Wednesday, March 17, 2004

from Aldous Huxley

Why are precious stones precious? The moment one starts to thing about this question, it seems unutterably queer that human beings in the course of history should have spent such an enormous amount of time, energy, and money on collecting transparent or variously colored pepples and hording them and cutting them and setting them in the most elaborate forms and fighting battles over them.

One of the reasons for our interest in precious stones is given, curiously enough, in the Phaedo, where Socrates is speaking about the ideal world, a basic metaphysical idea of Plato. Socrates says that there is an ideal world, of which our world is in a sense a rather bad copy, beyond and above the material world.

'In this other earth the colors are much purer and more brilliant than they are down here. The mountains and stones have a richer gloss, a livelier transparency and intensity of hue. The precious stones of the lower world, our highly prized topazes, emeralds, and all the rest of them are but tiny fragments of these stones above. '

Plato adds that the view of this earth is 'a sight to gladden the beholder's eye'. This is a very curious remark because it makes quite clear that when Plato speaks about the ideal world, he isn't speaking merely of a metaphysical idea. More than a mere philosophic abstraction, it is something that exists in the human mind, which is part of our inner world of thought and feeling and insight, and which, in a certain sense, we can actually see.

We carry about inside our skulls a large and very variegated universe, with regions in it exceedingly strange, regions which most of us at most times don't penetrate at all, but which are always there. There is the world of memory, of fantasy and imagination, and of dreams closely connected to what Jung calls the personal unconscious. There is the world of what Jung calls the collective unconscious, with archtypal forms and symbols which seem to be common to all human beings. And there is, finally, the most remote of all our inner worlds, which I call the world of visions. It is literally another world, very different from the personal worlds of our experience.

Before we go into a description of what goes on in this most remote area of the mind, let me say a little about the degree to which this distant region is accessible to the conscious human being.

In the past the capacity to have visions was regarded as extremely creditable, and anybody who had them was apt to boast about them. Those who have visions now are apt to keep their mouths shut for fear of being sent to the asylum, but there is nothing intrinsically unhealthy about having visions. It is perfectly true that many insane people do have visions, but many sane people also have visions and know perfectly well that they are having them. A person who has visions reaches the point of insanity only when he doesn't know he is having visions and mixes them up with everyday life-- or is so obsessed by his visions that the can't get back to everyday life. Those people who do have the power to enter the world of visions and to go back enjoy both worlds to the utmost degree.

How do people get into the visionary world? Some are so constituted that they can go and come between the ordinary world and the visionary world. They don't know how; it just happens to them. But there are methods of transportation into this visionary world for people who normally can't get into it. Some of these methods are psychological; others involve making changes in body chemistry which, for some reason that we don't understand, permit these distant areas of the mind to come through into consciousness. We find that under hypnosis certain people can go through not merely into the fantasy-imagination world, but far beyond, into the world of visions. This is rather uncommon but it quite definitely happens in some cases.

One method of inducing visions by psychological means is the method of complete isolation, which was discovered empirically in many of the religious traditions of the world. The Christian monks of the Thebaide in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries discovered that by going into complete isolation in the desert they were able to induce visions, some of which were of a celestial nature, but very many of which were infernal in quality.

The technique of complete isolation has been followed from time immemorial in India. In the old Hindu traditions and in the Tibetan tradition we get accounts of forest dwellers who lived in caves high up in the Himalayas and who, by dint of completeley isolating themselves, lay themselves open to this visionary world. The interesting thing is that within recent years these procedures have been exactly imitated and in a sense perfected in various psychological labs, especially in the "sensory deprivation" studies of John Lilly at the National Institute of Health. People are put where they can neither see nor hear anything, and in extreme cases they are immersed in a tepid bath so there is virtually no change in any of the feelings on the skin. In a few hours extraordinary visionary experiences will begin.

Evidently the thing which prevents all of us from having continuous visionary experiences is the fact that we are having continuous experiences of the external world. When the stimuli from the outside are cut off, the brain and the mind, however these two are associated, come up with remarkable visions, some of which are evidently extremely terrifying- many of the experimenters have simply cut short their experiments because the visions were so very unpleasant- but some of which are of a very positive and beautiful character.

