When the sages work is done, the people think they have done it themselves. -Lao Tzu
John Braun was just that sort of “sage.” He had a child like innocence and a joy about him that you didn’t ordinarily see in a person his age. He was creative, bright, sensitive and for the most part, fit the description of someone many might consider “eccentric” or even "antisocial." Losing his hearing later in life certainly contributed to this perception. John seemed not to care if he heard what most people said or not. I remember a time running into him in the supermarket, and having to yell my half of the conversation at him – and you didn’t generally get into lightweight conversations with John. I walked away feeling the ridiculousness of having the whole store listen in on our conversation – at least my part of it. I decided, on the spot, not to get into another conversation with John in public! With all of his eccentricity John was very much loved and appreciated by many of the creative people on the island.
John and I became friends when I first came to Whidbey Island in 1988. When he saw the film that was made about me in 1979, “The Life and Art of Jerry Wennstrom” (currently “In the Hands of Alchemy,”) I felt he understood and appreciated what I had done with my life, both as an artist and as a man. His understanding was expressed in the gift of a small, round rosewood box he gave to me at that time. After telling me he had a gift for me and showing me the box, he asked me to look away so he might place a personal talisman inside. He said the talisman would be a source of inspiration. He then instructed me not to open the box until I got home. When I arrived home I opened the box and found it was empty. I felt it was his gift and his acknowledgement of conscious emptiness – something very different from the “nothing” most of us perceive in emptiness.
For the most part, John lived in a creative, mystical world of his own. He had come to live on Whidbey Island sometime in the early 60s. He was the head of the art department at a major university in California when he “dropped out,” left academic life forever, purchased a storefront in the (then) quiet little town of Langley, Washington, created a large studio at the back of the building and moved into the small apartment upstairs.
John was an inadvertent shaman before the word ever became the ego identity of many-a contemporary spiritual aspirant. Most notably, “shaman” was John’s natural way of Being in the world with everything he did, from making a pot of tea to creating a garden. The early form John’s shamanism took was the creation of unusual talismans and ritual objects. To go with them, he would design personal rituals that the recipients of his creations were instructed to perform.
An example of one such object/ritual was typified in a gift he created for a young architect student he had befriended. As a graduation gift to the student, John emptied out a large goose egg, placed ten seeds inside, sealed the egg back up, painted mysterious symbols on the outside, and gave it to the young man. The student was leaving for a world tour so John instructed him to break the egg and place one of the seeds somewhere at the base of the buildings he encountered that most inspired him. He told him once he had done that, the seeds would grow and inspire his own architectural creations.
Marilyn, my wife, first met John in 1976. At that time his hearing was good and he was open to those who knew of him and his work, stopping by occasionally for a visit. He was very warm and personal, and would welcome guests in to share a cup of tea and give them a personal reading, much like a Tarot reading. He did these readings with a divination process he created using his own board and implements.
John's divination board.
In the late 70s John opened a little shop in the storefront he owned on First Street in Langley. His plan for the shop was to share and sell his creations and create rituals for a wider audience. John called his shop “Sip`apu,” a Hopi word meaning, “entrance to the underworld.” Marilyn told me a rather comical story about John and his store from those early days. One day when she was visiting him, two older women came into his store. Feeling, no doubt, that they had entered another world, the women nervously looked around the store at the strange array of masks, beads and ritual objects John had on display. One woman finally spotted something “recognizable,” that she could identify with, in the showcase. It was a small, elaborately bejeweled circular band. Appearing more confident now, the woman asked if she might have a closer look at the band. After carefully examining it she turned to her friend and said, “Isn’t this cute, it’s a baby bracelet --wouldn’t it make a nice gift for Esther’s new grandchild?” Whereupon John responded, “Well, perhaps. Is the child a boy? It’s a penis ring. This one is especially elaborate, created for those special occasions!” Shocked, the woman quickly dropped the ring, turned and walked indignantly out of the store. John eventually found being a shop owner and trying to translate his mysteries to the typical tourist tedious, and closed the store after only one summer.
John was extremely introverted and for the most part kept the edges of his relationships crisp, clean and safely at a distance. In later years he felt most comfortable in his own environment or communicating in the context of chance meetings. He didn’t appear to like visiting other people’s homes. I would occasionally invite him over to my house for lunch and he would come, but, clearly, it was never easy for him. We have many visitors and friends and I think I believed I could ease John in, to connect with a larger circle of our friends (at that, I did not succeed.) When John visited he would enter the house and remain nervously on his feet for quite some time before actually sitting down. And when he did he would never take off his coat. It was as if he were prepared to leave at any minute.
One day, after running into John on the street, we shared a few ideas and got excited about the possibility of a co-creative project that he, Marilyn and I might do in our large, 2,000 sq. ft. studio. We decided to create a public art-ritual. John suggested we do it in Hopi style, where the entire community would be invited to come in costume and participate. He also suggested we have an alcoholic beverage on hand to serve as a “mind altering substance.”
We were approaching the winter solstice (the darkest night of the year) so we thought we would call our event “One Dark Night.” The idea was to have Marilyn drum, chant and facilitate the ritual, and John would present his multi-projector slide and light show onto the large murals I had recently painted on the walls of the studio. By the time the event was in place it had gotten even more complex and a little out of hand. Over 200 people came to our event, filling my studio to capacity! There were drummers, dancers, singers and chanters. As the event built to its crescendo, there was an orgasmic explosion of wild drumming and dancing which completely overrode the controlled folly of our “ritual.” We let go completely allowing the night take on a life of it’s own.
When the smoke cleared and things began to die down, I looked for John and he was nowhere to be found. The elaborate, costume he had made (but never wore) remained right where he had placed it, coming in the door. Like the “Wicked Witch of the West,” his body dissolved leaving his clothing behind!
John brought his ritual awareness to everything he did. He designed the steep stairway leading down to the beach from First Street, Langley. One day while walking down the stairway with John, he told me the intent of the stairway, which included platforms and benches. He said, rather than the stairway being a means to an end (getting from street to beach) the platforms were strategically placed as “meditation and viewing stations.” He said they were there to give time and space to those aspects of the journey that involved the metaphoric descents and ascents in our lives. At that, the stairway was a success! Whenever I use the stairway and stop and sit on one of the built-in benches along the way I am reminded of something Juan Matus (Carlos Castaneda’s teacher) said about places of power. He said, (paraphrasing) people naturally stop and rest at places of power without being conscious that it is such a place. It is as if our bodies know where to find rest and energetic renewal.
30-years ago John founded Choochokam, our very successful Langley street fair. He originally gave the festival the Haida name “Choochokam” hoping to recreate the sacred, ceremonial atmosphere of a Native American festival. Recently witnessing the 30th anniversary celebration of Choochokam, I found it interesting that few people even knew John Braun was responsible for its creation. Almost as an after-thought, someone who had known John came on stage, late into the opening ceremony and mentioned the fact that John had started Choochokam and that he had recently died.
Perhaps this is the way it must be for the quiet Mystic – to live in the low-light of the mystery and leave dancing in the lime-light to others:
"When the sages work is done, the people think they have done it themselves."
John had a secret garden. When he first came to the island he had purchased a remote plot of land with his mother. Over the years John and his mother developed the land into a garden. John and his mother kept the garden a secret as it grew larger, and more mysterious with each passing year. There were narrow winding paths, which led to constantly changing stations and altars throughout the garden. Strategically placed at these locations were meaningful talismans and sculptures made of found objects, drift wood other unusual materials.
If you were privileged enough to be invited to John’s magical garden you first had to go through the ordeal he put you through to actually get there!
On the way to the garden
At the center of the large, meandering garden was a more featured section of the garden, which was mostly populated with a colorful array of tall day lilies. At the edge of this section John had placed large bundles of 18-inch long sticks. He would invite his visitor to take one of the “wands” and conduct the symphony of growing things in the garden.
Towards the end of John’s life, a small lesion on his face was discovered to be melanoma. I took him into the hospital to have the growth removed and the operation was a success. When he returned home he was instructed to rest so I made and delivered food to him until he was back on his feet again. Going into this procedure however, John’s doctor suggested getting his affairs in order. At this point I felt there was no reason to scare John, but he took the advice seriously, contacted his lawyer and began to create his will and last testament.
John was doing fine and I had not seen John in several weeks when I got a call. He had something on his mind and called to invite me over to his house for tea. When I arrived, he told me he wanted to talk about his will and asked if I would help him decide what to do with his art after he died. Deciding what to do with his sculptures and more importantly, how to handle and move them was no small task. John’s sculptures were “temporary” in their construction and each one of them was literally made from hundreds of pieces.
The main body of John’s art, which filled his small apartment, was comprised of human-size driftwood sculptures. These sculptures had the general appearance of human/animal figures. Each sculpture was hung and adorned with beads and objects, many of which John and his mother had created by hand over the years. John called his collection of sculptures “Shamans” and he would assign and reassign each of them with powers by continually changing and exchanging the placement of the objects on them. By tending the constant shape shifting of his creations, John’s collection of shamans would appear differently each time I saw them.
When we discussed what we might do with his work after he died, I initially suggested fastening the components in place on the sculptures to keep them from falling off when they were moved. This would also make them more desirable for anyone wishing to own one of his pieces. John didn’t like that idea and wanted the components to remain changeable. He said he wanted people to explore and move the objects around like he did.
The day we met to talk about his affairs, John said he wanted to support my art and include me in his will. He asked what he could give me. I told him to leave what he had to his family and he told me he didn’t have a family. I knew he had a distant cousin somewhere and asked him about her. His response was “She is not a creative person and she doesn’t need anything –don’t you want money?” I said, “John, you will have to decide on this issue on your own.” And that was the end of it – so I thought.
I told him I would certainly do all I could to find a place for his work in the world. Little did I know at the time that I would actually have very little to say in the matter. I was, however, able to place a few of his pieces at appropriate locations around the community.
It was just a few short months after our meeting that I was at our local Langley drug store with Claire Dunn, a visiting friend from Australia. The drug store is situated just across the parking lot from John’s Building. Claire is an up beat, creative person and I thought she and John might like meeting each other. When I got this idea I was up on the second floor of the drug store and looked out the window parallel to John’s apartment and saw him outside on the roof without his pants! It appeared that he had locked himself out of the apartment and was trying to get back in. I thought it comical and decided not embarrass him further by bringing Claire over for a visit at that particular moment. Claire was standing right next to me when all of this was going on and never noticed John on the roof, nor did she know of my plan to introduce them.
The next day I heard John was found incoherently wandering the streets of Langley without his pants. Apparently he had had a stroke and was wandering around town disoriented. I felt horrible and wished I had gone to help him when I saw him on the roof. Apparently the authorities had picked him up and taken him to a senior facility up the island where he was locked into the wing of the facility designed for wanderers.
