From DON SANDERSON
‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.
‘Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.’
‘You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’
‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.
‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’
‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–’
‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’
‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’
‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’
‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked. ~ “Through the Looking Glass”, Lewis Carroll
“It is hard to think of America as a culture. It impresses me as being a conglomerate of many cultures, none of them really respected. All of them are at the mercy of what this country imagines itself to be. What this country imagines itself to be may be exactly what it is; what it imagines itself to be, one would have to conclude from what it says, is a collection of pragmatic pious businessmen. That seems to be the American self-image. Nothing could be more sterile. And for any artist finding himself or herself in the middle of a terrifying sterility there is very little that is admired in this country that anyone can use. It seems to me, you know, the chimera of success. …. It is sort of hard to imagine a sterile culture. It is a contradiction in terms. It seems to me there is something there buried alive, trying to, trying …, struggling for expression. I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me the key to American life – if one can say the key to anything so vast as that generality – the key to American life seem to me to be involved with their stubborn, manic refusal to accept their history. The history that is taught, the history that is promulgated in all the schools, in all our institutions is not true. It’s simply not true that the country was founded by freedom-loving heroes. The Declaration of Independence was signed by slave owners.”
The above was recorded in an interview with African-American James Baldwin. It is quoted by bioscientist Lynn Margulis, the dean of those studying mutualism throughout the natural world, in her forward to Stephan Harding’s “Animate Earth: Science, Intuition, and Gaia”, an accessible introduction to the Gaia hypothesis. Of course, those who dare to have read this far are well familiar with Howard Zinn’s efforts to wake us up to our real history. Margulis insists it is not just human history that is ignored or rather misunderstood, but natural history. How so right she is. We Americans won’t allow those strange unfathomable ideas to interfere with business, not let a supposedly rare toad or whatever interfere with progress. Case in point: the Tennessee Legislature just passed a bill requiring the teaching of creation science. Baldwin, Margulis, and Harding speak to greater issues I shall explore here with my own twists.
This spring has been cold and wet, far different from the near-desert conditions we feared only a couple of years ago. Surely this cast doubts on global warming? In fact, not at all. The global monitoring statistics that support global warming are averaged; some areas become wetter, some dryer, some colder, some warmer as weather patterns shift. Whether what the West Coast of North America is experiencing is a trend or only a momentary flux in ongoing climate change remains to be seen.
What has been fascinating to watch is how badly the weather forecasters are performing. As has been know for a half century, weather prediction models are chaotic, which is to say that slight changes in measured conditions can greatly perturb predictions more that a short while in advance. At least part of the reason for this difficulty is that weather itself is apparently also chaotic. Climate changes much less dramatically on the short term, at least normally, and predictions are more accurate if not absolutely perfect. As an instance of the latter, the Earth is observed to be warming a bit more slowly than the climate models predict, but still warming.
As is usual for stars, the sun is warming and has been trending so since before this planet was formed. Yet, as described by Stephan Harding, for over three hundred million years, the temperature remained moderate except for rare wild swings. The Gaia hypothesis is that this stability was regulated by the Earth’s living shell. Some of these processes are well understood. Then, two million years ago something strange began to happen: the Earth began to cycle through ice ages of about 100,000 years duration punctuated by short warmer interglacials lasting ten or fifteen thousand years. It seems that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels slowly built up during glacial periods until they reached the point at about 60 ppm where they triggered rapid melting and the glaciers shrunk. During the interglacials, plant life expanded and captured the atmospheric carbon dioxide and the climate cooled until a new ice age began.
As has been tracked in Greenland’s glaciers our present interglacial, known as the Holocene, began with that higher atmospheric carbon dioxide level (but, much lower than the present 400 ppm), which began to fall as expected and cooling increased. Had that continued, the next ice age would be presumably now beginning. Then, about five thousand years ago, the fall slowed, stopped, and began to reverse – a curious anomaly that had never been observed in previous interglacials.