These are the two main psycological methods of gaining access to the realm of visions. Then there are the methods which consist of causing changes in body chemistry. Indirect changes have been produced in every culture from time immemorial by means of fasting, which, if prolonged for some time, causes profound changes in body chemistry. Another method of changing body chemistry, which is extensively practiced in India, is breathing exercises, all of which are intended to lead in the long run to prolonged suspensions of breath.

Then there are the direct methods of changing body chemistry which, as the historians of religion have shown, have been used at one time or another in almost all the religious traditions of the world. A great many drugs have been used, alcohol, hashish, opium, and what not, some of them extremely harmful but some of them naturally occurring drugs which open up the consciousness to the visionary experience and which appear to be relatively harmless to the physiology and not to be addictive in any way. The best known of the relatively harmless vision-inducers is the sacred mushroom of Mexico. The other naturally occurring vision-inducer which has been used from time immemorial in the Southwest of America, and whose use has now spread right up into Canada, is the peyote cactus, whose active principle, mescaline, was synthesized eighty years ago.

These are the main methods of getting at the visionary world. Now let us examine the nature of that world and see in what way it has relevance to our original question, Why are precious stones precious? When we examine the visionary world, we discover some interesting facts. For example, visions are extremely strange, but they are not random; they obey certain laws. Every person's vision is unique, as every person is unique, but all these unique visions seem to belong roughly to one family; they are, so to speak, members of a single species.

The highest common factor in the visionary experience is the experience of subjective light. This occurs in the most transcendent form of vision, the form of vision which seems to modulate, so to speak, in the full-blown mystical experience. In these highest forms of vision, the light is undifferentiated; it is what in Buddhist literature is called the 'pure light of the void'. It is an immense white light of extraordinary power. Another well-known case of the experience of over-powering light is that of Mohammed. The revelation which came to him and which made him a prophet was accompanied by a light so tremendous- he was awakened out of his sleep by it- that he fell down in a faint.

This experience of the pure light of the void is a visionary experience of what might be called the highest, the most mystical, kind. On a rather lower level the lights seem to be broken up and become, so to speak, incorporated in different objects and persons and figures. In this lower form of vision we have the intensification of light in some way associated with the fantasy-imagination faculty, so that there are visions of great complexity in which light plays a tremendous part, but it is not the pure white light of the great visions.

As an example, let me cite Weir Mitchell, a psychologist who described his experiences with peyote. What he described was first of all a vision of colored, three-dimensional geometric forms, which became concretized in carvings and mosaics and carpets; then a great Gothic tower encrusted with what appeared to be gems of such enormous size that they looked like transparent fruits; then there were immense and magnificent landscapes, also with self-luminous objects in them; and the experience ended with a vision of the ocean with the waves marvellously colored and sparkling like jewels rolling in.

Many other people have had similar visions- the spontaneous visions of Blake, for example, were essentially of the same nature. Thomas Traherne speaks of the kingdom of God as being the external world seen in this visionary way:

"The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God... It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven."

This is the world transfigured by the visionary experience, a world which many poets, and many people who are not poets, have seen. It is an experience which people have after convalescence, when they are, as it were, reborn into the world and suddenly, with this kind of visionary sight, they perceive its miraculous beauty.

Now, finally, we can begin to see why precious stones are precious. I think they are precious because they are the objects in the external world which most nearly resemble the things which people see in the visionary world. The ruby or the emerald is like the transparent fruit which the Mystic sees encrusting the rocks and the architecture of the visionary world. Not only are gems valuable to us because they remind us of what goes on in the visionary world, they also, by themselves induce a kind of vision. Most of us rather seldom have visionary experiences, but we all potentially have them, and I think that objects such as gems somehow remind us of what is going on in the back of our head and take us a certain way towards this other world.

There are many aspects of art which are really understandable only when we take into account this strange aspect of our mind which is capable of visionary experience. There are various ways of producing visionary works of art, the most obvious of which is to make the work of art out of materials which are themselves intrinsically vision-inducing, such as gems and precious metals. We find that the furniture of the altar in virtually every religion concentrates on these vision-inducing materials.