When I heard where John was, I immediately went to the facility to see what I could do to help him. On arrival, a cheerful nurse escorted me to the locked facility where John was being held. The first thing I saw walking in the door was a large “easy chair” that didn’t seem to have had an easy day; someone had thrown up all over it. Entering the main room of the facility I was confronted by a rooms full of people who were out of their minds-- there were people wandering about, talking to themselves, there were screams coming from a private room, loud moans from another, there were 6 or 8 people in wheelchairs sitting dazed in front of a TV.
As I made my way, one tiny, thin old woman seemed to come out of nowhere and latch on to my hand and held onto me the entire time I was there. She urgently asked if she could come home with me. I looked into her eyes, patted her hand and my heart broke. All I could do was remain silent. The facility was one of the saddest places I had ever experienced, and this is not a comment on the integrity of the place. It was a house full of ghosts – ghosts of people who once were. It was the last place in the world I would have imagined someone as creative, wild and alive as John ending up. As it turns out for John, it was one of the last places in the world that John was to be.
When I was finally able to regain my focus, I searched for John (woman in tow) and found him in the dining area, talking to himself. When I approached and he saw me, he appeared to recognize me but then the recognition faded as he wandered away. When I approached again and spoke to him, he looked at me quizzically and asked if I had enough gas for the long trip back (with the experience I was currently having, I was wondering the same thing!) I stayed with John for quite a long while, following him around and trying to connect. Finally, I gave up, said goodbye and allowed him to dissolve into conversation with an invisible somebody else. John died a shrtly afterwards. I was told that, just before he died he said, “This is terrible—I’m getting out of here!”
We had just returned from New York City where we had done a string of events in and around the city. Like always, we came home energized, inspired and financially about even. Just days before we left for the trip our car had broken and with so many other things wrong with it, it was hardly worth the cost of repair. We had touched and inspired many people and given so much of ourselves. I knew the rightness of our work, yet coming home and facing our financial situation I had a moment of doubt. I wondered if perhaps the gods had forgotten about us. Coming into Seattle on the airplane I said a little prayer and asked for help.
A few days later I received a check in the mail from John’s estate for enough money to purchased a car. Marilyn has always given her cars pet names and the shiny maroon Rav4 we purchased she promptly named “Sip`apu” in honor of John and his incredible gift to us. She laminated and hung on the car mirror an original 70s business card from the store, which reads:
Talisman, Fetishes, Amulets, Shrines and Body Pieces
107 First Street (PO Box 2 Langley, WA 98260)
With impeccable timing, the quiet mystic continues his work!
cast into the bowl of night,
mixed with darkness
yet, standing out-
A caste mark set in
the center of my forehead,
between my eyes.
In the morning,
if you see me-
How will I hide
that I have been dreaming?
Poem by Mud
by Jerry Wennstrom
Knowing when I left him that we would probably never see each other again, I found myself haunted by images of limitation and death. I had witnessed the shadow of limitation as it moved progressively over his life, burning its bridges as it went, leaving no way back to more of anything.
One day when I was visiting with Jack (even though he was very weak), with a show of bravado, he decided to go outside and help his pleading young son, Jared get his all terrain vehicle started. Seconds into the attempt — he stopped dead in his tracks, as if he had been hit between the eyes with a 2 X 4 and retreated back to his [not so] easy chair.
During one of my feeble attempts at inspiring conversation, he tried to remain present and awake only to apologize while dropping off to sleep. Saddest of all was a moment when Joann, my sister-in-law offered me some potato chips. I took one, ate it and when offered another said, “No thanks, I don’t really like unsalted potato chips.” Hearing me, Jack looked wistfully over at the bag of chips and said, “I love potato chips.” Knowing he couldn’t eat, I held back tears…my heart breaking.
Spending those two weeks in close proximity to death, on my return home — I saw death everywhere. Yet, contrary to the constant companionship of death, an answer to my prayers arrived miraculously at an unexpected moment. It happened on the phone and it snapped me into a kind of unconditional attention at a moment when my brother needed me the most. The encounter overrode all limitations and flung open the gates to the inevitability of death.
“Relationship exists in the space between us and that space is sacred.” – Martin Buber
Written in the stories and religions of many societies, there are psychopomps; creatures, spirits, angels or deities whose role and responsibility it is to escort and provide safe passage to a newly deceased soul on his or her journey to the afterlife. It is said that bees are psychopomps.
Around the time that Jack died, the glass (containing a bee’s wax candle burning on my altar) shattered, blowing out the candle. Startled by the noise and seeing what happened, it came to me that perhaps Jack had died.
The burning image I hold of Jack is of him standing on the front porch of his home in upstate New York waving me off as I drove away, never to see him again.
Moments before, while sitting in the living room with him, Joann, and Jared — who was crashing cars on a video game he was playing on their wide-screen TV (while Joann commented on his bad ‘driving’ and knowing I had to leave in a few minutes to catch my flight home) I was tempted to ask if they would turn off the TV so we could have some quiet time together.
After sitting for a few moments, trying to decide what to do, I realized that Jack was dying, everyone was sad and the TV might just be what everyone needed. Once I had resigned myself to the situation — the TV went off, Jared went outside to play and Joann got up and went into the kitchen. Miraculously, Jack and I were left alone to say our Good Byes. After a few minutes, sitting quietly together, I turned to Jack and said, “I have to leave soon you know.” We silently looked at each other for a long sad moment — then Jack said, “Will we see each again?” We both knew in that instant that we wouldn’t, so we just held one another and cried.
Eventually (and after our awkward and teary good-byes) I made my way out to the car. I was feeling so very sad, but knowing I needed to compose myself for the 2-hour drive back down to the city. Sitting quietly in the car for a few emotional moments with my eyes closed, I said a little prayer for Jack. On opening my eyes I was startled to see him standing on the porch looking at me with such love in his eyes. I waved, took a picture and drove away in a fog of sad/happy/loving feelings for him — thankful for the gift we received in the raw vulnerability of our last moments on earth together.
After returning home I occasionally called Jack and spoke with him for as long as he was able. Aware of his limited energy and sensitive to any sign of fatigue, I tried to keep our conversations real and efficient. During what was to be our very last conversation I sensed he was on an edge, struggling physically, mentally and emotionally.
Feeling my deep love for him in that instant, I gave myself completely to death itself, letting it take me where ever it needed to go! Shooting from the hip, I said, “Jack, dying is what you are doing now and there is nothing else to do.” With unstoppable determination I spoke passionately about the inherent loneliness of life and how there was no avoiding death for any of us. I told him how brave and uncomplaining he had been throughout his entire illness and how proud I was of him. I told him that he was showing us how it might be done with dignity and grace.
Relieved at having the difficult loneliness of his suffering acknowledged, his response was selfless and emotional. He simply said, “I didn’t want my family to suffer.” We were both overcome with emotion and there was nothing more to say. My older brother John, who was with him at the time, then took the phone and told me that Jack was crying uncontrollably — so was I. With nothing more to resist, we both surrendered into the strange relief and sweet sadness of What Was.
Having the slab of cedar in my studio and continuing to be haunted by death, I began carving the lower part of what became a woman’s body, in skeletal form. Making my way upward the image transitioned into embodied flesh. Life was growing out of death. To further enhance the theme, I placed the carved figure inside of a hollowed out decaying log and called the piece “Nurse Log.” A nurse log in the wild is a dead tree that has become host to new life. The new life often takes the form of a seedling tree that grows off of its host and feeds on the nutrients released by its natural decay.
Perhaps I was trying to rise up and out of the gravity of my recent experience of the death of my brother. For the most part the image at that stage was hopeful and positive. It was a skeleton becoming flesh and reaching upwards out of death and decay. Her eyes were open and her face was transcendent and bright. But I was struggling with the hopefulness of this piece, never quite feeling that what was being expressed was quite “IT.”
My wife loved it and saw in the image hope and a new direction for our lives. My friend and benefactor came to see the new art piece and liked also. Seeing a new and hopeful direction, he felt I was expressing a larger collective hopefulness and new beginning.
Unfortunately, even with the generous praise I was receiving, I could not shake the feeling that the piece had not broken through to that place of inspiration. I had nothing against hope, yet there was something that left me feeling flat. At a deeper level, I sensed the ‘Nurse Log’ did not embrace the deeper mystery and paradox of death and renewal.
Joseph Campbell said, (to paraphrase) art that has “an agenda,” even if that agenda is positive, can only be “propaganda.” He went on to say, inspired creation simply leaves one in a state awe.
Feeling less than awed, I simply (sat) with the art piece for several days. At one point I placed a hammered, brass platter behind the head of the figure and installed a light, which illuminated the indentations at the edges, giving it the appearance of a halo. This move somehow rang-true enhancing the spiritual quality of the figure I was trying to achieve. Meditating on the image further, I felt it had taken on the look of a Russian icon, and the deeper mystery of the Christian mythos began to stir into the mix.
I then carved a second, iconic face and place it over the first. I cut the mask-like overlay roughly in half and hinged it so it opened at the center to reveal the now hidden inner face. Having done this, I felt the piece had at least begun its approach into deeper paradox. Happy with the further developments but still not inspired, I did something that felt like an outrageous act of faith. I forcefully hammered a 12-inch forged steel nail through the upraised hand and painted blood oozing from the wound and I knew the piece was complete.
Hammering the nail through the hand was a difficult inspiration to act on.
I had hesitated for a moment then immediately chose to take action and not to give it any more thought. In retrospect, I believe it was a way for me to jump back into the Now, and in doing so, relinquish all controls and contrived possible outcomes. I was abandoning the idea of “hope,” false or otherwise, and handing life and death back to the gods for them to do with it what they will. It was a way of saying, “Yes — there is life and there is death and I am here for all of it!”
I had a nice connection with Lindsey. A year earlier she had told me how she had been sexually abused as a child by a neighbor, so I knew something of her personal history. I wanted to help. However, not knowing anything about anorexia, I felt a little out of my element. My intuitive understanding of anorexia is that the conscious allure of emptiness is lived-out as the slow and unconscious elimination of the body. In other words, our natural inclination to trust the renewal we know exists in surrender (metaphoric death) becomes an unconscious collusion with the physical demise of the body (literal death.)
After seeing the hopefulness in her mother’s eyes and hearing about the suffering Lindsey had endured in recent months, my feelings of compassion over-rode the initial hesitation I felt. I knew I needed to trust whatever it was her parents trusted in bringing her to me in the first place. Determined to help, I suggested to her mother that she bring Lindsey over and leave her with me the following day.