Recently, several scientists independently had an inspiration; This was about the time that agriculture began to intensify, forests were being felled, human populations were expanding thanks to excess agricultural production, and cities were first being constructed – in the Middle East, Egypt, China, India, and Central America. Is there a causal relationship here? Of course, this is only an hypothesis that can’t experimentally be verified. Nonetheless, as agriculture extended into new regions, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continued to rise. Then, beginning seriously about three hundred years ago, when coal began to be widely used to heat cities, carbon dioxide levels began to increase in lock step with the utilization of fossil fuels.
The good news is we may have held back the next glacial period by a few centuries, which would seem likely to happen to an extent even if the fossil fuels had been overlooked. The bad news is that we may have overshot the mark and may burn up first, which seems increasingly possible. Still, the Earth’s tilt and rotation rate, the presence or absence of sunspots, heightened volcanic activity, and other factors may distort projections; as evidenced during the present interglacial, while the warming trend has been upward, cool periods such as the so-called little ice age, which extending roughly from about 1550 to 1850, were exceptions that we can guess may be likely to recur in the future. But, this is peripheral to the points I wish to make here. Climate change is only one consequence of currently intense interest, if maybe the most serious one, of the original misstep.
That point five thousand years ago when the reverse occurred appears to that at which food became a commodity to be owned and traded if only for labor and when populations moved increasingly away from the land and into walled cities with their property/wealth/power hierarchies. This is an old story that many have related very well. Once food commoditization was understood, it was a straight forward extension to commodify anything someone might want or be convinced they want including their very lives. The property/wealth/power oligarchy has now become extremely concentrated, but not for the first time; there are those who argue this is a straightforward result of commoditization of perceived essentials.
As has happened repeatedly through recorded history, those on the outside have wanted in on the action and have rebelled at being excluded. Whenever they have won, new oligarchies too quickly formed and the situation returned to the status quo because the bulk of the populace still had to work in order to pay for food, it was still a victim of food commoditization. Watch what is happening in the Middle East. Watch new oligarchies form and the situations of most being unchanged. Here is the trap in which we find ourselves. We can’t feed or cloth or house ourselves without working for ole massa. Worse, we can’t even contemplate alternatives as a result of our brainwashing or, if we can, they are blocked by ole massa’s property boundaries. We are not going to ever win unless we change the game, the mental game.
The climate inexorably warms, the greatest extinction looms, oceans die, non-renewable (at least for times we can imagine) resources become depleted, ever more ever stranger chemicals pollute the world, the Japanese fountain spews radioactive materials that will not only affect us and our children, but all other living organisms as well, and we humans heap unbelievable nastiness on each other. These have been catalogued and explained over and over again in ever increasing detail. To what end?
Please forgive me. I’m a befuddled old man continually trying to make sense of it all, wondering why we behave so unwisely and never learn, and what this tiny twig among 7 billion can do to divert the stream. I seem to have no choice but to write for that handful of you that will ever read it, then forget. Why I must do this, I have no idea. Well, maybe. Usually, I have only a vague feeling of what I shall eventually write at the beginning and am always surprised how it germinates and becomes words and paragraphs organized in ways and containing insights that are surprising to me. It seems I’m writing to teach myself. I often wonder who this is that is writing.
I almost always preach the same sermon with, it is hoped, something occasionally novel – and, I’ve always hated preachers. The something new in this case, at least in my own mind, came from a dream. Yes, I’m a dreamer, as I hope you are. Before telling you about the dream and what I learned, I detour here to talk about dreaming. There are those dreams, the usual ones, in which one finds oneself engaged in a series of seemingly meaningless but quite entertaining situations. There are others, much rarer, which have been called big or power dreams, that are generally short and to the point filled with evocative symbols to ease interpretation once one awakens. I think of these latter as only other versions of what we call insights, inspirations, intuitions, serendipitous coincidences, guidances, or similar anomalous knowings arising from somewhere we can’t say that rouse us to important issues we ordinarily overlook. Let me place them in a larger context.