On a humbler scale, we can see this with Christmas decorations-- which are essentially a kind of popular visionary art. These little twinkling lights do remind us of this other world; they seem in some way magical. So we see that there has been always in the popular mind a curious awareness of the visionary world and a response to even the crudest visionary art. There is something I find extremely touching about these Christmas decorations. They are commercialized, unfortunately, and slightly absurd, but nonetheless they are a symptom of the strange fact that all of us carry around at the back of our head this mysterious other world which I have called the world of visions.
The Tasek Bera Group IV IB project
By Mr. Salleh, Mrs. Daly, Mr. Daly, Mr. Roderick and Mr. Miletti

January 25, 2004

ìDoes everyone have toilet paper? What about the first aid kit? I hope we have enough reagents to run all of the nitrogen tests. What about the pH meter? Is it working? Iíve got peanut butter and crackers!í

Doesnít sound like the typical research project, does it? But those were my thoughts at 1:15 p.m. on Friday the 16th of January. We were scheduled to leave at 1:30 and like any well-planned expedition, we had a last minute frenzy to make sure everything was in order.

Our destination would be the Tasek Bera wetland sanctuary. After the tenth grade Malaysian studies trip to the same location, Mr. Miletti and I decided Tasek Bera would be the ideal location to perform experiments and collect water quality data for the Group 4 IB Project. On top of that, we would have the rare opportunity to be aided by the native people that call Tasek Bera home, the Orang Asli Semelai, and tap into their vast knowledge of the local ecosystem.

To many, science seems an esoteric discipline. The dreaded course requirements for university has sent many an undergraduate packing. Unfortunately, many scientists perpetuate the myth of an unobtainable storehouse of knowledge by disguising simple concepts in a whirlwind of specialized jargon.

Not so at Mont Kiara International School! We were setting out on a 3-day journey that would answer basic questions about the ecology of Tasek Bera and demystify the process of scientific inquiry. All of this would be accomplished while living in a long house and performing our experiments in the great living laboratory of the Malaysian rainforest peat swamp environment! The students werenít intimidated, they were eager to go at it.

Our team couldnít have been better assembled: Mr. Roderick had the math, statistics and physics covered. Mr. Miletti was the chemistry and biology expert. Mr. Daly was interested in the geographical and cultural aspects of the village. Mrs. Daly, with her background in entomology and agriculture and an undeniable enthusiasm for ethnobotany was invaluable. I would lend a hand in the ichthyology, aquatic entomology and water quality departments. Ms. Mohala from Wetlands International was there to lend her knowledge and expertise of the Semalai and act as translator from Bahasa Malaysia to English, an invaluable asset!

Mr. Miletti briefed the students on the bus ride down and the students began to formulate research questions during the 3-hour journey. Experiments in a controlled laboratory are what most of us are used to, but nature rarely fits our pre-conceived notions of how she works. Thatís why itís crucial to get outside and do science, thatís also why field science almost never works out the way you think itís going to.

The multi-disciplinary approach we were taking would prove invaluable in the days to come, as each student and teacher would have a different perspective and contribution to the overall success of our endeavors.

We arrived at the jetty, unloaded our gear and equipment from the bus into the motor boats and set off for the long house. We glided over tannin stained water while barn swallows dashed here and there and giant, flame red dragonflies sat with wings splayed on emergent grasses. A maze of pandanu and Lepironia plants had replaced a tangle of sidewalks and concrete back home in Kuala Lumpur.

By nightfall research groups had been established, each with a specific focus.

My group would investigate fish and insect populations and their distribution in several different stream habitats.

Mr. and Mrs. Dalyís group would focus on forest soil chemistry and plant populations.

Mr. Roderickís group wanted to investigate stream flow and water chemistry but after a few initial experiments decided that the data they would collect would be insufficient for reporting any differences. After a bit of rethinking and discussion, the students decided to determine if there were any patterns in the distribution of pandanu and Lepironia plants in relation to the pH of the water.

Mr. Milettiís group decided theyíd like to know if there were any differences in water quality near the village as compared to the pristine wetland downstream.

A quick swim and, as Mr. Roderick will testify, we were blissfully snoring in our mosquito proof tents.

The next day turned out to be a gem. Clear skies and an early start fueled by mee goreng was all we needed to collect our data. The groups scattered to all corners of the wetland aided by their respective Orang Asli guide and research assistant.

