Everything Isn’t Always OK


I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Elizabeth Kolbert as I cleaned the bathroom today (BTW, Klein’s podcasts are consistently worth listening to).

As they discussed the fragility of our life on this planet, I thought of a quote from a whisky tour in Scotland last summer that has stuck with me:

Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky.

(Pronounced in a heavy brogue, of course.) In other words, what is maybe not-so-pleasant but necessary gloom now will replenish our stocks and become, with time, refined and complex and to be savored much later.

Elizabeth Kolbert made the point that we live in the climate of the past, while altering the climate of the future, and that’s why this quote came back to me. Because there’s that flip side, too:

Today’s abnormally warm but kind-of-pleasant winter will become tomorrow’s drought.

In other words, at a more general level, everything may not always turn out OK.

We might not make it as a nation. We might not make it as a species. There might not be a technology or leader or alien lifeform or god that will save us.

The fact that we exist at all, on this particular planet, right here and now at this moment in time, is remarkable. (Read Sean Carrol’s superb From Eternity to Here for more on this). The happenstance cosmic circumstances and events and conditions that have come before us that enable us to now live are tenuous. We are lucky to be alive. Our existence, as a species, as an individual, is highly fragile, just as our planet’s current state is highly fragile.

There are moments in our lives when we suddenly see our extreme fragility through the lens of our own frail existence. Times such as when a friend or loved one dies, or when any other cherished relationship or job or possession is lost or close to being lost. When we have an accident. When we are sick or our health is compromised, whether due to circumstances beyond our control, or due to our own shortsighted decision-making. When we are expecting a child, and realize just how precious and influential every feeling, every nutrient, everything that we say and do has on our child to be.

Our lives are short and so very, very fragile. And only precious when we recognize them as such.

As my first love, Sade, croonsI cherish the day. I won’t go astray. I won’t be afraid.

We may not be able to have much influence over the cosmic and planetary changes under way, nor the brutal reactions of a nation’s mob. But we can channel our attention. We can savor the ones near to us. We can love every moment of our lives as closely and dearly and desperately and passionately as we can.

Even as our bodies or nation or earth may crumble.



God had come in

“When I came back out there was a strange light in the kitchen, as if there was a film of silver over everything, like frost only smoother, like water running thinly down over flat stones; and then my eyes were opened and I knew it was because God had come into the house and this was the silver that covered heaven. God had come in because God is everywhere, you can’t keep him out, he is part of everything there is, so how could you ever build a wall or four walls or a door or a shut window, that he could not walk right through as if it was air.

“I said, What do you want here, but he did not answer, he just kept on being silver, so I went out to milk the cow; because the only thing to do about God is to go on with what you were doing anyway, since you can’t ever stop him or get any reasons out of him. There is a Do this or Do that with God, but not any Because.

–Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Evil as Good

In an experience with a shaman in Cuzco 2 years ago, one of the insights I gained from that little glimpse into the great unknown was that there is nothing to fear in all of the vast, seemingly demonic forces arrayed beyond our understanding in the cosmos. That all is of the light, a part of the entire. I’ve been kind of sleeping on that window of intuition, but I re-remembered it the other day as I was reading a section in The Life Divine, wherein Aurobindo is grappling with the question of the existence of evil and suffering in the world. And I then realized that this little insight I had was perhaps deeper in significance than I had originally thought. For me, personally, the recognition that everything in existence is a part of a greater whole, including the “bad” and evil things, was a stepping beyond my upbringing. I was raised as a Protestant Christian, and as everyone knows, the Christian theology, in a nutshell, is arranged around the concepts of good and evil as represented by God and Satan. The presence of evil and suffering is explained as the meddlings of the fallen angel in our material world, allowed by a distant God to challenge and torture us in our den of sin. But there is, of course, a strange paradox in such an explanation of evil, for it renders a supposedly omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God as suddenly reticent and detached from humanity and their suffering. This means either that this God is cruel, or that he is not in fact all-powerful, or both.