The next day, Lindsey and her mother arrived on schedule. Her mother nervously dropped Lindsey off, thanked me and quickly drove away. Lindsey was cheerful enough on her arrival – at least on the surface. After a cup of tea and a little conversation, the bottomless pit of her sadness slowly began to emerge. Lindsey looked very unhealthy – thin, gaunt, dark circles under her eyes, discolored teeth from self-imposed vomiting.
When sharing some of the more intense details of her struggle, she would occasionally switch back into a more cheerful voice and counter what she had said. At one point she countered the details of her laxative use with, “I am really not that bad – I only bought 6 boxes this week – I mean there was a girl in rehab who would buy 20 at a time-- you should have seen her!” Quietly and prayerfully I went inward and asked to be given what I needed to help this sad young woman.
“Lets make a mask!” I suggested. She looked at me quizzically and hesitantly said, “Okay.” I had made masks with individuals and groups before, using a simple procedure where plaster bandage was used to mold the general shape of the face. I happened to have a box of the plaster bandage, on hand, that a friend had sent me just a week before. Once we were prepared and ready to begin I had Lindsey lie down on a blanket, covered her face with Vaseline (to keep the plaster bandage from sticking,) and then covered her face with the warm, dampened plaster bandage. After giving the plaster a few minutes to harden, I removed the mask from her face and we were ready for the next step in the process. I had plenty of art supplies in my studio so we set off to paint and decorate the mask. I was still feeling somewhat inadequate in terms of the deeper issue of Lindsey’s anorexia, however she seemed absorbed in the process of making the mask. I was simply trusting where our creative exploration might take us.
Lindsey seemed to get quite involved painting and decorating the mask and was pleased with the final results. Having no intuitive insights as to the meaning of her creation in relation to her current issue, I suggested we take a break. Mask in hand, Lindsey followed me upstairs for a cup of tea. As we sat with our tea and the mask in front of us, I asked a few questions about her experience of making the mask. Lindsey was not someone who was particularly articulate in expressing her feelings, nor did she have a general interest in pursuing the deeper or symbolic meaning of her experiences.
When she was younger, my wife Marilyn and I took her to see a movie we thought she might be interested in. On our drive home after the film, Marilyn and I naturally (natural to us,) discussed what we felt the deeper meaning of the film might have been. Eventually I turned to Lindsey and asked what she thought about the film. To my surprise she looked puzzled and said, “I don’t know -- do you always think about movies?” I said, “Yes, we usually do -- don’t you?” She said, “No, I just watch them.”
As Lindsey and I sat drinking our tea, I didn’t have a clue how making a mask might help her current situation. My confused state of unknowing and a deep desire to help this troubled young woman became a silent, passionate prayer for guidance. At that moment, my feelings of concern for her, and the silence we inhabited together created a particular kind of intimacy between us. I felt she trusted me completely and all of my compassionate attention, at that moment, was focused on concern for her. Perhaps the space we inhabited together was what the Bible assures is available to all of us,
"Where two or more are gathered in my name, there will I (God) be also."
As we sat in our long and diffuse silence with our hands resting closely on the table, I noticed a bit of paint on her hand. With one finger I reached over to rub the paint off. At once, Lindsey snapped to attention, looked at me wide-eyed and appeared to go into a completely altered state! As I watched, a part of her seemed to disappear right before my eyes.
Sensing what was going on for her, I picked up the mask, held it before her eyes and said, “You look just like your mask.” Seizing the moment, I quickly followed with, “You just left your body?” “That is why you don’t feed and take care of your body -- because of the sexual abuse, you learned to leave your body when things get difficult, and somewhere along the way you made the choice not to inhabit your body at all. When I touched your hand in that quiet moment you thought I was coming on to you and you left your body, just as I am sure you did when you were a little girl being abused. That was your way of surviving the experience. When you are afraid, or feel betrayed you leave your body behind and go somewhere else.” I continued relentlessly, suggesting she love and care for her body and never betray it the way others have. I told her she must never again abandon or abuse her body by systematically starving it to death. In my insistence I even gave her “homework!” As a counter-measure to the abuse/self-abuse, I suggested she occasionally produce beautiful, candlelight dinners for herself and consciously care for and feed her body as if it were the Beloved.
Lindsey sat quietly, deeply listening. I can’t remember all that I said that day. However, I felt something very important got through to her and that I had said all that came through for me to say. When I had nothing more to say we sat in a long silence. At about the time we expected her mother to arrive we heard her car come down the driveway and pull into the parking lot. Out of the silence, gratefulness and urgency of the day’s end Lindsey finally said, “You are the smartest person I have ever met.” It was a simplistic way of interpreting my small part in the magic of the day, and I felt anything but “smart.” However, I was grateful for the breakthrough we experienced and grateful for the help of unseen hands that gave us both what we needed.
I didn’t see Lindsey again until months later when she sought me out at a large gathering. It was a blessing to see her so plump and happy as she told me how well she was doing. I told her how wonderful she looked in her pretty red dress. She said, “Don’t tell anyone -- I got it on sale at Target. It was a formal occasion and everyone was well dressed. I said, “Well, you look as beautiful as anyone here.” She beamed a smile and told me she was getting married.
Her tears fall
on the beach
strewn with pebbles and small shells
while her cries mix
with the clacking of
the wild birds
It is not easy to
on a pile of stones
Holding a New Vision
"A very great vision is needed and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky." -- Crazy Horse
A wonderful example illustrating the mystery of this process is in the way Albert Einstein arrived at his life’s work. He admitted that the Theory of Relativity occurred to him in a dream that he experienced as an adolescent. In the dream he was riding on a sleigh that continued to accelerate until it approached the speed of light, where the stars began to distort, changing their pattern and colors and dazzling him with the power and beauty of their transformation. He admitted that the inception of his entire scientific career had begun with that dream.
Even after one’s vision begins to take form in the world, the ability to keep absolutes at bay are required to see the vision through as a unique and complete expression. One’s ability to hold the necessary unknowing that initially gave birth to the vision must be continually tended and refined in its’ original form. Lao Tsu says, “As it is in the beginning, it will be to the end.” The conditions of unknowing that brought through the original vision would have to be reflected in each progressive phase, as the vision finds solid grounding in perceptible reality. Any deviation would effectively interfere with the power and perfection of its final expression. With this in mind, tending a vision requires great care and absolute dedication. Even the most humble of visions has the potential to become one’s life’s work.
I did several storytelling/art events with friend and Salish tribal elder, Vi Hilbert and was able to experience, first-hand, the focus of her life. Vi is an extraordinary person and most certainly a woman of great power and vision! I continue to be astonished by the relentless way she holds her vision for her people. Vi is eighty-nine years old (was when I wrote this article,) blind and living in an assisted-housing situation, yet, she will come out for an event to represent the stories of her people without hesitation. I have spent time and driven long-distances in a car with Vi. She often sits quietly, speaks gently and comes across as your quintessential, sweet, little old lady. Then, I have watched her completely transform into a woman of great strength and power when she begins to tell one of her traditional stories or speaks about the vision she holds for her people.
One’s own true vision is most often held alone and without fan-fare. Vi is greatly respected by her people and most certainly has a large following as a wise elder in the tribe; yet I have glimpsed a deep loneliness in her in relation to the vision she holds. She often speaks of her longing that younger members of her tribe would return to their roots and carry on the vision she holds for her people after she is gone. The beautiful thing I see in Vi is that even with the limitation that comes with walking this good earth for 89 years, she carries on, living out her vision with or without the help of others! Perhaps the inevitable loneliness that comes with carrying one’s vision lies in the fact that there is no reference point to original creation. (How could there be?) Others simply don’t see the reality of a vision until it has undeniably established itself as a form in the collective.
I am certain that Vi’s people (and people in general) will eventually come to see the power and beauty of her vision. This may, however, not happen in her lifetime. Vision is not something one can simply hand over to others. In fact, it is more often than not, resisted. Vision, however, does win out in the end, in spite of being misunderstood by those who fear change and are attached to established old forms.
If you think about it, we are generally not taught how to inhabit the lonely wisdom necessary to carry out a vision for our culture. Instead, we are taught to please others, to fit into the cultural norms; to adapt and stay within the prescribed boundaries of an image of success in a conventional sense. And if we adapt completely to this model, we do so at the expense of our individuality and the very birthright of our own true Being!
We do, however, get a poetic glimpse into the requirements of a vision through our myths and stories. Even in the simplest of myths, one must accept loss, loneliness and obscurity in order to bring through the inspired resolve. How many of our myths, movies, and fairytales leave us in the “belly of the whale” for the proverbial three days before allowing us our well deserved “Happily Ever After?”
In both the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna, and the later Greek myth of Demeter/Persephone, the goddesses either descend or are abducted to the underworld, where they die and are then reborn. This same place also exists in all spiritual traditions. The holy place of complete unknowing is the Garden of Gethsemane and the Buddha on the verge of enlightenment. The Hermetic tradition, whose confusing and labyrinthine treatises were studied and translated by psychologist C.G. Jung, describes a time spent in darkness as an important phase of the alchemical process. This phase is called the “nigredo,” a “black blacker than black,” where “putrefaction” occurs. This experience of breakdown and unknowing is an essential step in transmuting the lead of our unconscious, living itself out as “fate,” into the gold of conscious, deliberate creative life. The archetype of death and resurrection is essentially written-in, as a cross-cultural phenomenon. So who are we, swimming in the shallows, to expect anything significant to come from a diet of “Happy Meals?”
Without the ability to hold a personal vision and enter the landscape of the living myth, we are often reduced to one of three options:
1- We can become selfish, “dig in,” and turn a blind eye to the larger world, only taking care of “my, me and mine.” The corporate CEO, who, seeing the company in trouble, arranges a huge retirement settlement for himself while allowing his investors to go down with the ship, most notably demonstrates this behavior. In a more insidious way (that perhaps more of us can relate to) it is also demonstrated in the way we overindulge our children and ignore those in real need.
2- We can quietly accept defeat, personally and collectively, by allowing the shadow of hopelessness to wash over us and live the shadow out unconsciously. The condition of this scenario, I believe, translates to personal, economic and social “Depression.”
3- We can allow the hopelessness born of our collective shadow to saturate our lives and live it out with reckless abandon, which is what I think many of our young people are doing these days.
A focused vision is the only real grounding we have at times of uncertainty. With vision, we can fearlessly inhabit chaos and uncertainty, allowing the challenges we may be faced with to become grist for the mill of transformation. Keats says, “… Negative Capability… is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats believed that great people have the ability to accept that not everything can be reasonably resolved. He believed that the truths found in the imagination access holy authority and such authority cannot be accessed without one’s "being in uncertainty.” Vision and imagination become indistinguishable when the moment calls on us to trust our intuitive sense of greater possibility. One who holds a vision knows that chaos and the inevitable undoing of established forms offers the most potential for radical, inspired breakthrough.