By mid-afternoon we were back with samples collected and bellies ready for a rice and chicken lunch. A quick dip in the water and the students split off again to go and collect data.

My group stayed back since they had collected all their samples and began the arduous task of picking aquatic insects from the soil theyíd dredged up from the bottom.

By now Mr. Roderickís group had noticed a distinct pattern in the streamside vegetation distribution and was eager to document it and try and determine why they were located where they were.

Mr. and Mrs. Daly's group had collected samples near the long house, both in the forest and near the water's edge in the morning, so in the afternoon were taken to a similar site clear of human habitation to repeat sample collecting.

Interestingly, this group learned there was little significant difference in the chemistry of soils gathered in the forest areas near to and distant from human habitation. Though different from the samples collected near the water's edge again the presence of human settlement had little impact. As a useful sideline, the students examined an inland pandanus specifically used for building huts, and sampled edible leaves and fruits pointed out to them by their guide, Mr Rahim. He also made a drinking cup out of the leaf of one of the palm-like shrubs, showing that even the simplest conveniences can be provided by the forest!

That afternoon Mr. Daly's geography students also interviewed Mr Hashim, the manager of the Semelai's ecotourism project about the changes occurring among the Semelai with increasing modernization. He is very enthusiastic about ecotourism, but emphatic that the numbers of people visiting Tasek Bera must be low enough not to impact negatively on the environment that sustains his village. Mr. Hashim envisages ecotourism as both economic, providing income for the Semelai, and equally importantly, as educational, nurturing respect for the environment and culture of the Orang Asli Semelai among those people lucky enough to spend time at Tesak Bera.

A few hours later and everyone returned to camp, had a snack of pisang goreng and got busy analyzing their samples and making sense of their field data.

On the way for their afternoon swim, as the students clumped down the steps of the pier (built by a volunteer group some weeks before) they noticed several spectacular species of butterflies drinking near the water's edge. These were among the few groups of insects seen on the trip ñ surprising when the forest was all around us. This could provide the basis for a research question in the future, perhaps.

Later that evening, the chief of the Orang Asli, Batin Hokin joined us for a discussion about their marriage customs and the transition of the Semelai from a hunter-gatherer society to their recent venture into eco-tourism. We learned they had only switched from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the 1980ís and were growing more dependent on rice and rubber tapping for income and food. The chief said he was happy to see the eco-tourism working for them as it brought much needed income and educated students about their way of life.

Shortly thereafter we headed to bed, but before we did Caroline and Sara treated us to a little acoustic magic as they played and sang a few songs, a treat worth remembering.

Once again, Mr. Roderick was serenaded by the sound of snores woven into a chorus of night frogs and insects.

The next morning the students got busy writing up their findings and putting all of their data together. Iíve never seen students work harder or more earnestly with such focus and determination.

A quick boat trip back to the bus and we were on our way back to Mont Kiara.

The students gave talks about their experiences and the research they performed as we made our way back home.

When we pulled into the parking lot at MKIS we were both weary and wise from the research and the trip. We were now part of the wetland and it was part of us. The research we conducted gave us insights and knowledge into a place few people are lucky enough to visit. You certainly canít capture that sort of magic in the confines of the four walls of a classroom!
Tasek Bera- Malaysiaís Wetland Treasure
by Matt Salleh

September found us in places weíd never been before and possibly never imagined. When the grade ten wandered into Tasek Bera providence smiled on us.

As Malaysiaís first protected wetland and a site designated as a Wetland of International Significance, Tasek Bera is the perfect place to experience ecology and Orang Asli culture.

We arrived after a long bus ride, road weary and cranky, but it didnít take long for the scenery to put a smile on our faces! We immediately jammed ourselves and our gear into boats and took a ride which one student called ì Better than anything at Disneyland!î

We motored through a tunnel of greenery, a cool breeze in our faces. The occasional frog, dragonfly larvae or kingfisher reminded us that we were no longer in the urban environs of KL, but were instead in one of the richest ecosystems in the world.

As we rounded a bend in the canoe trail, the longhouse, which was to be our home for the next few days, seemed to mysteriously appear from the jungle. For many of the students, it was their first camping experience, the opportunity of a lifetime. To the surprise of many, the bamboo floor with its natural flexibility was surprisingly comfortable to sit and sleep on. We set up camp with an air of excitement, the apprehension and weariness left behind, stranded somewhere on a floating log.