I’m quite certain that Christian scholars and mystics have grappled with this question throughout the ages, and have more than likely come up with some insightful answers based within the Christian dogma. As I no longer adhere to any religion myself, I am not all that interested in theological answers, but rather in a unitary spiritual, metaphysical vision. The deeper mystic, in any religion, recognizes the unity of all existences as an extension of God. For if God is omni-everything, if it is Brahman, if it is all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, then it must necessarily include all of what we perceive as bad, in addition to all of the good.

This has led me to the idea that the very concept of “evil” is a necessarily human construct. After all, animals and plants do not create religions, laws, and codes of ethics for their behavior. If you agree with the principle of evolution, then you necessarily regard human life as an evolved form of life with a level of consciousness which goes beyond that which it has evolved from. As such, we have evolved into this perception of suffering and evil, and it is thus a mental construct, a product of our evolved mentality. And therefore, our conceptions of evil, though formed from fear and ignorance, are in fact an essential recognition of that which we must defend ourselves against, and ultimately transcend, in the effort to evolve. What we perceive and regard as evil are in fact powers beyond ourselves that threaten to overwhelm or lead us astray in our aspiration towards divinity. But in the bigger picture, these forces, so seemingly arrayed against us, are in fact a form of cosmic devil’s advocates that push us and nudge us and batter us towards perfection, honing us, challenging us. And when we recognize this greater truth, when we overcome our fear and ignorance, we get that much closer to transcending the existence and persistence of evil in our lives. In the light of this greater awareness, what was once perceived as evil and in opposition to ourselves transmutes into something with broader implication and potential, even a deeper good. All of this suffering, all of this evil, could be seen as teachers, bearers of painful lessons that we must learn. We must answer and overcome their challenges, and realize them as a part of the whole of existence. Both negative and positive, united, represent the entire picture. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. All is of the light, for all comes from the light and returns to the light, and has always been and will always be the light within itself, and of itself, and beyond itself. This is not to explain away your suffering. This is to say that perhaps you suffer because how else will you recognize delight? And this is not to explain away evil, and give it reason to perpetuate, but instead to say, for what other cause and purpose will we battle for what is right, and thus find our eventual, stumbling way into higher modes of existence, where evil is no longer what it was to our fractured, self-embattled minds?

On Atheism

I have somehow gotten myself involved in some on-line debates revolving around the existence or non-existence of a god. Rather than continue bickering with people who already have a set viewpoint, I thought I should just post a summation of my thoughts here instead.

To call yourself an atheist means that you do not believe in the existence of any god or deity, and that to believe in a god is to believe in a myth. Problem is, most atheists apparently have taken this position not because they have gone to the fullest extent of the logic required to get to this position (which I’ll get into in a minute) but simply because they don’t like institutionalized religion and the mind-numbing effect it has on the masses. Meaning that they associate “god” with the Pope, or as a construct of the Bible. They would be more suited by calling themselves anti-religionists.

The outcome of the viewpoint of atheism is that all of human existence can be reduced to objectivity and materialism. That is, all life and love is simply the happenstance interaction of chemicals and particles or what have you. Because to deny the existence of god is more than simply saying, “I do not believe in God.” It is saying that you also do not believe in the existence of ANY spirituality. You believe that all of life is simply what it appears to be, and nothing more. There is no magic, no love, no poetry, no spirits, no collective soul, no reason for seemingly random things to occur at just the right time. There is no unknown mystery to life. Hey, if that’s what you really believe, good for you. You’re officially hopeless.

But if you’ve got a problem with institutionalized religions, and their negative impacts on society and politics world-wide, then you’re in the same boat as most intelligent human beings. Nobody likes seeing neo-cons capitalizing off of a naive Christian populace to wage war for resources and increase the disparity between rich and poor. Nobody likes seeing desperate Muslims equating mindless bloodshed with soulful righteousness. Nobody likes seeing Zionists wrap selected history and vengeance around a slow suffocation of Palestinean life. Religions account for probably at least 75% of the world’s bloodshed. Oh, yes, I can understand why someone would despise religion and the bitter division it causes in the minds of the uneducated and downtrodden.

