liberation and the imagination

Posted on: Sat, 04/17/2010 - 00:17 By: Tom Swiss

(This is a long one, and wanders all over the place, but I still think there's a good idea or two in here...)

For the past few days I've been re-reading Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! Trilogy. It's a psychedelic romp chock-full of quotable bits, but there's one in particular that's echoed in my head:

"Freedom won't come through Love, and it won't come through Force. It will come through the Imagination."

This seems to me an important enough idea that it ought to have a name. So I hereby dub it the "First Law of Political-Artistic Liberation" -- FLOPAL, to give it a snappy (?) acronym.

What is the argument for the validity of the FLOPAL? Shea and Wilson explain a little later on in the book, in a discussion between the characters Hagbard Celine and Simon Moon, as they wait for the cops and the tear gas in Chicago in 1968:

"Chairman Mao didn't say half of it," Hagbard replied holding a handkerchief to his own face. His words came through muffled: "It isn't only political power that grows out of the barrel of a gun. So does a whole definition of reality. A set. And the action that has to happen on that particular set and on none other."

"Don't be so bloody patronizing," I objected, looking around a corner in time and realizing this was the night I would be Maced. "That's just Marx: the ideology of the ruling class becomes the ideology of the whole society."

"Not the ideology. The Reality." He lowered his handkerchief. "This was a public park until they changed the definition. Now, the guns have changed the Reality. It isn't a public park. There's more than one kind of magic."

"Just like the Enclosure Acts," I said hollowly. "One day the land belonged to the people. The next day it belonged to the landlords."

"And like the Narcotics Acts," he added. "A hundred thousand harmless junkies became criminals overnight, by Act of Congress, in nineteen twenty-seven. Ten years later, in thirty-seven, all the pot-heads in the country became criminals overnight, by Act of Congress. And they really were criminals, when the papers were signed. The guns prove it. Walk away from those guns, waving a joint, and refuse to halt when they tell you. Their Imagination will become your Reality in a second."

Much of the "Reality" of human experience is created by Authority. And not just the social and legal aspects -- a few hundred years ago, the physical "Reality" that the Earth was the center of the Universe was enforced by putting Galileo under arrest. Eighty-five years ago, the Tennessee legislature and courts used the guns and clubs and cages at their disposal to create the biological "Reality" that Homo sapiens was not related to apes. And just a few years ago, the Bush II administration used its Authority to create a geophysical "Reality" in which human activity is not affecting the climate.

Even though all these Authorities are gone, substantial numbers of people still dwell in the Realities they created.

Authority is hard-wired into the human brain. We are a pack species, programmed to respond to the alphas. As the famous Milgram experiment showed, our natural submission to Authority will get otherwise sane and ordinary people to commit acts of torture. Or consider how in over 70 cases, a telephone caller posing as a cop was able to use his bogus aura of authority manipulate managers and employees of fast food restaurants into performing strip searches and other abusive acts. Authority, like gravity, warps space around it: and like gravity, when concentrated to the extreme, will form a black hole that tears up everything in reach.

What can fight Authority? What can break its Realities, disperse its warp?

Starwood at Wisteria July 6-12

Posted on: Mon, 03/01/2010 - 12:46 By: Tom Swiss

At long last, the decision is in: after being (rudely, IMHO) booted out of its long-term home at the Brushwood Folklore Center, this year's Starwood Festival will be held at Wisteria in Pomeroy, Ohio, July 6-12.

That's pretty much due west of Baltimore, so hopefully should be warmer than Sherman, NY, where nighttime temperatures can drop into the 40s in July! It's about the same drive time, if Google Maps can be believed.

(I had a conflict in the that my karate school has a retreat scheduled that weekend, but I've learned that that event has already filled up. So it's looking good for me to be at Starwood.)

on love, death, and pain

Posted on: Thu, 02/11/2010 - 10:50 By: Tom Swiss

As I tweeted about a week ago, the first draft of the book is done. (Except for checking one footnote, for which I await an amazon.com order...and given the snow I don't expect a mail delivery until next week!)

A few weeks ago, Elissa asked me if I had done any writing about Piccolo's passing, and I told her I planned to work something into the book. So here's that. Not including the copious appendix, these are the closing words, following on a discussion of life and death and reincarnation and anatman:

It’s now January 2010, a few years after the trip to Japan that started this book. As I have been concluding work on it in the past few months, death has come and paid me a visit, taking the two dogs who were my close companions for over twelve years.