The vision we hold, in its original form, can be anything. It can be as simple as a personal dream – like the wish to be a successful businessman. If a vision is pursued in earnest, it will develop and demand more and more of us as it evolves. For example, the businessman who starts out with the simple desire to make money has the potential to create a lofty new business model for the world if he/she remains fully engaged with the evolving demands of that vision. A vision relentlessly pursued becomes a journey that takes us on an unimaginable adventure. With selfless determination even a simple, material quest becomes a soul quest!
As the vision evolves we come to see how everything is interconnected and the smaller self that may have initiated the vision, develops and begins to meet the requirements of a larger Self that steps forth to hold the more expanded vision. A person whose awareness expands as their vision expands moves closer to a more dynamic edge and begins to find resonance and inspiration in the extraordinary accomplishments of their predecessors. The dynamics of this edge draws the visionary irresistibly forward into a position of greater responsibility and better articulation of their vision. With the articulation of the vision established, one’s individual accomplishment becomes indistinguishable from the collective’s accomplishment, as it belongs to all of us. Lao Tsu says, “…when the sage’s work (vision) is done the people feel they have done it themselves.”
It is no small thing to land one’s vision on the runway of a timely, receptive moment in the world. It requires everything human we have available, and the miracle of every best advantage, inspired and fallen into place. To see the workings of vision coming through and touching the world, one would have to acquiesce to the hand of Grace.
the empty vessel rocks and sways
gathering scents from stranger airs
filling with songs for
the voyage home
Like the determined lotus that emerges from the muck and the mud at the bottom of a pond, the wild and alive spirit of the streets blossoms unexpectedly in the hearts of young people in an environment of limitation and violence. Water is often referenced as an appropriate metaphor for the collective unconscious. Out of the dangerous, heated waters of inner city street life, has come a unique and inspired expression of healing and renewal called krump.
I recently watched a powerfully raw and moving documentary film by David LaChapelle called Rize. Here is how the film is described:
Former commercial photographer and music video director David LaChapelle delves into the krumping culture in South Central Los Angeles, capturing the unbelievable gyrations of dancers with moves so quick that they warrant a special disclaimer. The high-octane documentary centers on “Tommy the Clown” a former birthday entertainer who opened a school to train community kids to krump – and keep them out of trouble.
The originator of krump and its cultural icon is a humble, loving man by the name of Thomas Johnson. Known on the streets as Tommy the Clown, he is someone who genuinely cares about young people, and the community he has inspired knows it. In his clowning he incorporates hip-hop moves and rap along with a positive, hopeful message. Kids look up to Tommy and he has quickly become a role model in his community. Out of this simple beginning, Tommy the clown’s krump movement has become a worldwide, cultural phenomenon.
Tommy the Clown flanked by an adoring young krumpers
What struck me about the film was the raw and passionate emergence of spirit by young people who have nothing but themselves and the cues they respond to moment-to-moment, living in the wilds of South Central LA. Krumping is such a vital and alive expression of street life, and so immediate -- one young person was moved to describe it this way: “We dance every day, and it grows and changes from one day to the next. If you happen to miss a day or two and come and back to the dance, everybody looks at you like you are a thing of the past!”
The zeitgeist just doesn’t channel any more directly, than that! Like the flow of molten lava, cooling calcifies and slows the process. Those in the heat and light of the movement’s fiery edge immediately perceive any change. It is a rare experience for an artist to dance so intimately and wildly with the muse. When it comes to the grace and gift of original creation, the material advantages we collectively covet may ultimately be our disadvantage! Perhaps here, in the raw reality of inner-city life, a reality for the most part imposed on the poor and the black, is where the gift of this reversal is given.
Whoever walks into the fire appears suddenly in the stream.
A head goes under the water surface, that head pokes out of the fire.
Most people guard against going into the fire,
and so end up in it.
Those who love the water of pleasure and make it their devotion are cheated with this reversal.
The trickery goes further.
The voice of the fire tells the truth saying, I am not fire.
I am fountainhead. Come into me and don't mind the sparks…
Inspired creation, where and when it occurs, is transformational. In keeping with the above-mentioned metaphor, I am reminded of the hydrothermal vents that are created by deep-sea lava flows. By releasing large amounts of noxious hydrogen sulfites, the vents create some of the most toxic environments on the planet. In lifeless, dark areas of the ocean floor the toxins are transformed through a mysterious process called chemosynthesis into substances capable of nourishing colonies of strange, new life forms.
Similarly, the dance moves that spontaneously emerge from the spirit of the streets have begun to transform the toxic environment of inner-city violence into uniquely evolving life forms. Many of the krumpers dance together or engage others in ways that incorporate fight moves. Through the ritual enactment of battle, violence becomes living street-mythology, where even the harsh reality of death is reduced to metaphor.
Krumping attracts young people for many of the same reasons gang culture does -- family, community, initiation, rights of passage. However, the creative outlet of krumping offers something more -- a chance for disadvantaged young people to survive! One young man speaking in the film spoke of krumping as a refuge from the street violence. He made the point that even warring street gangs accept that krump exists outside of the realm of gang activity so they leave krumpers alone.
At one point in the film there is a powerful and beautiful visual comparison made between traditional African dance/ritual and the moves and body painting developed in krump.
Meaningful ritual defines a community’s identity, bringing with it a deeper sense of self and place. Krumping and its’ ongoing development serves in that capacity. One beautiful young woman speaking in the film said that people are afraid to come into South Central L.A. because of the crime and murder but she feels safe and proud to be there. In, what she called, “Holly-Watts” she said she walks with her head up, which she quickly demonstrated in exaggerated, krump style. “It is in Hollywood that I don’t feel safe.” Then, lowering her head and cowering, she said, “Here is how I walk the streets of Hollywood.”
Watching the living, breathing creative expression of these young people, I was left wondering– What do we think we are doing with all of our privileged having, hoarding and personal “advantage?” The beauty these kids bring through, with little more than a painted face, the purity of spirit, and a creative response to the limits of an untenable environment inspires me to tears!
the melting air.
through the gray corridors,
arching in still wonder
at their splendor
in the dark,
The worst kind of vulnerability is that which is self-created through excess, indulgence and denial. In the ease and boredom of excess, we have a tendency to conjure up trivial objections to phantom enemies, in order to make ourselves feel more alive. Appeased and in the stupor of a strange bliss, we do not see when the ground of our reality tilts towards oblivion. To deny, misread, or reinterpret the simple truth of a situation is to miss the opportunity for renewal at all levels.
I saw a wonderful film on the subject recently called "Land of Plenty" by Wim Wenders. The film is about a Vietnam Vet who drives around in a rickety old van with a remote-controlled camera mounted on the roof looking for terrorists. By living out his illusion in a most dramatic way, he manages to convince his gullible sidekick of the urgency of his task. His passionate involvement is so convincing at times, that I, too, occasionally wondered if he was actually onto something. Our anti-hero's wayward sidekick supports his search for a terrorist plot from the "command center" of what appears to be his rundown, messy apartment. Watching some of the more comical elements of the film, one is reminded of the antics of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
A bit later in the film there appears an innocent young woman who, while looking for her only surviving relative, discovers that our antihero is her long-lost uncle. She tags along with him on the terrorist search and becomes something of a silent witness to the unfolding drama. She innocently befriends one of the "terrorists," and from her sweet and trusting perspective we begin to see that our evil suspect is actually a kind and gentle man.
We reach the climax of the film when our antihero, dressed in full battle regalia — night goggles and all, prepares to do battle with the terrorist cell he believes he has discovered. He breaks into their safe house only to find a bed-ridden old lady watching television. The poor woman thinks our strangely dressed antihero is the man from the moving company she has hired to come and pack up her belongings. It is at this point that the great terrorist plot is revealed to be what it actually is — absolute folly! Here our poor antihero collapses into despair and can do nothing more than go out and get completely drunk!
Renewal and not death or folly is the simple Truth of our existence. However, most of us have no problem focusing on the "positive" side of things, and often do so as an unconscious strategy for denial. To avert the difficulty most of us have facing the shadow of our creation it must be emphasized and truthfully defined as the prerequisite gateway to renewal. It is the duty of any vigilant truth-seeker to tow this line, both, for him or herself and for others. It is in our willingness to face the shadow -- to walk into that "thing" that looks on the surface like death; that allows the quantum leap to carry us over into the place of healing. Darkness fully traversed becomes nothing less than the bottom-up renewal of our complete reality.
There is in all of us some strange allurement drawing us towards the shadows. In spite of our "better judgment" most of us find some strange excitement in the chaos of extremes. Tabloids have created an entire industry around this natural, irresistible allurement. Many great artists have made a deliberate effort to explore the extremes by living in the lowlands of the cultural shadow of their day. Creative mind naturally intuits the possibility that inspiration, substance and redemption might be found in the shadows. What we ultimately find there is the light and heat that has been beckoning us forward all along.
We will however encounter dangers in the shadows as well, dangers we must be fully present with and meet head-on if we are to withstand the potential chaos the encounter might lead to. After all, in the shadows, with a flick of the wrist death may point its bony finger at you! It doesn't get any more exciting than that, now, does it? Well congratulations because, here we collectively stand — neck deep in the enormous shadow of the "American Dream!"
The question becomes, will we accept our situation, walk beautifully into the "death" and find renewal or will we abandon beauty altogether, in order to "survive?" When surrender is the spirit of the day and we violate that calling, surviving becomes synonymous with the faithless abandonment of principals. Only useless suffering comes from any attempt to survive the perfectly timed death of a paradigm. Fear creates in its own image, just as God does. Our current fear-based/fear-exploiting administration is a perfect example of the unscrupulous industry of survival creating useless suffering in our world. The more we in America attempt to keep our dying paradigm alive, the more damage we do to the innate dignity of our collective Being.
Abundance in the form we have known in this country cannot continue in the way it has. This particular form no longer serves our humanity or our culture as a whole. The summer season of our particular brand of abundance is, in fact, the paradigm in decline. By meeting the natural requirements of a new season and giving ourselves to the change at hand, we allow the holy paradox of death/renewal to become the reality of a living new abundance.
and because there is no moon,
the whole world seems a shadow.
What else could be like this moon,
mirrored in your eyes
* Poem by Mud
God’s Sense of Humor
Written for Inferential Focus By Jerry Wennstrom
Swami Venkantesananda Laughing
"Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I'll forgive Thy great big joke on me." --Robert Frost
Little reminders of God’s presence, however comical, serve as unexpected guideposts along the way in life. We know that we are “in the best seat in the house” when the gods bring forth just enough paradox to let us know they are paying attention.