We swam, hiked, played music, hung out, chatted, ate and took the time to let life unfold.

During our brief stay, we learned about the inhabitants of the rainforest and the intricate relationship that the Orang Asli Semelai have developed with their surroundings. We slowly began to appreciate the lifestyle we live compared to that of the forest-dwellers.

One night I awoke during the small hours we so often miss to a chorus of frogs, night critters and starlight. A smile found its way onto my face as I drifted back to sleep. Peace and respite from the mumbo-jumbo we call city living.

Many hikes later, it was time to return to KL. But not before we paddled hand carved canoes to the local kampung for a demonstration of the weaving techniques, blow pipe hunting and musical talent of the Semelai people.

They greeted us with warm hearts and big smiles, eager to share their way of life with us, to educate us and remind us of our connection to the natural world. A dying culture knows no strangers, anyone is welcome, everyone is a friend.

Iím not sure if all of the students fully understood the impact of the place they were in: a biologists dream, an anthropologists fantasy. I do know that when we asked them if we should visit Tasek Bera again for next yearís Malaysian Studies, the answer was a resounding ëYES!
The Night Began
by Matt Salleh

Tonight began with me whining

about another

family function

my dharma

and obligation to attend

yet another event, a wedding reception

until I saw the free red wine

and my eyes lit up with

no more complaints.

And the gorgeous Chinese girl

in her Chinese-ness sexy way

caught my eye

silky smooth, skin tight dress

meant to entice me.

Then the food came,

7 courses at least,

I lost count of the various seafood

dishes and the lovely saree clad Indian women.

Our server, no slouch,

a cuter than cute Malay girl

in her secular Malayness- no hood- no Islam,

just a great smile and endearing mannerisms.

I drank all the free wine I could handle

with the surreal lounge music

Tom Jones and the like

sang by a sexy 6 foot tall Asian girl,

hard to tell,

they all blend together at some point after 4 glasses,

Chinese, Malay, Philippino or something

it doesn't matter

she was beautfiul.

And let us not forget

my own wife

a gorgeous dark skinned lovely creation

laughs when I talk shit

and as my friend puts it

"you're lucky to have her, she puts up with your sorry ass Peavy"

So I made it through the night

some might envy

I've had so many unreal experiences

I can't begin to catalog them.

The marble toilets were nice in the 4 star hotel

and that's something to appreciate

after a world of squatters

isn't it?
by Matt Salleh

Here's a story for y'all, in the Hobopoet tradition of beating the system!

Last night my friends Mark, Mike and Dave and I decided to go and see Incubus play in concert. They were playing at a golf/country club less than a kilometer from my house. Since we frequently ride mountain bikes and hike on the trails (both Skald and Callan have been on the trails I'm talking about!) we know the route to the horse stadium pretty well.

We premeditated our raid slightly but weren't firm on our methods until it was actually happening. We met at the food stalls at 7 p.m. had a few Beer Chang and some pizza! Then we went to 7-11 and loaded up the backpacks with more beer and struck out on the trails armed with headlamps and a good buzz. Within 30 minutes we were walking into the back entrance of the horse stadium where the concert was to be held (the exhibition ring for showing horses). There were no guards or security at the back since there's nothing but jungle (and trails) behind the stables. We walked right in! And I mean right in- strait up to the stage! No one even checked our backpack.

We flanked their ticket check and therefore when anyone saw us they assumed we'd already been checked at the gate!

How sweet is that?!?!

We were hoping that it would be that way.. since no one in their right mind would walk through the jungle at night ......they didn't even consider the possiblity of a rear approach!

The show itself was mediocre.... Several thousand Asian teenagers filled the show ring with an impromptu plywood floor and swayed to the heavy rhythms. It was all made sweeter by the fact we saved 100 ringgit/ticket AND had all the cheap beer we could drink in our backpacks!