But to disagree with institutionalized religion is one thing. To deny all spiritual existence is quite another. Because you can believe in a god, and not believe in a religion, as I do. I think what it comes down to, oftentimes, is simply what your definition of “god” happens to be. Is it a white bearded dude sitting on a golden throne somewhere in the golden paved suburbs of heaven? If so, then you probably don’t know much of anything about the religion that you’ve subscribed to and have just been spoonfed a load of horseshit. But if you know god as an active, present force in your life, inside of your heart, inside of every little mundane part of your day, then you’ve gotten a little closer. As Rumi said, the water the thirsty man seeks is “nearer than his jugular vein.”

When Zen masters seek to jolt their students into enlightenment, they give them mind-fuck games (“koans”), they tell them stories or give them experiences that are designed to take their mind beyond logic. Logic and reason can only get you so far before you begin to realize that you could argue all day about anything from any viewpoint. Ultimately, reason and logic only gain you a shallow perspective, and in order to go deeper and gain a broader understanding, you must move inward. It is a common spiritual insight that one must, in a sense, die before one can open up one’s senses to spiritual dimensions. Die in the sense that you have to let go of attachment to your individual self and all the mental constructs you’ve built up to support that illusion.

To deny a god and spiritual existence is easy. To despise all religion and its effect on humanity is easy. To go deeper in search of the source is difficult. To admit that all things are beyond the safety and comfort of appearance is difficult. To live according to your heart, and not your mind . . .

Experential Divinity

In order to know divinity, you must know your self, beyond all that previously defined you. You must look within, stripped of all pretension. And there you will find a terrifying unity, terrifying because every little butterfly flutter of your heart has universal implication.

Which is to say that to know of God is an entirely personal affair. I learned this the hard way growing up. I grew up a Presbytarian Christian, went to church and youth group every week. The driving spiritual force in my life, however, was my grandmother, an immigrant from Sweden who prayed multiple times a day and read constantly from her bible. When she prayed, she went into a kind of trance and spoke in tongues. She would tell stories, of which she had many, of prayers answered and miracles in her life. She was intensely spiritual, and I always respected that, and I wanted to believe the way she believed. I tried. For years I tried to pray and to know god the way that she did. And it took me longer than that to finally understand that I could never know god the way that she did. I could only know god in my own way.

And this is where institutionalized, fundamentalist religion goes astray. Religious indoctrination would tell you what the word of god is. It would tell you how to think, how to feel, how to pray to their god. It would tell you of all the mysteries. But you would never experience these things directly. God has to be translated for the masses, according to institutionalized religion. And all of these things may be a good introduction. But they will never take the place of personal realization, a direct relationship and communication with the source.

Bruce Lee concocted his own martial art, a martial art which took him beyond tradition, close-minded indoctrination, and habits, and through which he learned to attack directly and quickly without waste of time and effort. But he admonishes those who would blindly follow his martial art. He tells them that Jeet Kun Do is only his own personal way, not anyone else’s way. That you can learn from it and take what you will from it, but never to follow it as a complete and universal form. Which, of course, people did anyway, and continue to do.

A more enlightened view of any form or school of thought is to think of it in terms of Ken Wilber‘s concept of holons. A holon is something complete within its own parameters, yet which still opens and connects into something beyond. In which everything is a holon, a whole unto itself and yet a part of something greater. A cell in your body is a holon. Christianity is a holon. The earth is a holon. To ever say that something has no connection with anything else or that something has no relation or ability to evolve and change with the rest of the universe is fundamentalism of the sort that leads to warfare, anger, and close-mindedness.

People who think that they are completely separate and isolated from all the rest of the world end up killing themselves. People who can never understand themselves and can only relate to themselves in terms of external indoctrination end up killing others. And all the little gradations in between that lead you daily to prejudice your mind against the world.