Gorby II (Ronald V Knapp) and Marilyn Strong
On a recent trip to the Santa Barbara/Ojai, California area, a memory came unexpectedly to mind. One night several years ago, having dinner with David Whyte and his wife Leslie at their Whidbey Island home, David had just returned from a trip and mentioned meeting Mikhail Gorbachev at an event he had spoken at. Gorbachev has been a hero of mine for a long time. I admired the courageous way he was able to let go of the Soviet Union’s dying, old paradigm and allowed for something new to come through – something that better served his people.
I had heard that Gorbachev actually lived in the Santa Barbara area. Thinking about him and my evening with David and Leslie, I wished I, too, could somehow meet Gorbachev. It was just a fleeting thought and being “on” for the next few days, speaking at different engagements, my thoughts turned elsewhere.
However, our last event before flying back home to Whidbey Island was with a wonderful organization called the Inside Edge Foundation, University of Irvine, CA. After our event I was sitting at the reception table signing books when I noticed my wife, Marilyn, talking to a person who looked like Gorbachev. Soon, when the event died down, Marilyn and the man approached and he introduced himself as “Gorby II.” He went on to explain that he was actually Mikhail Gorbachev’s professional “double” and had traveled internationally making appearances for him. He even spoke Russian! Apparently a birthmark similar to the one Gorbachev has on his head would be painted onto Gorby II’s head and most people wouldn’t know the difference! Gorby II began listing particular world events where Mikhail Gorbachev had appeared in the media, following each one with “That was me!” Remembering my secret wish to meet Michael Gorbachev, I found the moment so paradoxically comical that I wasn’t able to keep a straight face for the remainder of the conversation.
When I was approached by my, now, publisher and asked to write a book, I had to begin the process from scratch. I didn’t know how to type or use a computer, so I had to teach myself both of these skills. As I learned to type, my favorite feature in the Microsoft program I used to write was “SpellCheck.” I had an ongoing joke with my publisher during the writing of my book that I was co-writing the book with Microsoft SpellCheck. When I had completed the book and my publisher asked me to write the acknowledgments, I took the joke further by including a hearty thanks to Microsoft SpellCheck for its’ help (of course we did not include this in the actual book.)
Soon after my book was published, Marilyn and I held a workshop in our studio on Whidbey Island called “The Union of Opposites: Exploring the Inner Sacred Marriage.” One of the people who attended the workshop was George Heidorn, a retired Microsoft employee. After getting to know George, he revealed to me that he had been head of the team that created Microsoft Grammar and SpellCheck. To my surprise, I was actually able to thank Mr. SpellCheck in Person! George found the story so amusing that he contacted the former Microsoft development team and told them my story and how much I appreciated their help in writing my book.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai lama and monks
Several years ago I built a 40-foot high tower on our property here on Whidbey Island. When the tower was completed I somehow wanted to have it ritually blessed. Marilyn had been involved with a Tibetan Buddhist group for some time, so I thought a Buddhist blessing would be most appropriate. As I fantasized about who I would most like to bless the tower, the first person that came to mind was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The possibility of getting him to bless the tower didn’t seem realistic, so I thought perhaps I might find a Buddhist monk to do the job. Having no idea how to go about finding a Buddhist monk, I let go of the idea, feeling that perhaps I was expecting too much.
A few days later, I went for a walk on the trail behind our house. Our trail links up with a network of trails on the hundred-plus acres of a retreat center called the Whidbey Institute. As I made my way along the trail on my walk, I approached an open field near “Granny’s,” one of the Institute’s housing facilities. I heard the sound of men excitedly speaking a foreign language, playing some kind of ball game in the field. Just as I came up the hill near the field, a soccer ball came flying into the stinging nettles near to where I stood. In quick pursuit was a bare-armed, robed Tibetan monk who was about to enter the substantial crop of nettles where the ball had landed. I said quickly, “ Wait, those are stinging nettles! I have long sleeves, let me get the ball for you,” and I went in after the ball. After retrieving the ball, I made my way up to the field where, to my surprise, I saw nine Tibetan monks happily waiting for their soccer ball! When they saw me, the one monk who spoke the most English, Tenzing, stepped out of the group to greet me and cordially thank me for getting the ball.
He told me their group was in the U.S. on a peace tour and that they were staying at Granny’s for a few days, creating a sand mandala at our local Loganberry Farm’s large, public space. As part of the tour of the U.S. they created peace mandalas, did ritual performances and spoke about the plight of the Tibetan people under restrictive Chinese rule. I later found out that they were the same Gyoto monks who were in the film, Seven Years in Tibet, and that the actor Richard Gere had sponsored their peace tour.
I spoke with Tenzing for a while and explained to him that my wife practiced Tibetan Buddhism and that we had, on several occasions, held Buddhist transmission ceremonies at our place, led by Tsultrim Alione. I asked if he and the other monks could possibly come the short distance through the woods and blessour tower. He didn’t quite understand what a “tower” was, so I explained that it looks a little like a Tibetan stupa. By this time the other eight monks became curious and came over to listen in on the conversation. I later found out that Tenzing was the only monk in the group who had not yet achieved the elevated spiritual status of “lama.”
When the group heard me say that the tower looked like a “stupa” they wanted to know which kind of stupa it was. I said I didn’t know, so the head lama stepped forward and led me to his room where we looked at pictures of stupas in a book he had. After looking at many silhouettes of a variety of stupas, I said, “Well, it doesn’t really look like any of those.” I then proceeded to draw a picture of my tower with its flame-like wooden cutouts running up the ridges of the long roofline. The head monk looked at the picture and immediately said, “Ohhh! Flaming Stupa!” and they all chimed in, “Flaming Stupa.” They began chatting in Tibetan and agreed to come over the next day about dinnertime to bless the tower. I was overjoyed and told them that I would prepare a nice meal for them, and they seemed quite happy with the arrangement.
9 Gyuto Monks pile into the 8X8-foot space of our tower to bless it
The monks arrived on schedule and with incense, rice, and water they blessed the tower in a 45-minute ritual. They rang a bell loudly, threw rice and water and did their deep overtone chanting. The tower seemed to glow in the dark for days after they left!
Once again the humorous gods came through. They didn’t exactly bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to bless our humble tower but they did bring this wonderful group of Gyuto monks! The Gyuto monks constitute the Dalai Lama’s personal choir!
It does not matter what form our dialogue with the mystery takes. What matters, is that we are actively engaged in the dialogue and that we are tracking and grateful for the defining, guiding moments when the universe speaks to us (or makes us laugh!) All that comes to us, “good” and “bad,” offers a gift when we learn to interpret the language of the universe. There is no other freedom and no more active way to participate in the unfolding of our own destiny than to find meaning and guidance in an established dialogue with living mystery we are surrounded by.
Something born in me
Something very old
like the gray stone or the gray cloud
Something that puts light in my eyes
Something that sees light in yours
Something older than myself
But born anew inside me
Something very old
Like the brown earth
Or the blue heavens
Like rain upon the earth
In the season when coloured leaves
rain upon the earth
And now this -
As my heart trembles
I am laughing out loud
*Poem by Mud
The Fluidity of Greater Things
Article written by Jerry Wennstrom for Inferential Focus
A decade after letting go of my career as an artist and giving away all of my possessions, I moved to Whidbey Island and got involved with a conscious, intentional community. By that time I had become pretty good at living in the moment. I remember being surprised and baffled by how, even people attempting to live more consciously, were unable to remain open and fluid in the face of unexpected change.
Recently the CEO of a large Texas consulting firm asked me if I would come and work with a group of 30 of his consultants. He wanted me to help his employees incorporate a more creative approach to the work they did for the firm. I agreed to come and was asked to write a proposal describing the approach I would take. I asked my good friend and successful businessman Charlie Hess, if he would look over the proposal before I sent it in. Charlie is someone who bridges the worlds. He is at home in the intuitive/creative world and he is a much sought-after expert in the corporate arena. With his deep understanding of both worlds, I trusted Charlie would know exactly how to translate the essence of what I did into a language that would be best understood in a corporate environment.
When I sent Charlie the first draft of my proposal he clearly understood what I was trying to say and the creative lens through which I perceived the world. I included a line in the proposal that said something about the fear to take a risk. I assumed those reading it would naturally understand that one’s fear to take a risk was not a favorable or creative stance. Charlie in his wise and mischievous way responded (as he knew many corporate people would) by saying, “Why is fear to take a risk a bad thing?” His response turned my thinking upside-down and became something of a revelation to me. It never occurred to me that someone would not see risk as a necessary component in the creative process! I had assumed, just like I did entering that conscious community many years ago, that others were naturally inclined to cultivate fluidity and take risks. The simple fact is – we are not so inclined! Perhaps fluidity and openness are not natural to human beings or maybe we are just not the brightest stars in the galaxy.
Apparently, Lao Tsu didn’t think so in the sixth century BC. Disappointed with humanity as a whole, he offered the wise counsel of the Tao Te Ching and then left town on the back of a water buffalo. The good news is, we survived, and are once again at a critical moment in time. With the radical changes we are experiencing in the world today, we are being given the perfect opportunity to learn the fluidity and openness required of such times. The greatest challenge we face is actually very Taoist. It is to quickly and gracefully adapt and find what might actually be more in what appears to be less. By re-visioning our lives in a simpler, more efficient manner we can create the fluid, joyful life that we knew as children. In the unreal and over consuming lifestyle that has pushed American culture over the edge, we have lost sight of the simplicity of joy and sense of deeper meaning.
A return to the creative potential of a simpler life remains a possibility
for those who have not completely bought into the illusory aspects of the “American Dream” and followed it off the edge. There are innocent victims as well, mostly the poor or otherwise disenfranchised. I will not address this segment of society. Instead I will pray that we do not lose the generous spirit that America has become known for.
Under our current economic and social conditions, what does not bend will break. If we cannot fluidly adapt and see the potential in the challenges facing us, the only alternative is to see ourselves as victims of circumstances. The victim, dependent on a more glorious past, easily feels deprived and can slip into the fog of hopelessness, self-pity and self-indulgence. The victim, attached to a dying paradigm takes the death personally and feels it is his or her own. The paradigm that is coming undone is scratching and clawing to hold on, while the fluid potential of that which is newly emerging is at a most vulnerable place in the process of being born. The dangers that exist here are the same as those that would exist if one were to attempt to save a drowning person. If we allow what is healthy and able to stay afloat to be gripped by the frightened, reckless clutching of that which is going under – all will go down! In other words, if our collective instinct to survive becomes misguided, we will “survive” at any cost.