We were giggling like school kids.. and once our students found out... well, they were laughing about their delinquent role model teachers!
Man and Religion
from Aldous Huxley

There are two main kinds of religion. There is the religion of immediate experience [shamanism]-- the religion, in the words of Genesis, of hearing the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, the religion of direct acquaintance with the divine in the world. And then there is the religion of symbols, the religion of the imposition of order and meaning upon the world through verbal or non-verbal symbols and their manipulation, the religion of knowledge about the divine rather than direct acquaintance with it.

Let us begin with religion as the manipulation of symbols to impose order and meaning upon the flux of experience. In practice we find that there are two types of symbol-manipulating religions: the religion of myth and the religion of creed and theology. Myth is obviously a kind of non-logical philosophy; it expresses in the form of a story or, very often, in the form of some visual image, or even in the form of a dance or complicated ritual, some generalized feeling about the nature of the world and of man's experience in regard to it. Myth is unpretentious, in the sense that it doesn't claim to be strictly true. It is merely expressive of our feelings about experience. But although it is non-logical philosophy, it is often very profound philosophy, precisely because it is non-logical and non-discursive. It permits the bringing together in the story, the image, the picture, the statue, or the dance of a number of the disparate and even apparently incommensurable or incompatible parts of our experience. It brings them together and shows them to be an indissoluble whole, exactly as we experience them. For example, in Hunduism Kali is at once the infinitely kind and loving mother and the terrifying Goddess of destruction, who has a necklace of skulls and drinks the blood of human beings from a skull. This picture is profoundly realistic; if you give life, you must necessarily give death, because life always ends in death and must be renewed through death. Whether such myths are true or not is quite an irrelevant question; they are simply expressive of our reactions to the mystery of the world in which we live.

We find earlier non-logical mythical religions very frequently associated with what have been called spiritual exercises, but which are in fact psychophysical exercises. By use of chant and dance and gesture, they get a genuine kind of revelation. Here I would like to cite the French Islamic scholar Emil Dermenghem, who says that modern Europe (of course modern Europe includes modern America) is almost alone in having renounced out of beurgeois repectability and Puritanism the participation of the body in the pursuit of the spirit. In India as in Islam, chants, rhythms, and dance are spiritual exercises.

Religion as a system of beliefs is a profoundly different kind of religion, and it is the one which has been the most important in the West. The members of the official religion have tended to look upon the mystics [the religion of direct experience] as difficult, trouble-making people. Also, the religion of direct experience of the divine has been regarded as the privilege of a very few people. I personally don't think this is necessarily true at all. I think that practically everyone is capable of this immediate experience, provided he sets about it in the right way and is prepared to do what is necessary. We have simply taken for granted that the mystics represent a very small minority among a huge majority who must be content with the religion of creeds and symbols and sacred books and liturgies and organizations.

Belief is a matter of great importance. The tremendous fact of belief, which is so constantly cultivated within the symbol-manipulationg religions, is essentially ambivalent. The consequence is that religion as a system of beliefs has always been an ambivalent force. It gives birth simultaneously to humility and to what poets call the "proud prelate", the ecclesiastical tyrant. It gives birth to the highest form of art and to the lowest form of superstition. It lights the fires of charity, and it also lights the fires of the Inquisition.

Myths, on the whole, have been much less dangerous than theological systems because they are less precise and have fewer pretensions. Where you have theological systems it is claimed that these propositions about events in the past and events in the future and the structure of the univers are absolutely true; consequently reluctance to accept them is regarded as rebellion against God, worthy of the most undying punishment. And we see that in fact these systems have, as a matter of historical record, been used as justification for almost every act of aggression and imperialistic expansion. There is hardly a single large-scale crime in history which has not been committed in the name of God.

This strife-producing quality of religion as a system of theological symbols has brought about not only the jihads and crusades of one religion against another, it has produced an enormous amount of internal friction within the same religion. The theological hatred is notorious for its virulence, and the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were of a degree of ferocity which passes all belief.