Within my own lifetime, I simply want to try to make myself better than who I am. I want to carry a light inside me that can not be touched by the wind of another human being’s insecurity. I don’t want to be a human being who just takes, and takes, and takes. I want to give, and take, and give. And give. And the only one who can help me do that is myself–a self that is connected with all the world.

Know Yourself

The Prophet said: ‘Whoever knows themself knows their God.’ And he said: ‘I know my Lord by my Lord.’ The Prophet points out by that, that you are not you: you are God, without you; not God entering into you, nor you entering into God. And it is not meant by that, that you are of that which exists . . . but it is meant by it that you never were nor will be, whether by yourself or through God or in God or along with God. You are neither ceasing to be nor still existing. You are God, without one of these limitations. Then if you know your existence thus, then you know God; and if not, then not.

Ibn ‘Arabi “The Treatise On Being”

Thoughts Regarding the Nature of God

I’ve been reading a book on Shamanism, as told from the evolving point of view of white westerners through history, beginning with horrified, racist missionaries, all the way to experimental anthropologists who try their hallucinogens and allow the shamans to speak (somewhat) for themselves.
For the shamans and their societies, spirits were a fact of life–spirits determined the interplay of day to day life, the success of hunts, the rains, even the inter-personal relations with one’s neighbors. Shamans were the link and guide to these spirits, influencing and bargaining with these spirits to change the everyday world.
During the 50s and 60s, westerners came to shamans to find God. But it was never the purpose of shamans to explore pearly gates and golden streets. They explored themselves, the space inside themselves to the point of death. What is God in such a place? You come close to death and there is much more than just one being there. There are many beings in other worlds beyond our own, and they don’t necessarily care about us and our fears. Although to say that they are not connected to us in any way is a lie. Their existence might be dependent, I would venture to say, as much on us as we are on them. Because time in that place isn’t the way we understand it–some of these beings are in fact us, parts of us in the future, in the past, somewhere unrelatable to anything we ever have been or will be yet crucially, painfully interconnected in some fabric of our world that we can barely even glimpse except when we die.

In a fleeting experience in Peru with a modern day shaman and an alternate universe, I gained at least the understanding that in this other, spiritual universe, inhabited by beings beyond my current understanding (even by a version of myself I couldn’t recognize), that these visions were beyond anything my conceptions of God and spirituality had been. God is not something you gain, is not a person who becomes your guardian. God is in fact a somewhat terrifying synthesis of everything that exists that extends ultimately beyond. Meaning that in God there is death, death of self, death of ethnocentrism, death of everything that is safe and contained and pure in your current conceptions. And yet wholly welcoming and beautiful at the same time.
It is really the loss of self that is terrifying. That everything which currently defines you and your world is really somewhat of a petty myth. That’s a pretty hard thing to come to terms with.
I remember back in college, I took a class on comparative religions, and in our discussion section, different representatives of different religions would present and answer questions. We had a tantra lady who came in and discussed the wonderful power we had within, the god within, in flowery new age terms. Yet she did have a quite powerful spiritual presence, and she seemed to have some wisdom. And I asked her, if we really do have this power, what if there are those of us who choose to abuse this power to hurt others? She didn’t know how to answer this question.The fact is that we do have this power, and we often do choose to hurt others. We do it by talking down others. In our minds. To our friends. By not allowing them to exist as the gods they are. By not allowing ourselves to exist as the gods we are. We destroy whole worlds.

On the road to non-being, there are many beings, and we are way out on the surface crust edge of that wheel. We talk of finding aliens on some planet out there somewhere. Aliens exist within our very minds. What is it to be a human being? We consist of parts, of pieces, cells, plasma, blood, organs, interrelationships, factions, groups, parts, all working haphazardly to create every moment this thing we call ourselves. At what point do we stop being ourselves, and at what point does the outer world begin?

At what point are we alone, and at what point are we everything?

Where is a boundary, when you can breathe?