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Merry Yule: on Santa Claus and pantheism

When I was a wee bitty lad, I - like most of my peers - believed in Santa Claus. I literally believed that there was a guy who lived at the North Pole, and had supernatural abilities, and showed up at our house (through the door, we having no chimney - I can remember asking my parents about this), and ate the cookies we left out, and left my brother and me a bunch of loot under the plastic tree.

Of course, I - like most of my peers - got over that. By the time I was seven or eight, certainly by age 10, I knew that of course there was no Santa. It was our parents! Liars who got their jollies by fooling little kids. A sad, even offensive, state of affairs.

But as I truly grew up, I saw that there was a still something to the "Christmas Spirit". Sure, there wasn't a magic guy with a flying sleigh, etcetera, but there was an aspect of the human experience, a generosity, that we could sensibly personify as the chubby fellow in red. Santa didn't live at North Pole, but in the human heart. Yes, Santa was our parents - humans incarnating a mythological role, each becoming for a moment here and there the avatar of that Christmas Spirit.

Now, when I was a wee bitty lad, I - like most of my peers - believed in God, specifically in the Catholic Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I literally believed that there was a magic guy (well, three guys, sort of, but really one) who lived outside the Universe in Heaven, that he/they had made the world, that he/they had come down and been born as a human 2,000 years ago, the works.

Of course, I - unlike most of my peers - got over that. By the time I was 13 I had rejected Catholic doctrine as a bunch of bunk, and by age 20 I called myself an atheist. Of course there were no gods.

But now, having grown up at least a little bit more, even though I will call myself an atheist in some contexts, I will call myself a pantheist in others. Just as I don't believe in a supernatural being at the North Pole who makes toys, I don't believe in supernatural beings in "Heaven" who made the Universe. But, just as I see a sort of "Christmas Spirit" in human experience and sometimes find it useful to hang the image of Old Saint Nick on that, so I know the mystical experience, and find it useful to hang the image of Pan or Dainichi Buddha or Aphrodite or Shiva or Eris (All hail Discordia!), or even once in a while that poor old carpenter Jeshua ben Joseph, on it. The gods and goddesses live not in some heavenly realm, but in our hearts and minds, in every aspect of human experience.

So, Merry Yule to all. I hope you get a nice chance to be Santa this year - and a nice chance to be god(dess) all the time.

famous torture experiment replicated

Researchers at Santa Clara University have replicated the findings of the famous Milgram experiment, where by using the trappings of authority they were able to get volunteers to administer torturing electrical shocks to innocent people. (The shocks were simulated, the victims actors.)

If you've never heard of the Milgram experiment, you should stop and read about it right now. Unless you're in a burning building, there is nothing more important you can do - without this understanding of authority, little in the world of human action makes sense.

Is this tendency to blindly follow authority just a laboratory artifact? Sure, there's Abu Ghraib, but maybe that was the result of military conditioning.

Sadly, the case of the fast-food joint strip searches demonstrates that very ordinary people will do horribile things on command of authority, in real life without any special training or conditioning. In over 70 cases spanning a decade, a caller was able to manipulate managers and employees of fast food restaurant into performing strip searches and other abusive acts merely by posing as a cop over the telephone.

And this, my friends, is why we must question authority. Make a habit of it.

Kentucky law says "dependence on Almighty God [is] vital to the security of the Commonwealth"

Just in case you thought for a second you were living in a sane country: in Kentucky in 2006, state Rep. Tom Riner, a Southern Baptist minister, got an amendment into homeland security legislation that requires the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security to stress "dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth."

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Riner "said he expects Homeland Security to include language recognizing God's benevolent protection in its official reports and other materials — sometimes the agency does, and sometimes it doesn't — and to maintain a plaque with that message at the state's Emergency Operations Center in Frankfort."

American Atheists and 10 "non-religious" Kentuckians are filing suit to get rid of this bullshit. The suit notes that the 9/11 attacks which led to the founding of Homeland Security departments were carried out by religious fundamentalists, referring to 9/11 as "a faith-based initiative."

new book chapter: It's All In Your Mind

I've put up a rough draft of a new chapter for Why Buddha Touched The Earth. Here's an excerpt:

For believers in the paranormal, all these coincidences and visions and unexplained events are evidence of some sort of supernatural entities or powers. To the skeptical, they are the operation of random chance given meaning by the overeager pattern-recognition circuits of the brain, or illusions or delusions or hallucinations, malfunctions of the sensory nervous system.

From a Zen Pagan perspective, neither of these explanations is satisfactory. The true believer's approach makes claims about the objective universe that don't hold up to controlled experiment and observation. The skeptic's neurological reductionism neglects the fact that most events in the universe occur outside of laboratory controls, and ignores the person to whom the experience is happening. The subjective dimension is flattened out.

When we practice ritual, or engage in meditation, or seek otherwise to alter our consciousness, we expect to see and experience strange and unusual things. To encounter "spirits" or to have some other sort of transpersonal experience after staying up all night dancing or drumming around a bonfire, or fasting for days, or sitting unmoving in mediation for hours at a time, or ingesting strange herbs, or working yourself into a ritual frenzy, is not odd. To the practitioner, these experience are the goal of the work.