What we are currently experiencing in our economy is a good example. Our profit-addicted economy is experiencing scarcity as a result of greed and unsustainable business practices. If we remain fixed on the momentum of a nostalgic past, those in power will not necessarily act rationally and look for creative solutions that might benefit everyone. The economic loss will be seen as a death-threat and those in power will irrationally go into “kill or be killed” mode and they will do this mostly to save themselves. From this un-fluid perspective, it becomes easy to justify whatever actions are “necessary” to remove the threat and deliver the goods -- even if it causes enormous hardship and suffering for others. When fearless, creative solutions are sought, radical change and hardship might occur, but everyone survives and ultimately benefits.
Fluid adaptation and the acceptance of that which appears to be “loss” are crucial in taking the next step into a creative new beginning. Loss is an idea based, mostly, on the details and momentum of the past. We are not “losers” unless we have attached ourselves to a dying paradigm. We cannot always do anything about the events of our day, once they are set in motion, but we can do something about our response. It is in our appropriate response, and fluid adaptation that the full potential of a changing situation is revealed.
One has to trust the larger forces behind the events that radically shift our reality. In the inevitable blind spot that occurs during times of transition there is nothing else to trust! For many of us, the very idea of trusting something that is not under our control leaves us shaken and desperate -- often prompting actions that are ultimately destructive.
We in the west have become complacent in our abundance and have come to expect too much. This foolishly involves the insatiable demand for unnecessary luxuries and distractions. There is nothing wrong with wisely lowering “our standard,” especially if that standard is not shared by the rest of world. We may, however, have already gotten beyond the option of choosing. We seem to have been bumped into the next level of reality where even greater trust and sacrifice is required. There is no holier ground than that which IS and What IS right now is less and not more.
The position we find ourselves in is the fertile ground we need and are ready for in America. Here is the place we can do something truly exciting and alive for our country and for our world! We saw a hint of this excitement in the recent election. However, the exciting potential of the moment will be lost if we do not inhabit and befriend the personal emptiness we have had the luxury to avoid for so long.
We are each on a very personal and important quest to become greater and more effective human beings. To begin that quest we must first stop and question the reality we may be taking for granted! There is a saying,
“When your foot has muddied the stream, stop and be still and the mud will clear.” Panic and floundering only creates more of a mess! Our ultimate responsibility is to find clarity in the muddied streams we may find ourselves standing in. Once we have found clarity in chaos we gain real conviction and integrity in the process, which then allows us to effect real change in the world. Larger social problems are always perceived and remedied at the level of the individual. We must each question the more caustic elements of our own creation (however large that creation may be) and see how our choices may be contributing to the momentum of larger, destructive forces in the world. By taking responsibility for our part of the collective madness, we can then choose to consciously disconnect from it and give ourselves to a more powerful and sustainable creation.
By individually claiming the territory of a simple, powerful life we place ourselves in position to serve a larger shift. With the fluidity of greater things, many small stars fluidly offering up their energies to a more epic event are in line to go Supernova.
in his small
* Poem by Mud
Dana was a creative, brilliant and beautiful woman. She was cultured, well educated and came from a well-to-do New England family. She and her husband were intellectuals and might be considered “alternative” in their creative approach to life.
It was through a series of inadvertent and dynamic encounters with Dana that she came to trust me at the deepest level. This trust was in regards to my willingness and ability to compassionately hold and serve the personal, human challenges she came to me with. It was the inherent nature of this same work that also left me in the position to have many of her unconscious shadows projected onto me. They often came at me unexpectedly, which required a certain amount vigilance and clarity on my part. The hard-won trust and intimacy I was privileged to experience with Dana was in direct proportion to my success or failure in transmuting the onslaught of these projections. A successful encounter would end in surrender, tears and renewed awareness. Failure would leave me with the sting of an external projection made real by landing where it did not belong.
With relentless brilliance, Dana also questioned and scrutinized my every action, which demanded a certain amount of impeccability on my part (which I could only do my best to achieve.) Another element in the dynamics of our encounters was the sexual energy, which is an undeniable part of any lively relationship. Having spent years of my life in conscious celibacy, (which is an experience of grace and not will or intent) I was able to remain present with and fly with the sexual energies we shared together without being seduced or manipulated by them. It was a strange and interesting dance, with no rules of engagement. When (out of fear) any rules were imposed, an unanticipated requirement of the moment would come through and render the attempt useless.
Generally speaking, I would say the centers of gravity in Dana’s life were goodness, beauty and intelligence. She and her husband believed in non-violence, they were staunch peace activists, and involved in an international peace movement.
After meeting Dana, briefly, I was initially surprised and a little baffled at the interest she took in my life and story. She relentlessly sought me out in the beginning and we easily became good friends, spending considerable time together. As with any close friendship, subtle changes of behavior are quickly perceived by the other. Dana and I had been friends for some time when I began to notice an unusual aggression in her behavior. At first the change was subtle. Eventually it increased to where Dana’s behavior began to take on an almost reckless quality. As it grew, it seemed to spread, even beyond the borders of her immediate being. Eventually the aggression wasn’t just coming from Dana but towards her as well. It began being reflected back to her by the street kids she was working with.
As the violence continued, I intuited that something was stirring in Dana’s unconscious that was forcing her hand, and the violence occurring in her life was not in her control. In the recklessness of her behavior, Dana began projecting some of the chaos and aggression onto me. At one point, a young person approached me on the street, angry about something that I had supposedly said about him. It was a complete misunderstanding and after I cleared the matter up I asked who gave him the misinformation that made him so angry. I was to discover that the misunderstanding was a direct result of something Dana had said and done.
Shortly after my encounter with the young man on the street, Dana paid me a visit. I decided to talk to her about her aggressive behavior and the ripple effect it was creating. I said to her, “You know, your aggressive behavior and the violence you are creating around you is beginning to spread and do damage -- eventually it’s going to catch up with you.” She looked at me defiantly and said, “You mean like karma? I don’t care about karma – do it now!” Going within and being fully present with the moment’s call, I carefully took off her glasses, placed them in her shirt pocket and firmly slapped her across the face.
Her reaction was a complete surprise to me! First she looked shocked and then she began to cry – perhaps genuinely at first, but it quickly digressed into a forced, comical and exaggerated performance. Her extreme display of injury became so comical that I could barely contain myself. She would occasionally look up from the charade to see if I was watching, see that I was, and force the cry even greater extreme. At the point where she realized her behavior was ineffective and actually amusing to me, she said, “You hurt my feelings terribly. Don’t you feel badly about your violent behavior?” Hardly able to speak through my laughter, I managed to croak, “No, this is far too entertaining!”
Slightly angry and far more curious about why I did not feel guilty, she became quiet again. I continued to watch, fascinated by what might happen next. She then let go, gave a heavy sigh and humbly told me her “deep dark secret.” Apparently she and her husband were arguing one day and she, in a fit of rage, had slapped her husband across the face. She felt terribly guilty for doing it and had not been able to forgive herself.
This strange encounter between Dana and myself had a completely unexpected outcome. Dana was elated and fascinated by all that was revealed by the incident! Out of some deep and unconscious sense of guilt and shame, she had compulsively created the violent experiences that were occurring in her life. She saw herself as an unforgivable, violent person for having slapped her husband and was unconsciously punishing herself. Somehow, my slapping her without guilt, shame or anger and then going so far as to laugh about it, offered some unanticipated liberation for her!
I must say, however, slapping her when I did was a strange and risky intuition for me to act on. I had no idea what the outcome would be. It wasn’t until the whole story was revealed that I fully understood the strange gift that the experience was.
Indestructible, yet reluctant like the low tide
and always moored on the throes
beneath her placid temper
Death – Rebirth
by Jerry Wennstrom
The symbolism I was working with was death/rebirth. When telling Sharon about the art piece I told her I was at a place where I was ready to create a life-size figure to go into the box and needed to find a tall, thin person that would actually fit the box. My plan was to make a mold of the person’s entire body, then cast, in plaster, a life-size figure. Sharon lit up when she heard my plan and said, “I know just the person -- Suzanne.” She went on to say Suzanne was a creative person herself, and she might like being a part of my art piece. She said she would give her a call when she got home. Several days later Sharon called to say Suzanne had agreed to help with the project.
To make the mold, we would need to cover her entire naked body, first in petroleum jelly, to keep the plaster from sticking, and then with plaster. In order to do this quickly (as to not allow our volunteer to get too uncomfortable) I asked Sharon if she would come and help me apply the plaster.
When the day arrived, we had Suzanne lay on her back on the table. After applying the petroleum jelly, starting with her feet, we set out to cover to her entire body with plaster. Suzanne was getting progressively more nervous as more of her body began to disappear under the plaster so Sharon and I worked as quickly as possible. The plan was to make our way up her body and do her face last so that it would be covered for the least amount of time. Although Suzanne could breathe through her nostrils while her face was being covered it was clearly frightening for her once we reached that point. I had done face masks before, using this same technique and I knew from experience that having your face covered could get uncomfortable, and here Suzanne was, with her entire body covered!
As we respectfully held the space for Suzanne’s vulnerability and discomfort, the atmosphere took on an almost reverent intensity as Suzanne gave herself more and more deeply to the process. The reverent intensity required of the moment became so apparent that, I found myself slipping into a more prayerful kind of attention. As Suzanne’s body disappeared completely under the plaster she began to feel seriously claustrophobic. The plaster had not had time to set at that point so there was not much we could do to help her, short of destroying the cast. Suzanne was getting more and more agitated so finally, just to let her know she wasn’t trapped inside the plaster I said, “If we need to destroy the mold to get you out of there, we will, so let me know if you want us to do that.” Once she knew she had that option she seemed to calm down and allowed the plaster to harden.
Once the cast had hardened and we freed Suzanne from the plaster “tomb” she emerged covered with petroleum jelly and bits of hardened plaster, sobbing. Sharon and I comforted her, allowing her to grieve and find her grounding again. Once she was cried-out Suzanne seemed much lighter – jubilant even. It was as if something more than her body had been released from the plaster. Suzanne then took a hot shower, I thanked them both and the they went home.
Not knowing Suzanne, prior to this art project, it was only later that I discovered more about her life and all of the pieces began to fall into place in an unexpected way. Suzanne informed me that she was in the process of a difficult divorce and had discovered she was pregnant the day we had made the cast. After returning home after making the cast, Suzanne had a miscarriage, effectively ending the short pregnancy. Suzanne certainly had no say in the event of her miscarriage, but stated that to have another child under the circumstances of the divorce would have made her life enormously difficult. Part of the struggle in going through the divorce was how she would manage being a single mom. She had one lovely child already and an unplanned pregnancy in the midst of the divorce would have been overwhelmingly difficult. Although she felt a sense of loss, the miscarriage, at that point, was seen as one of those strange and unexpected moments of grace in her life.