Plotinus was a third century Greco-Roman philosopher, the founder of the school known as Neoplatonism, who taught in Rome. He was Greek speaking and had studied Platonic philosophy and the Hermetic tradition in Alexandria, but he went far beyond both. Toward the end of his life, he captured his teachings in a collection of dense essays known as “The Enneads”. While he was a profound mystic, he was dismissive of religions – as he was of politics. Still, while early Christians were burning contrary books everywhere, somehow his were preserved and apparently cherished to the East. Those who followed in his tracks fertilized, if not seeded, eastern and western Christian, Islamic, and Jewish mysticism, much to the concern of authorities in each. An Arabic translation of “the Enneads” was introduced into fifteenth century Florence, somehow escaped the Inquisition’s notice, and was one of the sparks that set the Renaissance on fire. Even today, there are scholars who specialize in and scholarly journals and books are dedicated to analyzing “The Enneads” while others are using them as the basis of their spiritual practices. “The Enneads” were recently, at least in the time scales we’re discussing, published in a superb English translation by A.H Armstrong in the Loeb Classics, the first of seven volumes in 1966 and the last in 1988. Yet, I wager that few of you have even heard of him.
The perennial philosophy is incredible ancient. With the exception of some few in the eastern Buddhist, Taoist, and Avaita Hindu traditions, Plotinus arguably captured it in words as well as any before or since, most especially for us in familiar western metaphors. The heart of Plotinus’ teachings was of the Nous, which Germans have translated as the Spirit and the French as the Intellect. The Nous in his view is not a God, but the ever changing, ever evolving livingness of that which is. The Greek word “nous”, which may also be translated as mind, refers to the act of directly knowing without the intermediary of rational understanding, so the Knower is suggested – “noesis” is now commonly used to designate knowledge so learned and “noetic” as the associated adjective. Since in Plotinus’ system, the Knower and the act of knowing are inseparable and indistinguishable from the constantly evolving act of creating, nothing fixed and unchanging, I prefer the Knowing. In essence, the Knower, the Knowing, and the Known are inseparable, indistinguishable from Plotinus’ viewpoint.
The central practice Plotinus advocated was contemplation. Stephan Harding gives us some hints: “In holistic science there is an attempt to cultivate intuition as much as thinking, sensation, and feeling. In cultivating intuition, many radical holistic scientists use a methodology that was largely attributed to Wolfgang von Goethe … In this method, careful attention is paid to the phenomena being studied through a process of active looking, without attempting to reduce the the experience to quantities or explanations. … If this works as it should, one can experience the suspension of one’s preconceived notions and habitual responses … The sense of deep relatedness to the object transforms consciousness into a means for holistic perception through which we are able to apprehend the intrinsic qualities of things.” Goethe insisted that the wholeness of an object necessarily includes the observer, which he attempted to explain to scientists of his day with no success. After all, he was only a playwright and poet. What could he know?
Goethe admired and was greatly influenced by Plotinus, but Plotinus’ approach is somewhat more: One contemplates the chosen objective in its wholeness with fully undistracted awareness untrammeled by obscuring expectations. The objective may be a specific thing, a major slice of Nature, the tiny tinglings in the mind that precede thoughts or actions, or consciousness itself – endless choices. Here is one for you: What am I? Knowing may happen quickly or may arise much later while one is involved in other activities. Or it may slowly dawn. In any case, when knowing happens, it typically doesn’t easily fit into logical categories. Thus, poetry. Sounds easy? It isn’t.
Buddhist meditation is a good warm-up for contemplation as evidenced in the writings of Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen who surely never heard of Plotinus but as surely was skilled in knowing. However, classic meditation practices often primarily focus on stilling rambling monkey minds and emotions, which might be said to be escapist. The related Buddhist practice of mindfulness, minding each happening that reaches attention at each moment, is closer to contemplation and also useful, but tends to be passive, which so-called socially and environmentally engaged Buddhists counter. Contemplation as conceived by Plotinus on the contrary is about intentional engagement with the world full on, nothing excluded. It is my experience that if you do so, you will be continually enthralled by that which you hadn’t even noticed.