Dismissing the experience as "mere delusion" is like calling a performance of Bach fugue a "mere disturbance of air". It is technically correct, and even captures important information - understanding that disturbance of air allows for the proper acoustic design of concert halls, after all. But it misses the aesthetic dimension that makes the whole thing worthwhile.

In the same way, calling a shaman's vision a "hallucination" may be accurate, even useful in certain contexts. (If someone was going to risk their life or well-being on information that came to them in a vision, for example, it would be good to point out that such information is not a reliable guide to objective reality.) But it misses the mystical element, the deep emotional content, of the experience.

Tom's Post-Election Reflections: 2008

Tom's Post-Election Reflections: 2008

My friends,

Four years ago, I sent out a little screed about the disappointment of the 2004 elections ( It seems fitting, after recent events, to send out a follow-up.

So. Wow. This is a new experience. For the first time in my life - all the way back to that "Weekly Reader" mock election in 1976 - the Presidential candidate for whom I voted, has won. (Yes, I voted for Ford when I was six. Ah, the folly of youth.)

Last October, I wrote that Obama and Kucinich were my favorites among the major party candidates, and praised Obama's commonsense take on nuclear disarmament, diplomacy with rival nations, and the demonstration of patriotism by action rather than by jewelry.

Given my history with Presidential candidates, I figured that my positive reaction meant that his campaign was doomed.

As it turned out, somehow this time was different.

Yes, I was disappointed along the way: Obama's backpedaling on marijuana decriminalization, his reversal on FISA, his softening stance on getting us the hell out of Iraq, and his failure to stand up for full legal equality for gay and lesbian couples, saddened me.

I thought about giving my vote to Cynthia McKinney (the Green Party candidate) or Ralph Nader. But in the end, when I marked my ballot next to the name Barack Obama, I felt good. I felt proud.

And on Tuesday I left Maryland and joined thousands of other volunteers in Virginia. I got partnered up with a Navy veteran (a gay submarine veteran, no less!) and we walked around Reston, knocking on doors and reminding Obama supporters to vote. And we helped get the state that at one time held the capital of the Confederate States of America, to cast its electoral votes for the first black President.


Now what?

Zelda's Inferno exercise: gods

Tonight's exercise: write about god(s).

When I was a kid, a good little Catholic boy (really! honestly!) I learned about God, "one God, the Father, almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth".

And when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd be when I grew up. You can't help that when you're a kid, every adult asks you. They have to figure out what box to put you in: future doctor, or future ditch-digger? When I thought about what I'd be as a adult, sometimes I thought about what my dad did for a living. I was learning that the way of the world was this: children grow up to be like their parents.

And if, then, god is the father, if we are children of god? What will we be when we grow up? Indeed, what are we right now? The children of birds are birds. The children of fish are fish. The children of lions are lions. What are the children of gods?

a wordlist poem

Tonight's Zelda's Inferno exercise: writing from a wordlist, generates around the word "fear". No, I don't know how "fear" led someone to say "hot dog", that's the beauty of the workshop...

Our words: catchup, hot dog, wraith, adequate, mortality, strangle, loathing, claustrophobia, monotony, phantom, Monsanto, foolhardy, viscous, blatant, clusterbomb, waterboarding

please, lord, anything but the viscous monotony of a normal regular day job

I fear that more that I fear my own mortality -

to end and have my flesh rot in a hole, or be burned, fine, sure, resolved and resigned to it long ago

the slow strangulation of all in me that does not conform to Management's whim
until I am another commuter-wraith taking to the highway at 7 am each morning
heading for cubical claustrophobia and office politics straight out of the hierarchical primitive mammalian brain...

I keep running, trusting to the alchemy of motion

I do this run once a week but today I feel like I am running away from something. But as I run I don't feel I'm getting away from anything.

Yesterday my acupuncturist told me that my allergies are due to a confusion in my body between the internal and the external.

I guess you can't run away from what's internal, that's the difference. But if they are confused, then am I carrying what's outside, inside?

A monk had come to visit a master and spent some time studying Zen. When he was preparing to leave, the master asked, "See that boulder? Is it inside our outside your mind?" The monk has learned the Buddha's doctrine that everything is a creation of the mind, so he said, "Inside my mind." "Well then," said the master, "I don't envy you on your journey, carrying that big rock in your head!"

I keep running, trusting to the alchemy of motion.

Free Spirit Gathering 2008: I spun fire!

I spun fire!

Just back from FSG. Got to light up my fire poi and spin at the bonfire last night. Yay.

An interesting night - a strong storm came through and knocked out power. Our scheduled performance was a magic show with Jeff and Abbi McBride (a.k.a. Magnus and Spinner); being troupers, they offered to do a show by candlelight and flashlight. But someone came up with a generator - just enough power to run stage lights and sound - and the show was a blast.

D.H. Lawrence, "Mystic"

"They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the experience is considered.
so an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it
the summer and the snows, the wild welter of the earth
and the insistence of the sun.

All of which things I can surely taste in a good apple...."

-- D.H. Lawrence, "Mystic"


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