People are much more forthcoming with questions and advice when you lose a dog than when you lose a parent or a spouse or a child. And so friends have been asking me, “Will you get another dog?” (Compare the questions “Will you marry again?” or “Will you have another child?”, which we often wonder about but seldom ask the bereaved spouse or parent.) Many have suggested that I do so – some even to the point of implying that grief is something to avoid, that I should fill the void as soon as possible.

Another advisor, though, pointed out that taking another dog into my life will just have me back in this same place of grief some years down the road. And this is true – but it is also true for any relationship. Every connection we make eventually ends with us saying good-bye, from one side of the grave or the other.

The only way to avoid that grief would be to never love – an even greater tragedy. I am reminded of an aphorism attributed to author John A. Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Just so, a heart that never loves is safe from the pangs of grief; but that’s not what hearts are for.

And so the death of a loved one (two-footed or four-footed) is a reminder of the grief that is common to us all, a call to tenderness, a call to open the heart and let the whole Cosmos in.
As I knew that my second dog, Piccolo, was in failing health and likely to pass on soon, I wrote this prose poem:

The snow is gone. Where did it go to? There were billions of snowflakes, in my backyard, each perfectly detailed, dazzling faceted. Now they have gone, and my yard is mud.

Did they go to snowflake heaven? Did they reincarnate as packed powder on some ski slope?

Each snowflake was a nexus of conditions, of water and temperatures and altitudes of clouds. Each snowflake was a mass of Arctic air, plus an ocean breeze, plus a low pressure system. Each snowflake contained the cycle of seasons, the tilt of the Earth's axis, the deep ocean currents that make the climate, the Milankovitch cycles that make the Ice Ages. And more: the formation of the Earth itself, the Sun, the element of oxygen born in a dying star, the hydrogen that condensed out of the Big Bang, the whole universe in each snowflake.

And then those elements move apart, no longer overlap and the snowflake cannot be seen. But it is not gone, because the seasons, the Earth, the Sun, the Universe, remain.

And what is true for a snowflake, is no less true for a dog or a human. We are the snow that appears when conditions are just so, and then melts and goes into the soil, and is taken up by trees and grasses, and rises to become the cloud skittering across the sky, and then falls to become the stream and the ocean and the puddle, part of other sets of conditions, each glorious and beautiful. We melt into the world, and our oneness with it – which never went away – is again revealed.

And this oneness is also revealed when we open our hearts, remove the boundaries, and let death remind us of our own tender Buddha nature.

it's official: we are going crazy, and we're exporting it to the world

Posted on: Tue, 01/12/2010 - 13:00 By: Tom Swiss

A recent study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge looked at Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test results for high school and college students from 1938 through 2007. (The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.) The MMPI is one of, if not the, most popular personality tests, which measures (or claims to measure) people's mental health along ten different axes.

Twenge found that in 2007, five times as many people surpassed the threshold to be considered to have mental health issues as did in 1938. Especially high were the increases in hypomania and depression. And this doesn't even consider the vast numbers of people taking antidepressants and other meds that alleviate the symptoms the MMPI asks about.

Now, add to the fact that as a nation we're going crazy, the fact that we're exporting our model of mental health to the rest of the world. We've been aggressively preaching that "mental illnesses" should be considered a "brain disease", in the theory that this would help remove the stigma around them.

According to the research of Professor Sheila Mehta of Auburn University, though, this in not actually the result: considering mental illness as a neurological defect actually tends to make other people treat the sufferer less kindly. Mehta has actually studied how other people treat those they believe have a "brain disease", versus those who they believe have a psychosocial problem. She says, “Viewing those with mental disorders as diseased sets them apart and may lead to our perceiving them as physically distinct. Biochemical aberrations make them almost a different species.”

This may be why schizophrenics in the United States and Europe, where the "brain disease" idea holds sway, have a significantly higher relapse rate than those in other countries. More "primitive" notions of mental illness may actually help keep the troubled individual in the social group, and religious beliefs that attribute their problem to "evil spirits" or somesuch may allow for calmness and acquiescence and a less stressful response.

why Daniel Pinchbeck needs a smack upside his head

Posted on: Sun, 01/10/2010 - 21:49 By: Tom Swiss

This is probably going to piss off some of my friends. But best to get it out of the way now, rather then whatever future time my book is published.

I'm including a chapter in my book-in-progress about the dark underbelly of the spiritual quest. The idea, basically, is

There is an old aphorism, often attributed to Otto von Bismarck, that those who love sausages or the law should never watch either being made. I've always disagreed with this -- if people saw the truth behind the production of these things, we'd have many more vegetarian anarchists, which would seem to me a positive development.

