Friday, October 13, 2017

Odin's Tree



I just returned from Iceland. People keep asking me, “So, how was it?”
            “It was great,” I tell them.
But what I really want to say is that it changed my life; that when I look at the photos my heart hurts with longing and my eyes begin to shine; that something about it moved me deeply, in ways I can never explain.
As an act of reverence for the enchantment of Iceland I set myself on a course of study I’d neglected for too long – Norse mythology. In 1,000 C.E. Iceland was the last European nation to convert to Christianity, and even then it didn’t outlaw the old ways – they stayed alive and thrive to this day. Jesus and Odin walk together across her fresh green fields and glacial moraines.
Iceland was first settled by Norwegians, then later by Celts. The spiritual landscape of Iceland is a mélange of Norse mythology, archaic Christianity, and Celtic mysticism. The gods of the Aesir and Vanir jostle for space with the huldufólk or “hidden people” – the elves, trolls, and fairies who inhabit the mounds and outcroppings that rise from the fields of every farm.
The veil between the seen and unseen world is very thin in Iceland.
In Norse mythology Odin was the oldest and greatest of the gods. Long ago, when the world was young, Odin disguised himself as a traveler and went to find Mimir’s well whose waters rose up from the core of the earth to nourish Yggdrasil, the world-tree. Legend has it that one drink from Mimir’s well would make one wise. When Odin found the well he asked Mimir for a drink. Mimir told him no, the water was only for him. But Odin could be persuasive. Finally Mimir agreed, if Odin would do one thing for him.
“What?” Odin asked.
“Give me one of your eyes.”
Without hesitation Odin performed the grisly task, tossing his eye into the well. Mimir nodded, handing Odin his horn.
Odin filled the horn and drank deeply. He felt wisdom flooding through him, and he was transformed. From then on he was known as the Blind God, although he still had one good eye.
Odin has many names and often travels in disguise. He’s tricky that way. He also has two ravens, Hugin and Munin, which mean “thought” and “memory.” They fly far and wide, and are the eyes of Odin. When you see a raven, Odin is watching. They return to sit on his shoulders and whisper into his ears all of the things they know and remember. So it is that nothing eludes Odin’s grasp.
One time Odin performed a great sacrifice in order to attain a higher state of divinity. He hung himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights with nothing to eat and nothing to drink, his side pierced by a spear. His agony transformed him – he was now able to understand the sacred runes that once had no meaning. His resilience unlocked the secrets of the world.
Like gods everywhere, Odin stands as a metaphor for that which is unrealized in us – our highest manifestation. If, as Joseph Campbell claims, “each of us is the hero of our own lives,” then Odin’s story, like the story of any sacrificial god, is our story: evolution driven by the engine of resilience.
In a farmer’s field far off the beaten track, soaking in the roughhewn hot springs at Hruni, my wife and my friends and I let the warm waters wash away the weariness every traveler knows. In the late afternoon light two ravens perched on the roof of the stone cottage across the meadow – memory and thought. Odin is here. Our traveling, our struggles, and our sacrifices pull the threads that help us unravel the mystery of our own lives. We are all on the world-tree, wounded, and longing to become who we really are. One day soon, on the other side of these hardships, we will be able to read all of the runes.

[This piece previously appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the November/December 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]   