There are other aspects to contemplation to be explored. As a young artist, Pablo Picasso’s technical skills in rendering scenes and portraits in exacting detail could hardly be matched. As he matured, his interest is such copying floundered and he began to reach for the viewers’ gut feelings, that they experience his paintings as if participants. “What I want,” he wrote, “is that my picture should evoke nothing but emotion.” Consider the pain and anguish expressed in his “Guerinca” that graces the Reina Sofía, Spain’s national museum of modern art, which depicts the Nazi bombing of a Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War. A tapestry copy is displayed on the wall of the United Nations building at the entrance to the Security Council room much to the discomfort of some. “With me creation starts with contemplation and I need long idle hours of meditation,” Picasso explained, “It is then I work most. I look at flies, at flowers, at leaves and bees around me. I let my mind drift at ease, just like a boat in the current. Sooner or later it is caught by something. It gets precise. It takes shape… my next painting motif is decided.” I argue that this process was repeated with each stoke of his brush until the painting was somehow completed, that knowing is generally an evolving progression, that the creative process is driven by fascination, by love, and its expression as beauty. Plotinus saw the knowing as inseparable from consciousness and as indistinguishable from contemplating.
Understand, the impetus behind Picasso’s paintings, this essay, and the Knowing is enchantment, yet it is intensely practical and these skills may be endlessly honed. This doesn’t mean that any supposed inspiration should be accepted on faith. Quite the reverse. Out mental apparatuses can so fool us with rationalizations, particularly when emotion is involved – and it almost always is. If a supposed inspiration doesn’t withstand investigation with no holds bared, it probably isn’t. Warning: the ever creative knowing process can be wild, naked, unpredictable, uncontrollable, sometimes appears inappropriate. With increasing skill, contemplation evolves into effortless not-doing, akin to play, studded with love of discovery and fascination with surprises that become every moment’s experience. Laughter.
Those scientists studying morphology, the formation of the living body, bacteria, plant, or animal, are finding that something mysterious is happening beyond the biochemical brushstrokes. Classical Newtonian science considers everything that happens as a straightforward, if incredibly complex, application of fixed physical laws. Even Picasso’s paintings, our very thoughts, this writing, are potentially predictable, no creativity involved; all the cosmos is a machine and we are zombies. Quantum scientists have learned this is nonsense, that which is is somehow inseparable from the consciousness observer – Goethe finally won. These scientists, as well as many others through history, have often found their concepts were somehow given, somehow happened, were inspired, as a result of contemplation. The founders of quantum mechanics were quite a bunch of mystics. Morphologists, those studying mutuality and psychic events, and other holistic “new” scientists are following in their footsteps. Not surprisingly, some are noticing that Plotinus preceded them.
In the eighteenth century, philosophers Robert Hume and Immanuel Kant attacked our assumptions about the possibilities of knowing reality given only our senses and rational mind. Kant, in particular, argued that we can never know reality; we can only know the phenomenal shadows cast on the cave wall, to use Plato’s metaphor. His arguments were so persuasive that none have countered them, though traditional scientists carefully ignore them as they ignore quantum mechanics. While Plotinus would likely have agreed with Kant, he argued we can know the underlying reality by contemplation. As his predecessor by 700 years Plato wrote, it is possible to turn, exit the cave, and see reality full in the face. Plato also said that those still in the cave would accuse you of speaking nonsense if you attempted to tell them what you had seen. So be it.
In his “Nature Loves To Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective”, highly regarded quantum physicist elder and philosopher Shimon Malin writes, “as we face the new millennium, we are forced to face this challenge. The fate of the planet is in question, and it was brought to its present precarious condition largely because of our trust in the Newtonian paradigm. … if one looks carefully, the main features of the new, emergent paradigm can be discerned.” Following Plotinus’ lead (and A.N. Whitehead’s), he concluded “We live in a world of [immediate] experiences, not of objects”, that if we wish to know reality in all its naked wonder, contemplation without an object, that is of wholes, is the way.