I thought it both interesting and appropriate that the pregnant glass belly of the sculpture broke, on its own, after Suzanne and Sharon left the day we created the mold. In creating the outer image of the “pregnant woman” I used a slab of wet cedar that I had found out on the forest floor. I thought it was dry enough to work with and I cut a hole in the area where the pregnant glass belly was to be installed. I then set the tight fitting glass into the hole and filled the surrounding space in with a fiberglass putty, seamlessly transitioning the area from glass to wood. As the still wet wood continued to dry the panel shrunk and cracked the glass. Feeling that somehow the break in the glass related to the break and termination of the pregnancy, I sealed the break in a clear plastic resin and left it in place.
When I think back on all that occurred with the creation of that art piece in relation to Suzanne’s own difficult transition, I find the outcome all quite mysterious. It was interesting that this art piece, dealing with death/rebirth and the blood red flower Sharon placed in the plaster hands over the womb, had made the process feel more like a funeral than an art project.
In the mystery of the soul’s predisposition for balance, perhaps we inadvertently wandered into the ritual enactment of Suzann’s healing process. This was a transitional event where elements of the present and future were rearranging themselves for unknown reasons and with unknown consequences. Some part of Suzanne’s life was dying and the spirit of the unborn was journeying from inner light to outer light, perhaps from one incarnation to the next. It was consciousness arranging the journey in unique fashion. The gift of creation is not to have our ideas brought to life but to have the sacredness of matter reveal that which IS.
She put on the mask,
those of a doll,
I was watching
over the face,
the hard contours
as if it were
* Poem by Mud
When I wrote my book, The Inspired Heart, I made the conscious decision not to tell this story. I simply felt my unusual life was enough of a stretch for most people to contemplate and this particular story might push them over the edge. Even now, as I begin to tell the story, I do so with reluctance. At the same time, I hold the event described, with a certain amount of reverence and awe for the mysterious way events sometimes influences our lives.
Alien abductions, flying saucers and many of the questionable “true” stories we have all heard, are often the stuff of tabloids. Stories like these have left many of us understandably indifferent to the notion of strange or unworldly events actually impacting our lives. I do, however, believe there are many unknown levels of reality that affect our lives in ways most of us are not even aware of.
There is often a paradoxical blend of confused, intuitive knowing and doubt that comes into play when we try to define our extra-ordinary perceptions in too literal a way. As a result of fierce cultural standards we tend to perceive the events in our lives in a most reasonable, rational way and simply avoid the non-literal landscape of paradox completely.
In telling this story, I am attempting to intuit and express, perhaps at a different level, the poetic nature and deeper meaning of a strange event that ultimately opened me to reverence. Hopefully, in the telling, I can create the living room for my story to exist without judgment, most of which might be my own.
It is from the vantage point of retrospect that I am able to hold the paradox of my experience. What I am left with, this far down the road, is a perceptual/energetic interpretation rather than a literal one. I do not claim to know what the source of my experience was. I only know that a profound awakening occurred for me at a very young age, for which I was both thankful and baffled.
I grew up in a poor suburban neighborhood a short distance from New York City in the town of Spring Valley, New York. The residents in the neighborhood affectionately called the area of town “Boot Hill.” Clearly, as I write this 45 years later, the name must have stuck because just the other day someone told me about a new book they had read, written by some famous ball player that mentions getting mugged on “Boot Hill,” Spring Valley, New York.
We lived in a rundown old house on Homer Lee Avenue, which my parents rented. Immediately surrounding our house and situated quite close together were a few apartment houses, a bar, some abandoned buildings and a trucking company. I slept in a small bedroom with my two brothers at the rear of the house. My older brother and I slept in a set of bunk beds and my younger brother slept in a single bed close by. I had fallen out of the upper bunk during the night on more than one occasion but for the most part I was happy with the arrangement. After inhabiting the coveted upper bunk for a short while I discovered other interesting advantages. I found that if I strategically moved closer to the wall (and out of reach) when my father came angrily into our room, after yelling numerous times for us to quiet down, it was my reachable brother who bore the brunt of the spankings we received.
It was in the sanctity of this upper bunk, just before dawn, that I bolted upright –wide-eyed and fully awake. I awakened with more energy running through my body than I thought I could bear. My ears buzzed and my body trembled from some unknown jolt to my system. As I sat trembling I felt (more than saw) a bright light that filled the entire room. It was not the morning light because the light and the buzz that I felt in my body seemed to be one and the same. I somehow knew the source of this light was just outside of my bedroom window, yet I was afraid to pull up the shade and look. Somehow my brothers, my parents or the neighborhood did not seem to share my experience since I never hear mention of it the following day. I simply accepted the fact that it was my own unique experience.
Sitting upright and frightened in bed, I tried to stay calm and resist the intensity of what I was experiencing but could not. My only choice was to let go of the attempt and surrender to the experience, which is what I did. Once I could let go of my fear I became strangely fascinated by what might be outside of my window creating the luminous ruckus that had so completely permeated my reality. My now, fearless, fascination drew me to the window like a magnet. Pulling up the shade and opening the window I saw and felt the heat of a huge, oblong shape of light. Completely overwhelmed by the sight and experience of the light, I dissolved completely into its source. This is all that I remember of the event, yet I never forgot it as I continued trying to make sense of the experience.
When I woke in the morning, energized and excited, I was certain of the reality of my experience and certain that it was somehow a gift. Perhaps in my childish imagination I believed some extraterrestrial force filled my life with light during those predawn moments of my childhood. I also believed the experience had something to do with “God,” even though I wasn’t sure what god was. Following the event something changed in me and I felt easily on speaking terms with the strange god I had experienced. In a childish way, I would speak to him/her about even the most ridiculous things.
There was one more incident that I somehow associated with the experience of light I had. This incident was rather comical and my older brother never let me forget it. One night when I was sound asleep I was awakened by a loud noise and heard my older brother screaming. Jolted awake, my first thought was that the light-ship had returned for my brother. My first response was to panicked and hid under the covers.
When, finally, I peeked out to see what was going on I saw my brother squatting on the floor, screaming with his hands on his head. He was older and knew more than me so I thought his stance in the face of danger was some emergency maneuver that one needed to do if a flying saucer should land in your back yard. Like lightning, I jumped out of bed and positioned myself next to him in exactly the same position and screamed even louder. Immediately, my brother stopped crying, looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you?” I said, “Did you see the flying saucer?” He said, “What flying saucer-- I bumped my head on the top bunk!” and began laughing uncontrollably at me. Apparently, his head hurt far less than how ridiculously funny I must have appeared.
We were working,
an older guy, George, and
up on "Boot Hill."
We were looking
for a church.
Someone had called and
said there was a leak.
We pulled up in front
of a small white house,
paint peeling back,
not much lawn;
There was a slender middle-aged
black woman standing
in the doorway
with a child in her arms.
Two more played on
George opened the
Stepping halfway out,
he called to the woman,
"We're lookin' for
the way ta gahd
road to heav'n
or somethin' like that."
The woman came back
with hardly a breath,
Poem by Mud
Belief, Creation and Paradox
In the emptiness of limitation, beliefs fuel and formulate our creation. When we are faced with the challenges and limitations that we have created, every seemingly hopeless situation offers unseen possibilities. We are never left without some creative way to transform the emptiness we might be experiencing. When we can fearlessly approach the void with an open mind, it becomes a creative, supportive environment rather than the ruthless, lifeless desert it is so often perceived to be. In the paradox of the void, when thoughts are held in suspension, matter is transformed. That is the miracle of life and our only available “Eternity.”
My intention is to tell several stories here, and make some comments but for the most part I will leave the stories in the place of necessary unknowing. There are things I wonder about and the stories I share here have invoked that wonder for me and brought up questions about Belief, Paradox and Creation. I feel the poetry of space, without too much comment on my part might best define something one can only intuit on one’s own. Perhaps that is why “Story” has existed as a primary means of communication longer than any other.
I have many people calling, writing and emailing me, asking if they might visit me here on Whidbey Island and see my artwork. One day a handsome, young Mormon man came to my door. Apparently he was struggling with his life and needed a little help and a mutual friend of ours suggested to him that he come and talk to me. When the young man came to my door I welcomed him, made him a cup of tea and opened my heart to him. Although he did not mention it, it was clear to me, right from the start, that he was gay. After we had tea and I had won his confidence he asked if we might sit on the couch and talk more, which we proceeded to do.
Slowly, as he began feeling more comfortable, he physically inched his way closer to me. I over-road my initial discomfort with what I sensed was going on, gave him the benefit of the doubt and chose instead to stay present with the moment. When after a few minutes he began coming on to me I laughed and said, in a lighthearted way, as not to hurt his feelings, “That’s not where I am at, my friend.” Apparently he had mistaken my openness and attention and thought I too was gay.
It wasn’t the first time a gay man had misread my way of being – and not just gay men, but straight men have done it as well. A homophobic older man once said to a close friend of mine (talking about me,) “I can tell by his eyes that he is gay.” I have come to terms with aspects of the feminine in myself and at this point in my life, naturally inhabit the territory. A balanced masculine/feminine in a person reads like a blank slate and it’s easy to misunderstand and project our fears and limitations onto the emptiness. We have all done it in one way or another.
What I found most interesting about the encounter, was the young man’s own response. A look of horror came over his face! Seeing his reaction, I simply held the space for him to experience what he needed to experience, not quite knowing where his reaction was coming from. To my surprise, after getting incredibly entangled in his own thought process, he broke down and wept. When I saw how hard he was being on himself I said, “So what’s the big deal? You’re gay – there are a lot of people who are gay!” He said, “I am not like other people. I am Mormon and I can’t be gay. You have no idea what it means to be a Mormon.”
There was a paradoxical element of pride the young man took in carrying the mantel of Mormonism while at the same time denying, yet continuing to live out, his sexuality. From what I could perceive, his belief that he was chosen by god to be Mormon but not chosen by god to be gay was creating an irreconcilable split within! I said, “So do you think God had nothing to do with you being gay and that you are not in the best seat in the house to be and live the unique expression of the God who created you?” His continued response was, “No, I am a Mormon. I can’t be gay.” Finally finding no resolve, he laid his head on my lap and cried himself out. I comforted him but I don’t think I changed his beliefs about himself.
Beliefs are powerful tools in the overall creation we come to live with and I am certain the young Mormon’s “sin” played its part perfectly in the drama he had created for himself. In the young man’s encounters, his beliefs were much more the judge, jury and executioner of his reality than anything outside of himself. Guilt, belief and creation become one as the fundamental mix solidifies and takes form in the world. Belief becomes the solid ground we walk upon.