Friday, September 29, 2017

Indian Summer



Indian summer is the summer after summer. It’s that period of time – a few days or a few weeks – of warm air, wide open skies, and stillness, summer’s last stand before the chill of autumn sets in.
            Growing up, I always loved Indian summer. I still do. It feels like a secret. Regular summer is all loud and bro – high fives, keggers, and backwards caps. Indian summer is for introverts – long walks, long shadows, deep thoughts, and a tinge of melancholia. Its rewards are subtle, spiritual even.
            Is the phrase “Indian summer” racist? It might be. It’s hard to say. No one really knows how the term originated. Some sources suggest fairly innocuous origins. Others claim it’s a euphemism for “false” summer, as in shifty and deceitful, like “Indian giver” – a racist epithet for someone who gives you something and then takes it right back. Either way, naming a weather pattern after a category of human beings is probably ill-advised, or at least silly. Try these on – Irish Spring, Asian Autumn, Latvian Winter – and you quickly see how empty and meaningless they are. Even if the phrase Indian summer isn’t explicitly racist, it’s tainted by the slight possibility that it might be.
            And yet Indian summer lingers on.
            As a boy the whole idea of Indian summer captivated me. Like a lot of young white kids growing up in the United States, I fell in love with Native American culture, or rather, my image of it. I mean, these people were always camping. How cool was that? They hardly wore any clothes. They didn’t sit behind desks in stuffy classrooms. They didn’t have homework. They learned by doing stuff, not by reading about other people doing stuff. While my life seemed utterly constrained on all sides by social expectations nobody remembered creating, Indians roamed free through forest cathedrals, bathed in shafts of light, and drank cool, clear water from unpolluted streams. But there was one problem. This was all a Romantic projection. I didn’t know much about real Native Americans. I’d seen some movies. I read a few books. I’d lingered for hours in front of the dioramas at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum with their miniature depictions of Chumash life in prehistoric Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. I’d hiked the coastal foothills and come upon pictographs in caves and foot-holds carved into steep canyon walls from a time before the Rancheros. I felt their presence in dry stream beds beneath the sycamores and on the long curve of empty beaches at dawn. Even the California missions, in many ways their sepulchers, reminded me more of the Native people who built them than the padres who prayed inside of them. Though their time had come and gone, the First People felt more present to me than myself. Such is the dizzying confusion and wild imagination of adolescence.
            In the 18th century, when Europeans were first learning about Native Americans, many of them fell under a similar spell. Influential writers and philosophers wrote glowingly of the “Noble savages” that roams the untouched wilderness paradise of the Americas. For these European intellectuals the existence of Indians provided evidence for their assertion that “Natural man” was in every way superior to his European contemporaries. Society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, turned us into phonies and fakes. Christianity compelled us into conformity, and polite society forced us all behind masks. In Native Americans many European elites saw the hope of humanity – that it was possible to return to what Rousseau called a “state of nature” and reclaim our original goodness.
            But the sad fact was, these Europeans didn’t know the first thing about Native Americans. It was all made up. They projected their own needs onto the Native people of the Americas without their knowledge or consent. In a very real sense, this phony affection was as racist as the genocidal hatred that followed.
            My captivation with Native American culture was all wrapped up in my dawning environmentalism. Moving into my teen years in the seventies, I grew increasingly aware of the terrible costs of industrial civilization – pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction, and mass extinction. My already acute melancholia grew to alarming proportions. And so did my resentment. More and more it seemed to me that the Native Americans, and Original Peoples all over the earth, had it right, and that we ignored their wisdom at our own peril.
            All of this came to a head every Indian summer. When the hubbub of summer faded, when school was back in session, when the tourists packed up and left, my hometown of Ventura returned once again to its quiet, natural rhythms. The leaves began to lose their verdant urgency. A slow fade fell over everything. But the sun shone in the sky with a familiar ferocity. By October the ocean water got warmer – warmer than June, warmer than July, and warmer than September even. Surfing in the early evening after school, Venus rising in the twilight, the Channel Islands silhouetted against the darkening sky, I could almost hear the river-reed canoes of the Chumash oarsmen slapping the water as they plied the channel on their long journey home. But it was probably just my surfboard.
            Growing older means growing wiser. At least it’s supposed to. And as we all get better at examining our unconscious biases we feel freer and lighter with each passing year. There’s nothing better than finally admitting that you’ve been wrong all these years. It feels good to let go of bad old ideas. As the Zen saying goes, “How refreshing, the whiny of a pack horse unburdened of everything.” Maybe we can do without the phrase “Indian summer.” But if we all decide it isn’t harmful, maybe we can keep it. To me, language is poetry – all of it. Not always good poetry, but poetry none the less. And Indian summer is a two-word poem packed with deep meaning and beautiful power. It is a love-word, a word that at least tries to get at something real, something profound. Like all the best language, “Indian summer” tries and fails to express something that cannot be expressed.
            So in these long, last days of Indian summer, before all of the leaves fall and clatter down the street in colorful drifts, take a walk along the river or through the forest or down the streets where you live and let the ghosts of what was and what will be move through you like smoke from long-ago fires. Hear the voices of ancient songs in the wind, songs no one ever wrote down. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Move out of your knowing and into your being. Let your edges grow soft, your boundaries diaphanous. Let everything in and everything out. Know the whole of the world as yourself, and all sentient beings as expressions of the same spirit that animates you. Feel yourself disappear and surge forth all at the same time – a paradox your mind cannot grasp but your heart fully understands. These fleeting forms, this passing light, this glorious, ephemeral Indian summer – let it be the prayer you long to say, but never could. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Living With Hate