And so it is too with religion and spirituality. The hazards of cults, superstitions, delusions, hypocrisy, and manipulation are very real. A peek behind the scenes of both ancient traditions and the modern cults of personality around self-help gurus and peddlers of enlightenment-lite, is an unpleasant but necessary requirement for spiritual health.

In this chapter I talk about scandals in Zen (Japanese and American), about Chögyam Trungpa's misbehavior, about sex scandals in the Pagan community, and about some new age-y sort of "Plastic Shamans and Goofy Gurus". And one of the folks I deal with under that heading is Daniel Pinchbeck.

I first mentioned Pinchbeck over three years ago, when Rolling Stone profiled him. I was not impressed, but I didn't give it much more thought than that.

A year or so after that, my good friend Robin Gunkel, whose opinion I regard highly, met him at Burning Man and she was impressed. So I suspended judgment -- maybe the Rolling Stone profile was an unfair hatchet job. That happens.

Robin has since become involved with Evolver, a social network arising out of Pinchbeck's blog, "Reality Sandwich". I've gone to several events put on by the Baltimore "spore" of Evolver, and heard some good discussions.

But with that said, when I sat down to look more deeply into Daniel Pinchbeck, what I found was not favorable. Here's a first draft of the section about him that will go into my book.

Daniel Pinchbeck is the guy probably most responsible for kicking off the idea that some great transformation is going to occur in 2012. In his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, he claims to have received "transmissions" from the Mayan deity Quetzalcoatl telling him about this momentous event. An excerpt from these transmissions:

Happy Solstice!

Posted on: Mon, 12/21/2009 - 21:30 By: Tom Swiss

Happy Solstice to all!

As I've been working on my book recently, I've been researching a chapter about Shinto, which has a wonderful myth about the sun's return:

Susanoo-no-Mikoto, a storm god, was the brother of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. He was also a bit of a trickster and a rude fellow, and finally his antics so angered Amaterasu Omikami that she went and hid in a cave, and closed the opening off with a huge rock.

With the sun gone, everything got dark (duh), and living things began to wither. All the kami, the spirits, tried to lure her back out. Finally, Ama-no-Uzume, the goddess of merriment, got an idea. She hung a mirror on a tree, a started an erotic and uproarious dance! The kami laughed so loud that Amaterasu got curious, and stuck her head out. She saw her own reflection in the mirror, but didn't recognize herself -- she thought this was a new kami and, fascinated, came out of the cave.

So, remember -- around the Winter Sostice, be sure to laugh lots and party hearty to help trick the sun out of her cave and bring back the light and warmth!

buy stock in Shaolin

Posted on: Thu, 12/17/2009 - 16:18 By: Tom Swiss

Ugh. The Chinese government agency that handles tourism at the Shaolin temple, is going to take the Shaolin "brand" into the stock market.

I say again: ugh.

Shaolin is not just the setting for kung-fu dramas. It is -- or rather, was, prior to the murderous reign of Mao -- a real temple, regarded as the birthplace of Ch'an/Zen Buddhism. Legend has it that 1,500 years ago, Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen, came from India (or maybe Persia) and ended up at Shaolin, where he spent several years in seated meditation, staring at the wall of a cave. He supposedly found the monks at Shaolin too weak to endure the rigors of his style of meditation, so introduced a set of exercises (presumably with some origin from yoga) that became the basis of kung fu/wushu and, later, karate, and also of qi gong and Asian bodywork therapies. (It's a good myth, but any connection to actual historical events is probably coincidental.)

Modern "Shaolin kung fu" is an impressive array of acrobatics that has fsck-all to do with Zen, wushu, or everyone's favorite red-bearded barbarian.

Pity the poor temple, ravaged decades ago by Maoism, and now by capitalism.

I say once more time: ugh.

Starwood sadness

Posted on: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 23:03 By: Tom Swiss

I just learned today that the Association for Consciousness Exploration's Starwood festival -- one of the largest Neo-Pagan gatherings in the country and an event which I have attended for a decade -- has lost its longtime home at the Brushwood Folklore Center.

(See previous posts about Starwood here and here and here and here.)

ACE plans to relocate Starwood, and Brushwood plans its own summer festival for the time that was occupied by Starwood.

It is a tremendously sad day for the Pagan community. Something that was very special to many of us has been lost. Perhaps something new, and even better, will come along out the relocation of Starwood and the new summer festival; but that's a hope for the future, while the fact of the present is mourning a great loss.

ACE is the yang that energized the yin of Brushwood to make the magic of Starwood. When yang and yin separate, the result is death. Which is, of course, in the long run just a transformation; but it is still a cause for grief.

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