I find it difficult to perceive the living beauty in towns – I conjecture that it was in those first cities of a few hundred residences that we first forgot who, what we really are. In the country, the wilder the better, when I am quietly contemplating, wonderful beauty, livingness, becomingness, knowingness, perpetual creation is all around and within. Feelings of wonder, of joy, of love arise. That which I observe with my physical senses has the character of imagination, of a dream. This is true as well of my physical movements, my literal thinking, my emotions. Though I’m a babe in these ways, when questions arise, problems ask to be solved, or needs demand attention, inspiration, knowing if you will, often just happens as I let it. Even my writing takes me places of which I had no rational expectations. All this is apparently captured in the Australian aborigines’ concept of the Dreaming. Some native Americans describe this as the Mystery and some Hindus as the Dancing. Plotinus taught that we are here to learn, to experience, to treasure Nature in all its fullness, not to escape, none of this being stuff to be packed away in hope chests. Let us dance.
Plotinus and others have taught that the Knowing is powerful beyond all belief. It knows the cosmos and much, much more unlimited by what we can observe with our physical senses. In essence, we each as are all beings expressions of, manifestations of the Nous, all the same stuff. Octopi are among my favorite creatures. It is fascinating to watch each of their tentacle tips exploring and collecting food as if they are independent. In Plotinus’ view, we each, all we beings in our deepest essence are like Nous tentacle tips – commentators often use the term emanations. We are the vehicles by which the cosmos is created and much more. We are more appropriately called becomings rather than beings, since we are ever becoming. There is no problem we can’t solve, certainly when acting in concert. But, this requires letting loose of all our fixed preconceptions, all our reliance on rational, small mind, understanding, allowing knowing to creatively flow, and recognize and accept what is given. It is not that mental processes are unimportant; like brushstrokes they bring insights back “into the cave”. Thus a fragment of what Plotinus had to tell us, but from my point of view the ABCs and sufficient to keep us engrossed for a few lifetimes.
One way to gain insights is to pose questions before going to sleep and await informative dreams. In the dream that instigated this discussion, I was being lectured by a person that given an event, understanding its causes was quite different than given causes, determining in advance what events were portended. The teacher stared me intently in the eye and asked if I understood, that it was important that I do so. As usual with dreams, when I awoke much of what occurred was blurred, but I believe I captured at least an outline of what he intended. I shall attempt to explain.
We are social animals with sophisticated languages. We humans love stories. Before we became literate, repeated stories were the means by which we remembered, by which we identified ourselves. Thus the old archetypical guiding myths. James Baldwin was right. We Americans are confronted today with so many often conflicted stories that the whole process has become confused and most of us not longer know who we are. Almost the only common story left is the often pressing necessity of acquiring money in order to satisfy a long list of items we have become convinced we need. Surely you agree that this is sterile, nothing edifying to be found? Can making a living be the reason we are living?
I’ve been reading Stephan Harding’s book and it all fits. But, it may happen you’ve been involved with the Tea Party and you disagree. When I tell you about what I’ve learned, you turn away. I show you facts or figures and you question my sources. I appeal to logic and you fail to see my point. Maybe you point to the cool weather all around, to supposed evidence that climate scientists have been conspiring, and argue that the next ice age is coming and I wave you away, asking what you are smoking. Or maybe, closer to home, we discuss medical care or the future of the downtown post office and again can find no common grounds for agreement. Many of us, maybe most, feel the driving urge to make sense of it all, to find an escape, a more fulfilling story that will provide a purpose for having lived, and we feel trapped by the continual contentiousness that muddies any certainty. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan., “We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”
One way we attempt to construct stories to make sense of our lives is by analyzing our pasts, creating life stories probing for continuity in our lives. Not surprisingly, histories are among our favorite sources of understanding. As Robert Hume explained, we seek to recognize precursor patterns for events happening so we can learn how to recreate or avoid them in the future. Earlier in the last century, German Hans-Georg Gadamer challenged efforts to understand and communicate such patterns. What?! Let me explain. Hermeneutics is a branch of philological science that originally focused on methodologically interpreting Biblical texts. As such, since these interpretations are invariable strongly held convictions, roaring scholarly wars have been and continue to be fought even by those who are determined to follow the objective rules of hermeneutic science. Gadamer insisted we didn’t have to go to ancient texts to see the problem, that it happened every time we exchanged stories. His intuition was right on, though several more decades passed before scientists began to put legs on it.