So, what has been the attitude of the proponents of immediate experience [mysticism, shamanism] towards the religion expressed in terms of symbols? Meister Eckhart, one of the great mystics of the Middle Ages, expresses it in an extreme form: "Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue". This insistence on the inefficiency of symbolic religion for the ultimate purpose of union with God has been stressed by all the Oriental religions. We find it in the literature of Hinduism, in the literature of Mahayana Buddhism, of Taoism, and so on. Hui-neng says that the truth has never been preached by the Buddha, seeing that one has to realize it within oneself, and that what is known of the teaching of the Buddha is not the teaching of the Buddha, which has to be an interior experience. Then we get a paradoxical phrase: "What is the ultimate teaching of the Buddha? You won't understand it unless you have it. " The author goes on to say, "Don't be so ignorant as to mistake the pointing finger for the moon at which it is pointing" and he says that the habit of imagining that the pointing finger is the moon condemns all efforts to realize oneness with Reality to total failure. There were even Zen masters who prescribed that anybody using the word "Buddha" should have his mouth washed out with soap because it was so remote from the goal of immediate experience.

And what is the mystical experience? I take it that the mystical experience is essentially the being aware of and, while the experience lasts, being indentified with a form of pure consciousness, of unstructured transpersonal consciousness which lies, so to speak, upstream from the ordinary discursive consciousness of everyday. It is a non-egotistic consciousness, a kind of formless and timeless consciousness, which seems to underlie the consciousness of the separate ego in time.

Why should this sort of consciousness be regarded as valuable? I think for two reasons. First, it is regarded as valuable because it is intrinsically valuable, just as the experience of beauty is intrinsically valuable, but much more so. Second, it is valuabe because as a matter of empirical experience it does bring about changes in thought and character and feeling which the experiencer and those about him regard as manifestly desirable. It makes possible a sense of unity and solidarity in the world. It brings about the possibility of that kind of unjudging love and compassion which is so stressed in the Gospel.

There are other fruits of the mystical experience . There is certainly an overcoming of the fear of death, a conviction that the soul has become identical with the Absolute Principle which expresses itself in every moment in its totality. There is an acceptance of suffering and a passionate desire to alleviate the suffering of others. There is a combination of what Buddhists call Prajnaparamita, which is the wisdom of the other shore, with Mahakaruna, which is universal compassion. As Eckhart says, what is taken in by comtemplation is given out in love. This is the value of the experience. As for the theology of it, this is profoundly simple and is summed up in three words which are at the base of virtually all Indian religion and philosophy: "Thou art that", the sense being that the deepest part of the soul is identical with the Divine nature, that the Atman, the deep soul, is the same as Brahman, the Universal Principle, or in Eckhart's words, that the ground of the soul is the same as the ground of the Godhead. It is the idea of the inner light.

Now, very briefly, I must touch on the means for reaching this state. It has been constantly stressed that the means do not consist in mental activity and discursive reasoning; they consist in what is called "alert passivity", or what American mystic Frank Laubach has called "determined sensitivity". You don't do anything, but you are determinedly sensitive to letting something be done within you.

This attitude of spiritual masters is exactly the same as that recommended by the teacher of any psychophysical skill. The man who teaches you how to play golf or tennis, your singing teacher or piano teacher, will tell you the same thing: you must somehow combine activity with relaxation, you must let go of the clutching personal self, in order to let this deeper self within you, which you interfere with, come through and perform miracles.

In a certain sense one can say that what we are doing all the time is trying to get into our own light. Our superficial selves eclipse our deeper selves and so don't permit this light force, which is an impartial fact within us, to come through. In effect the whole of the technique of proficiency in every field, including this highest form of spiritual proficiency, is a dis-eclipsing process, a process of getting out of our own light.

Finally, we see that there is no conflict between the mystical approach to religion and the scientific approach, because one is not committed by mysticism to any cut-and-dried statement about the structure of the universe. You can practice mysticism entirely in psychological terms, and on the basis of a complete agnosticism in regard to the conceptual ideas of orthodox religion, and yet come to knowledge-- gnosis-- and the fruits of knowledge will be the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, and the capacity to help other people.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Advice for Lindsey on Her H.S. Graduation
by Skald


The first thing I'd like to tell you about being your own person is that its not always easy! Living your own life often means looking foolish, even stupid. Unfortunately, I don't know of any way to avoid this. Sometimes you will be brilliant and sometimes you'll be an idiot! And that's fine. I don't think its possible to be your own person AND to never fail. Failure is part of life.

The good news is that living your own life is alot more fun than conforming. I can't promise you that you'll always be successful.... or that it will be easy.... or that you won't feel lost and confused at times. But I can promise you that your life will be much more interesting if you pursue your crazy dreams... you may not succeed, but you will learn and grow and be interested and excited about your own life. Doing what everyone else tells you to do may be safe-- but its also BORING!