Imagine waking up every morning knowing that there are people who hate you and want you dead just because you exist. Imagine if the most beloved elements of your family’s culture were held up to ridicule – evidence of your inferiority. Imagine internalizing all of this from the moment of your birth – knowing you were the other, that you don’t belong, that you are less.
            Imagine living with hate.
            As a straight white male, it’s all I can do – imagine it. Through no effort of my own I was granted access to the inner circle. It’s a shameful “achievement” because it isn’t an achievement at all – it’s a genetic accident.
            White, patriarchal supremacy is nothing new. It’s woven into the fabric of the United States of America. Our founding institutions and documents explicitly enshrined racial and sexist hegemony. They were crafted at a time when the ownership and denigration of entire categories of human beings was moral and divinely authorized. The twin Original Sins of Native American genocide and African American slavery have yet to be fully acknowledged, repaired, and atoned for. Even Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “savages.”
            To stand on the ground at Monticello, Jefferson’s mountain top home in Virginia, and to walk Mulberry Row where the slave quarters stood, is to feel in your bones the race hatred in the bones of this nation.
            White supremacy is the shadow side of freedom. Proclaiming that whites are superior to others, no matter how repugnant, is protected free speech. But no right is absolute. The law distinguishes between protected free speech and incitement, the latter being illegal. If your speech is explicitly designed to move others to harmful action, your speech is not protected free speech. It’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Therefore, a Nazi flag is not protected free speech – it’s incitement. It’s a call to action. It’s a war flag that exhorts all who salute it to discrimination, mass deportation, and genocide. Nazi flags are illegal in Germany and France. In other European countries, hate group insignia face additional restrictions. There are no monuments to Adolf Hitler in Germany or anywhere in Europe – just monuments to his millions of victims.
            What are the causes of racism and wholesale denigration of selected groups? This is where it gets complicated. But we have to talk about it. It’s not enough to mouth platitudes like “racism is bad,” or “don’t be a racist,” or my least favorite, “I don’t see color.”  If racism is the enemy, we cannot defeat it until we understand it.
            It’s popular to hold to the view that racism is learned, not innate. In other words, the thinking goes, we are born as pure non-racists. Then, as children, we are taught to hate. Last month when Heather Heyer was killed by an American Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia President Obama wrote the most popular Tweet in Twitter history – it was retweeted millions of times. Quoting Nelson Mandela he wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” Then there’s the classic and oft-cited song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the musical “South Pacific” – “You’ve got to taught/To hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year/It’s got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught…”
            The assertion that racism is a learned trait has merit. Cultural indoctrination is a major influence in the formation of racist consciousness. No one disputes that. And to that same extent, learned racism can be mollified by changing the narrative and teaching people how to think differently. We’re trying to do that. But it isn’t working – at least, not fast enough. But racism has another cause – a cause not enough of us are talking about or even acknowledging.
            A quick survey of evolutionary biology reveals the crucial missing piece. Among all species, humans included, it was evolutionarily advantageous to fear outsiders. Within the tribal clan a certain amount of trust was warranted. But outsiders were eyed warily, especially if they looked different from us. We see this in simian studies, as well as across all species. Why would human animals be any different? In other words, the brain is hard-wired to be biased. Our survival depended on it.
            If part of our fear of others is innate, concretized by millennia of selective adaptation, then it turns out Rogers and Hammerstein, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama are wrong (and you have no idea how much it pains me to say this). Well, they’re only half right anyway.
            Here’s another way to frame it. Racist consciousness is a lower-order cognitive mode that we must unlearn. It is our default setting, and it’s time for a re-set. We have to undo the very structures of thought. In Buddhist terms, we have to awaken from the illusion of separateness. Despite what the processes of evolution and selective adaptation have built into the structures of consciousness, and despite the reinforcement racist consciousness receives via acculturation, it’s time to shine a light on the dark, hidden, unconscious tendencies that drive us and realize instead that we are not defined by the color of our skin, the shapes of our faces, the languages we speak, our religious beliefs, our culture of origin, our sexual orientation, or any of the other differentiations that masks our unity. We have to unlearn this maladaptation before it kills us.
            It’s time to find a middle ground between the naturalist argument (that racism is built in), and the indoctrination argument (that it’s purely taught). It’s never either/or. It’s always both/and.
            The solution begins with an acknowledgement of unconscious bias. If you don’t admit you have it, it owns and controls you. The second step is acknowledging privilege – we all have it in one form or another. You have genetic, inherent, or behavior advantages you did not earn – tallness, an aptitude for language, mathematical ability, gender, ethnicity, youth, right-handedness, heterosexuality, and so on. These “privileges” don’t make you better than anybody else, nor do they make you bad. Simply acknowledge your privilege and begin to wield it in the service of the good. Both of these steps awaken our empathy.  Imagine keenly and deeply what it feels like to wake up every morning knowing that there are legions of people in your community who wish you were dead, who define you as aberrant and inferior, and who quietly and sometimes not so quietly despise you. Until you feel the suffering of others, none of any of this can be repaired. Until we hear the pain, we cannot heal the pain.
            You might wonder how can we live with hate? Well look around. We're doing it. And it isn't working. So many of our wounds are self-inflicted. Life is hard enough. It's time to stop hurting ourselves. It's time to turn instead toward one another, take off our masks, and feel our fears withering in the dawning light of the beloved community.