and they care for me. They have a home, or complex of homes, here in the trees, which are much like the house at Rivendell in the movie Lord of the Rings. Overall it is a perfect place for relaxing and recuperating, and I get a sense that part of my spirit spends a fair bit of time here, doing just that. There are rooms with cozy fires, and somewhere in it I have a small bedroom where they often tend to me…

By the water, there is a dock or pier area, made of marble. I do not know if vessels ever visit here.

Inland a bit the cedar forest opens up into a huge meadow, and in the grass is a complex ‘henge’ of large white stones. It is definitely astrological in pattern. In the center of it is a tall white stone, which I think has carvings on it — though the mists are always thick here, and I can never visit without my tall white guardians. The central white stone is directly ‘above’ Apollo’s temple in the lower landscape.

Beyond that, I can’t see much of the terrain. I get the impression of forests and mountains beyond the meadow in one direction, and the other way I think there are bona fide deserts, perhaps with tall stony towers like one finds in the American southwest, but I’m not sure. I know it is a region of horses, somehow.”

Seattle Spring

The 2nd week of January, as I mentioned in the Sound article, we flew to Seattle and found our apartment; the third week I had to go to Las Vegas for a business trip; and then the next week we moved away from Pittsburgh. The final week of January we were driving across the country. We spent two nights in Albuquerque, and I particularly felt the touch of the landscape there: as we crossed the continental divide west of the city, it was like I’d tipped over the edge at last and was coming to the Glittering World, as the Navajo call it… And on Feb 1 we rolled into Seattle.

Then there was a lot of unpacking and cleaning and whatnot, and both Alison and I have been a bit off-balance since we arrived. We’ve gotten in touch with some local friends, and taken some long walks in the neighborhoods and parks, and we’re starting to get our bearings and establish some routines.

But one thing that took me completely by surprise was the fact that the higher-vibration landscape is strongly connected with the Pacific Northwest. The forest by the water, with the elvish city and the stone quays — this is the landscape here. The trees are exactly the same as what I saw in meditation — not just in how they look, but in how they feel. I’m not sure about the grassy meadow out beyond the trees, but the white standing stone is some sort of hub, a spiral / web connection with all things. Not the World Tree itself: that I’ve located further out, in the direction of the deserts. But in general, since I got out here, I’ve gotten more of my bearings at this ‘higher’ level, and felt more at home there.

One aspect of the Seattle landscape that was definitely missing from my inner-landscape vision is the white-capped mountains visible to the east and west. They’re not always there, but when the skies are clear they are impossible to miss; and they touch the heart profoundly. For now we’ve only seen them marching in the distance, but at some point we’ll drive out to them and introduce ourselves properly. They are guardians of a sort, I feel; gods, in fact.

Except perhaps Rainier. That one seems older, less friendly… Perhaps less a god than an old earth spirit, a Jotun, a Titan. One to keep an eye on.

 

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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