So what does it mean, exactly, to be your own person? I think it means that you take your wisdom from your own experience, rather than believing what people tell you. So many people are living inauthentic lives. They believe things because their parents told them, or the TV news told them, or their cool friends told them, or their minister told them, or the law told them, or the "experts" told them. Letting these people rule your life is disastrous. Joseph Campbell calls such a life a "wasteland". You can't live a full life if you merely accept what people tell you. You've got to find out for yourself.

"And what is the nature of a wasteland? It is a land where everybody is living an inauthentic life, doing as other people do- doing as you're told, with no courage for your own experience. To live an authentic life, take your wisdom from your own experience. Because in thinking, the majority is always wrong". --Joseph Campbell

Being yourself means finding what inspires you, what makes you excited, thrilled, enthusiastic, and happy. There is only one way to find that out and that is to take risks and try things and experiment with your life and explore and learn and fail.... and most of all, to follow your instincts and desires wherever they take you. To be yourself you must have the courage to make mistakes. You must have the courage to look foolish. You must have the courage to look strange. You must have the courage to ignore what other people say. You must have the courage to follow your unique genius wherever it takes you. It won't let you down.

Never trust anyone who tells you you can't do something. I encourage you to trust yourself. Don't trust "society", don't trust the "experts", don't trust celebrities, don't trust teachers, don't trust me. Trust yourself and know that even if catastrophe strikes, you will be OK. You will handle it. You will learn and grow and move on.

And to be yourself you must forget playing it safe. If I have one piece of advice for you, its this: Don't Play It Safe!!

"If there's one thing I hate, it's the word 'safety'. We live in a civilization of safety, in which we are eventually cacooned from all danger, that is to say, from all experience. What we are left with is a vegetable plugged into a computer, who never leaves the room. We would be well advised to rediscover risk. Take the chance, Dance before you calcify!!" --Hakim Bey

I've worked with dying cancer patients and dying AIDS patients and they had a powerful effect on me. What struck me was that they never regretted the mistakes in their life. What they regretted, terribly, were the things they never tried, the dreams they never pursued, the things they never said. Time after time they gave me the same advice: don't play it safe, pursue your dreams, don't be afraid to fail, don't hold back, try everything!

I guess I'm merely passing along their advice.

Monday, March 01, 2004

No Nostalgia for the Stars & Stripes
by Skald

Five months in Thailand and I find that I don't miss America in any way. I have gotten homesick during past excursions abroad- but always it was friends and family that I missed. Since Im here with two good friends, that's much less of an issue. I realize now that it was never America that I missed.... only the people that I care about.

I have no nostalgia for the United States.... in a bigger and more general sense. I don't miss the fanatical Christians. I don't miss the suburbs or the mega-malls. I don't miss Wal-Mart. I don't miss Fox "news". I don't miss the legions of right-wing, SUV driving, paranoid rich people. I don't miss the endemic obesity. I don't miss the mindless conformity. I don't miss the corporate culture of cool. I don't miss shitty jobs, or crappy pay, or overpriced rent. I don't miss the bland sterility. I don't miss gated communities.

Most of all, I don't miss the mindless fear and smugness..... the utter clueless arrogance exemplified by the statement, "Why do they hate us?". I don't miss murder in the name of Jesus...... nor corporate kiss-asses.... nor MTV.... nor the rebel flag.... nor guns..... nor the stars and stripes plastered on every bumper, shirt, hat, and toilet stall.

Let's get right to the heart of the big lie--- America is NOT the best country in the world. Everyone does NOT want to be an American nor live like one. Millions of people in the world have very good reasons for hating the good old USA..... and only willful ignorance and corporate propaganda prevent the mass of good American citizens from admitting these facts.

To the vast majority of people in the world, the corporate behemoth that is the United States is the ENEMY. My view is not quite so harsh, but I understand why people feel that way. It would benefit the country in the long run if more Americans took their head out of their ass and tried to understand these views. Otherwise, the hubris and arrogance of the country is likely to lead to nothing but disaster.

Right now, at this time in history, I am very grateful to be living elsewhere.