A preface: Immanuel Kant argued rationally that the phenomenal world is, as far as we can tell, a make-believe construction that gives us few clues to the true nature of the world-out-there. The apparent reality that we each apparently perceive is actually predominantly imaginal, constructed by our imaginations to sieve meanings from an inexhaustible variety of stimulations impinging on our cells. A significant impetus may be our distractive need to relate our experiences in stories, beginning to ourselves, over and over and over again. Scientists of a variety of persuasions have found evidence everywhere they’ve looked supporting Kant’s contention. It would take a large book to give you the details. In at least one sense, this is distressing because it even puts in doubt supposedly objective science, the very sciences that are investigating our imaginal world-constructing processes. Gadamer couldn’t have known about these findings when he was writing his key papers.
When reading and attempting to make sense of ancient text, the classical and currently usual approach taken by historians is that one attempt to understand what the author was thinking and feeling when he wrote it. So, these historians attempt to objectively reconstruct the past from the presumed direct experiences of the original sources. Gadamer said, nonsense, it is nearly impossible what another person is thinking and feeling at this moment, objectivity is impossible. Rather, when you read text, the information transmitted is what it means personally to you at that time and place. To understand text begins with understanding yourself and is necessarily a personal affair. All your interpretations of stories you read or hear are necessarily “prejudgmental” in the sense that they are always oriented to your present concerns and interests, and it is those present concerns and interests that allow you to enter into the dialogue with the matter at issue. As one Gadamer commentator has noted, the nature of the past now appears as an inexhaustible source of possibilities of meaning, not a passive object of investigation. It appears this is true of the present moment as well, which is drenched in the mysteries of natural history. As Gadamer wrote, “In last analysis, Goethe’s statement ‘Everything is a symbol’ is the most comprehensive analysis of the hermeneutic idea. It means that everything points to another thing.” I.e. there are no “things” that can be pinned down, only continually changing relationships.
When attempting to understand text, according to Gadamer, we are in precisely the same situation as when we are trying to understand a work of art. “The intimacy with which a work of art touches us is at the same time, in enigmatic fashion, a shattering and a demolition of the familiar.” As an example I propose “Guernica”, which critics still continually scrutinize searching for Picasso’s hidden meanings of all his symbols. Gadamer contended it is best approached as an effortless process of playing, with vastly many possibilities, none rejected out of hand. “[T]he game is dynamic process that embraces the persons playing or whatever plays. … the very fascination for the playing consciousness roots precisely into its being taken up into a movement that has its own dynamic. The game is underway when the individual player participates in full earnest.” This approach appears to me to be applicable to the interpretation of any experience and is in essence the same as Goethe’s and Plotinus’. In other words, we are asking for insights, for meaning. When an answer arrives, it will likely be as for most insights, a feeling of knowing yet uncaptured in words. If we wish to communicate this meaning, again we’re stuck with using words with poetry seemingly the most expressive means, or maybe some other artistic medium. Of course, no conventional historian, theologian, or classical scientist is going to stand for that. Imagine if news reporters wrote in that manner and all illustrations were created by fine artists.
“[T]he question is not what we what we do or should do, but what happens beyond our willing and doing.” Gadamer wrote. Every interpretation necessarily includes not only understanding of that which is the focus of understanding, but all the preconceptions the interpreter carries into the study. According to Gadamer, this includes all our perceptions, all the stories, the beliefs, the habitual ways of thinking that define our lives. Any true understanding must include not only what is familiar, but what is strange to us. And, there is the hurdle.