Fundamentalism is an inflexible concrete god when extreme belief, born of denial, eliminates life’s inherent paradox. It is no wonder that suicide bombers are so ready to kill and be killed for a god that won’t budge! How can they do otherwise? If the god actually became flexible or expressed its’ unknowing, it might have to accept what it had been fiercely denying and live with paradox. Acknowledging paradox is the only real antidote to fundamentalism and, incidentally, it is the only path leading to a joyful, embodied existence.
Eventually, beliefs nourished by emotional and religious fervor, gain momentum and create an even larger and more dangerous force in the world. When they do, fundamental polarities are established, and well-defined opposites (like “evil terrorist” and “godly American”) take their places on either side of the battle line.
Let’s face it; we are all “Bozos on the bus,” and much of the time we don’t know the half of what we are creating with our beliefs. Some of our collective creations are holy and some are not. We create our own Hitlers and saints and they all come into play right on cue. Our Hitlers are created by our projections of fear and hatred, long before they ever come to power and our saints are created through love and the long-held belief in the ideal. It is all a big creative mix and we might all be a little more aware of what is in the collective pot we stir.
Story 2 This is a real life experience told to me by a good fiend Sarah.
As a young girl growing up in an Italian, Catholic neighborhood, Sarah, like her neighbors, held strong Christian beliefs about heaven and hell based on the doctrine of their particular faith practice. At about age 10 her best friend, who happened to be a little more mischievous (and perhaps more courageous) than she, was learning and teaching Sarah to swear. After a few days of playfully swearing with her friend, Sarah began feeling guilty and was having nightmares about going to hell. Going to church and confessing her “sin” didn’t seem to help the problem since she continued swearing with her friend. When the nightmares became unbearable, Sarah told her young friend that she couldn’t swear with her any longer because she didn’t want to go to hell. Her friend was upset with Sarah for abandoning their devilishly fun little game and left her house angry that night. On the way home Sara’s friend was abducted by a neighbor, raped, murdered and her body mutilated!
How Sarah assimilated such a devastating experience is beyond my comprehension but, as a result, Sarah did something extraordinary with her life. She went on to create an organization designed to support children who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Her organization became a huge international success and has gone on to help thousands of children.
A priest I worked with several years ago died recently. He was a man born and raised in Ireland, where strict Catholic beliefs are fiercely held in place at all levels. The man became a priest at a young age and spent most of his adult life in the environment and the belief system of the priesthood. Later in life he began to question his vocation and eventually left the priesthood altogether. He eventually fell in love with the woman of his dreams and was the happiest he had ever been in his life. Then, just before he was about to wed, he went to bed one night and died in his sleep!
Belief, to a certain extent, creates the totality we come to call “society,” “culture” and “world.” It is both an individual and a collective creation and involves everything we create within any given belief system. I would even go so far as to say that even the social psychopath who creates fear, chaos and death in a society plays his part to perfection. In the perfect-imperfection of his reality he might get away with what he does, over a long period of time, simply because he believes so completely in what he does. And, I might add, he gets caught when he ceases to believe.
The creative energies and powers behind belief are amoral. They override any ideas of “good” and “bad” and determine the outcome of external events. Because of the amoral nature of this creative force being channeled through individuals, a person’s “sins” are exclusively their own. Actions that create beauty and freedom for one person may create ugliness and limitation for another. It all depends on what we truly believe.
To avoid fundamentalizing the idea that belief, and particularly amoral belief, is the only force in the universe; at this point I must bring in the unreasonable insistence of paradox. While at one level, “anything goes” in the creative realm of amoral belief; at another level there is the quiet persistence of something I will call (for the lack of a better word) Conscience.
Conscience knows order at the very deepest level. It is that quiet, internal compass that maintains our species’ natural reverence for life. Conscience is the immutable, evolving determination of a species to live and love in the mystery of its own mythology.
And here is where the heart of the paradox comes into play -- it manages to do all of this in complete harmony with the wild, creative potential of amoral belief. Interestingly enough, it does this even with the temporary, illusory convictions of the social deviant who, most of us would agree, is a “bad” person. In other words, no one is so completely “bad” or out of touch with reality that his or her soul is not following the lead of a larger harmony and he or she will always sell out the illusion to a higher calling.
It all stirs into the mix, as if there were some cosmic agreement we all made to live and die in the paradox. This is a paradox where amoral energies, beliefs and the determining power of a higher order all play their part and exist as one! We believe what we might and acquiesce when we must and the world is held in perfect order!
I will ground this piece with the line my wife’s Native American teachers taught her to close her invocations with…
When I was an animal
moist on my tongue,
gait swift and strong,
I tore into the
soft flesh of my prey
ripping her apart,
from the corners
of my mouth -
The air still and warm,
I paused to rest.
I stirred to a
an explosion of fire
along my spine -
I never saw her face,
gait swift, strong
a shriek and a howl
before digging in.
It is always so quiet
after the kill
and the frenzy of feeding
like the earth
swallowed up all sound.
There is no more pain,
No more gnashing of teeth,
except for those with which
I consume myself
Poem by Mud
It is ironic that the more serious problems emanate from the more industrially advanced societies. Science and technology have worked wonders in many fields, but the basic human problems remain. There is unprecedented literacy, yet this universal education does not seem to have fostered goodness, but only mental restlessness and discontent instead. There is no doubt about the increase in our material progress and technology, but somehow this is not sufficient, as we have not yet succeeded in bringing about peace and happiness or in overcoming suffering.
His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Men have become the tools of their tools…
… improved means to unimproved ends.
Henry David Thoreau (early 1800s)
Are we happily distracted by information that is grossly sensationalized and designed to appeal to the least conscious part of our selves? This information grabs our attention and keeps it on the surface while deeper realities go unnoticed. Mindlessly buying into this seduction, we collude with the loss of our original knowing and discerning sensibility. Allowing ourselves to be irresistibly drawn into this distraction, our inherent wisdom is easily overridden by the barrage of glitz, half-truth and illusion competing for our attention. Without the determination, or even the willingness to consciously choose what meaningful information we take into our psyches, we are blown about, rudderless, by the winds of meaningless titillation.
There is certainly no shortage of deadening material coming to us through our worship and obsession with technology. Most of what comes, especially through the mainstream media, is what James Joyce would describe as pornographic …that which arouses desire. The end result of such an encounter is usually discontent with who we are and what we have.
When we are able to develop and exercise proper discrimination in deciding what information we take in; deeper meaning and synchronicity substantiates our correct choice. Even if what we glean from the information is dire, we are able to accept the reality of our situation, take responsibility for what is ours and begin to make changes. Intuiting the deeper meaning of things lets us know what is alive and moving in our lives at all levels. The meaning that comes to those with a well-developed, instinct becomes a culture’s living-breathing mythology. It grounds and empowers a culture in a way that withstands the test of time. Conscious, meaningful creation is efficient and self-sustaining. By its very nature it eliminates the blind vulnerability associated with the arbitrary acceptance of meaningless information.
Clearly, we in America are being progressively blind-sided by perfectly predictable disasters, which we have chosen not to see coming. In our frenzied quest for material distraction, we are making bad choices that serve only our immediate desires. Among these bad choices, is the choice not to acknowledge the looming, disastrous consequences of our actions. The industry of disaster that we are creating through our denial will eventually affect our lives in ways that will be beyond our control.
We are already beginning to experience some of the results of our bad choices personally, economically and ecologically.
Twenty-plus years ago, Fr. Thomas Berry warned of looming ecological disaster. He posited that in all of our preoccupation with nuclear disaster, we were not seeing that through our quest for industrial progress we were changing the ecosystems of the earth so radically that, in effect, the bomb had already gone off! We were not listening. Choosing not to hear something does not mean it will not have to later be dealt with as fate.
On an optimistically more twisted note – our salvation may ultimately be realized in the fate of an ecological or economic disaster. I have a personal mantra, The gods whisper before they scream. The scream-turn-disaster may be the event that ends our collusive involvement with meaningless distraction. Disaster is a strange god. However it is, at times, the god we get! It is the voice of our wild that refuses to be tamed, denied or ignored. When all else fails to penetrate the complex defenses of our delusion, disaster is the god that comes to humble and awaken us to a more simple and reverent creation.
The party atmosphere created by our collective frenzy of distraction doesn’t necessarily create a sense of security and optimism. Many of us are living with the dull feeling that, as a culture, we should be someplace other than where we are! There is a thin line between denial and optimism. The sleepy, guilt-tainted fog that overtakes us when we feel into the issues of our day is the insidious paralysis that denial creates. When we fog-over and seek distraction, it is often a subtle reaction to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. True optimism awakens and finds inspiration even in the lowlands. Anyone with any sensitivity, trying to make sense of our times, experiences some degree of this collective fog. It is an overwhelming force that we all must take some responsibility for. This doesn’t, however, completely make it our own. The question is; once we become aware of the destructive nature of the fog what can we actually do about it?
When my own fog-bank rolls in, I have found it helpful to first acknowledge what I am feeling and then hold all that I perceive in a conscious state of unknowing. In other words, when we are overwhelmed by negativity or too much useless information, it is okay not to know what to do or how to do it. However, it is important to be consciously aware of what we are holding and why.
Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda’s shaman teacher said, “A warrior knows how to wait and he knows what he’s waiting for.” What’s important is that we learn to consciously wait without hopelessness or distraction, and that we do so with the intent to eventually move forward by taking inspired, effective action.
Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. -1 Peter 3:15
To unconditionally give an answer about your hope one would have to be living the reality of that hope under any and all circumstances. This is especially true in situations deemed hopeless by the limited perceptions of reasonable mind. To hold this paradox, one would have to acknowledge the perceived limitation, while at the same time, see it as part of a larger perfection. It is in the unknowing and trust in the larger perfection that the paradox is resolved. A wise elder and friend, Richmond Mayo-Smith just put a question out to a group we are mutually involved with. His question hints at this “larger perfection” -
Do we believe there is a field of intelligence, a field of knowing, in the universe with which we can associate in reaching decisions and taking actions?
It is important to look to inspired stories, as examples, when dealing with the dichotomy of paradox. Especially informative and revealing, are examples born of extremes. I personally reference some of the amazing personal stories that came out of the holocaust. In this worst-case environment there were people who found perfection and inspiration against all odds! They did so by seeing, acknowledging and holding exactly What Was without becoming victims of the external limitations imposed on them. When there was little food they shared what they had with those weaker than themselves; surrounded by ugliness, they created beauty. Some died doing this, which turned even the ultimate limitation of death into a statement of life. Isn’t that the death/resurrection template that was struck in the Christ story? It is also the underlying message of saints and mystics of all religious traditions.