Dare I say, as Gadamer’s writings say to me, that we can’t grasp how much of our imaginal worlds are of our own creations though they seem likely to be largely so, that we are so unable to cognitively understand with our rational minds well enough what has happened in the past and is presently happening that we can wisely change our trajectory. That is my history lesson of the day, which may as much smoke and mirrors as any other – but, show me evidence otherwise. If we attempt to trace links back to their origins, we are irretrievable mired in a swamp of complex relational patterns stretching endlessly in every direction as Goethe noted and Gadamer agreed. Strangeness prevails. Sensitivity, hence acute awareness, hence Plotinus’ contemplation appears to be our life raft. All the endless arguments, the endless stories are so much distracting fluff – but such fun! Actually, I take that back, to an extent; stories can be powerful aids in posing questions, in defining the nature of problems to be solved, in imagining more satisfactory futures, and in converting inspirations into evocative, communicable, sharable forms. Thus, Howard Zinn’s stories and maybe some of my own.
Let’s now consider the second assertion of the dream. Instead of attempting to pry into the past searching for justifications for the present, let us reverse the process and consider what may be involved in realizing a specific future, constructing a history on the fly. Let’s get real. Suppose you are of an engineering or architectal persuasion. Someone proposes an objective, say a significantly novel building or product. The proposal is analyzed and a requirements document is produced and reviewed. Once it is accepted, a preliminary plan for meeting the objective is sketched out and signed off. Now comes the detailed plan, exactly what must be done and in what order in order meet the objective, is developed, reviewed excruciatingly, and approved. Then the implementation begins. In all, all, the big projects in which I’ve been involved, this is when change orders begin to arrive. If the project is finally completed at some future date, which in my experience seldom happens, it has only a passing resemblance to the one that initiated the planning and implementing process. What did Robbie Burns tell us about the best laid plans? Strangeness invariably interferes. Today, many are struggling, demonstrating and discussing how to create a more acceptable future for our society at large. Consider what possibilities there are that any will come to be. If I left us to our fates here, I’d be terribly wrong. Alice’s Queen, a favorite of Carl Jung’s who symbolized his interest in serendipity, gives us a hint of an escape.
The selling of exotic, seemingly magical ways of manifesting a given future for our individual selves has become a growth industry with many, many amazing testimonials. One person of my acquaintance teaches a several day workshop after which he takes the class to Las Vegas with amazing winning results. While I’m not aware that Plotinus discussed this, he could easily have as he linked contemplation with creativity as described above – “the Secret” is what occurs every moment almost entirely without your awareness. The Secret in its essence: skillfully, intently contemplate the event imagined as you desire it to happen. The word visualization if often employed, but the most powerful imagining uses all the senses and feelings including especially that of love. Will it always happen exactly as you expect? Well, no, because you are only one being among an unimaginably vast number contemplating, if you will, aspects of creation to occur at that same moment and contention should be expected. As an obvious example, two who are very skilled in manifesting may be attempting to win the same jackpot. More generally, any imaginable future is only a possibility; the quantum butterfly effect reigns: every whisk of the butterfly wing, every choice we and every other being makes every moment changes the future for everything.
I never said that contemplation couldn’t be self serving. Many who are utilizing the Secret are doing so to acquire possessions, property, and personal security, which surely stifles creativity. This is true in Nature as well. According to the neo-Darwinists, evolution occurs slowly, randomly exploring alternatives in small steps. For example, our cells conserve characteristics of very ancient ones. Evolutionist Stephan Jay Gould radically disagreed. He found what he called punctuated evolution everywhere, i.e. evidence that new and quite different species had often spontaneously emerged. Similarly, so-called old growth ecological systems are marvels of mutualism that utilize energy very efficiently and maintain stability over long periods; ordinarily, such a system can be remarkably adaptive; but when it is disrupted inordinately, it has been observed that species diversity and energy utilization plunges and a new quite different system emerges. More generally stated, all stable systems, such as our civilization, resist change or they couldn’t endure; only out of chaos can new stable systems emerge and they likely will not resemble anything expected.
We humans clearly have been punishing Gaia over at least the past five thousand years with what might be described as a madness of creative engineering for personal power and security and it appears nearly ready to collapse. If our intention is personal wellbeing in the broadest sense, that likely must involve the mutual wellbeing of all about us. It seems obvious to me Gaia must be healed if the human species is to survive; this will surely require loving empathy, mutuality beginning with humble recognition that we understand nearly nothing of this strange complexity. Is it not also clear that all rational efforts to accomplish this will be too little and too late, if not surely result in more damage as has almost invariably been true in the past? Yet, Plotinus would say that the Nous is infinitely powerful, nothing is impossible. It is said that our protective encrustations of beliefs, forgetfulness, and possessiveness must be allowed to fracture and crumple in their own time and can’t be stormed, but there appears to be so little time. But, what of time? If our civilization should collapse as expected, could it not be that a new Earth and new humankind, maybe, will spontaneously emerge from the wreckage? Can we be of aid?
That what in effect is contemplation wrapped in various ways has been used successfully for healing is well documented. Two attempting to manifest a shared future have been found to be far more that twice as successful. Thus, several skilled healers focusing on the same person’s disorder can have very powerful results. Resonance may well be involved. Most successfully, healers focus with loving intent on the final result, not how the healing actually takes place, which would require understand they are unlikely to have. They tell us they are conduits of healing, which is nothing of their own doing. Healing happens.
What I would have is that many focus on healing our very ill culture, that the objective imagined be of mutual benefit not only for humans but Gaia and all its creatures. In fact, this is happening all over the world. I urge you to join. Again, it seems obvious to me that the wellbeing of the living Earth is vital to human wellbeing, to a human future. At least some of those who accept reincarnation are beginning to recognize, as did Plotinus, that incarnation on the Earth is very powerful for learning and evolving, for empathetically playing with all those other beings with many different experiences to share; without it, our lots would be much more. Still, let us not assume we know what will happen next, that it will resemble in any way that of which we are familiar. If no moment ever ended, if every word you read never left your attention, if death didn’t happen, what would the natural world appear as? Possibly boringly repetitious? True creativity will not be constrained by the past. I’m speaking about sensitivity, knowing awareness of what we in essence really are and what our purpose for being here is. Of course, I’m surely dreaming again?
Earlier I asked to what end is all the destruction happening around us – and within us. Our civilization appears to be disintegrating in an orgy of greed and bloodshed. I’m reminded of the Indian classic, “The Mahabharata”. It is an extremely long tale about who shall succeed to the rule of a kingdom. As the battle grinds to a crushing end, many tens of thousands have been slain on each side and families left without support or protection. The final scene is in the afterlife. The warriors are partying, retelling events in which they had engaged over and over again ever more imaginatively. Everyone was laughing at mistakes and clapping and cheering at heroisms. Alas, as with all such parties, all too soon everyone had heard every story to tediousness. Somewhere in the crowd, someone asks another, “What game shall we play next?” He is overheard and the question echoes through the gathering.
“The Mahabharata” is of unknown age, but old. While nearly every Indian had for a long time at least heard it recited many times and the implication of the final question was accepted, somehow the idea of life as theater wasn’t considered in the West until Plotinus. While probing the meaning of evil, Plotinus asked how a play could be interesting without its villains and fools. If you have ever seen any of Shakespeare’s tragedies, you will know what he meant. I remember a crowd ready to storm the stage to stop Othello from listening to Iago. Plotinus extends this “all the world’s a stage” metaphor to the Nous’ creativity. Propero, in “The Tempest”, summed it well:
Why do you look my son in a move’d sort,
As you were dismayed, be cheerful, sir.
Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melded into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded by a sleep.
We are not only the actors, we are co-creatively writing the script as we go along with all the other spiritual beings of the living Earth. May we act our roles wisely and skillfully each moment and not squander time presupposing what will happen next. In the words of a Chinese Chan master, “Nothing is left for us at this moment but to have a good laugh.”