Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Missing Mana In Our Communities

For most of human history, community simply meant the people you live around. When we speak of the “black” or “gay” or even “scientific” community today, we do not necessarily think in terms of physical proximity or common resources. Usually we think more in terms of things like political objectives, ideological positions, art forms and manners of speech (professional lingo, “slang”, etc.). As our idea of community becomes more abstract, we may come to feel more sense of connection with people a thousand miles away, who listen to the same music, visit the same web sites or vote for the same candidates, than we do with people who live right next door or even in the same house.

That this is an effect of social and geographic mobility as well as the role of media in most of our lives is obvious. That many of us feel alienated and alone, even though we may know intellectually, that there may be millions of other people who think and feel as we do, speaks to a lack of deep, intimate relationships with other human beings. Why are such relationships so hard for so many of us to establish? I think there are two reasons.

The first is that we do not understand why we need one another. In her commentary on the 37th chapter of the I Ching, LiSe Heyboer writes:

The foundation of a family is economic. Not blood-ties, not love, not sense of duty. All these things can only come to life because there is a foundation and so the family is a family. Love is not strong enough to keep them together. But the pig they raise together, the farm they run, the skills they all bring in.
   When surviving is tough, families are strong. When people adhere to a conviction or master, the disciples become a strong community together. When an enemy threatens, people become fervent nationalists. Always when people need each other to survive, they become families.

We are not as strong as bears or even ants. We are not as fast nor as fierce as lions. We do not have the visual acuity of eagles, the hearing of bats nor the olfactory sense of any canine. We do however posses one capacity in great abundance-language. This does for us what strength, speed and keenness of the senses does for other creatures-it confers a survival advantage, an advantage predicated on being with others.

The second reason we find it hard to form true community is that, for most of us, survival is not tough. We all have problems but very few of these are life threatening. If you are reading this, you already posses the capacity to solve many problems with no direct human aid. You can fix your car, do your taxes, diagnose an illness, bake a cake or answer nearly any question with a few key strokes. If you are reading this, there is a pretty good chance that you are indoors (when you need to be), that you have utilities connected to your shelter and some means to pay for all of this. You are, in a word connected.

What you are connected to is a system of institutions and devices which make it possible to meet your basic-and not so basic needs. These institutions and devices, although built by other people, function more or less autonomously. These were built for the purpose of making it possible to survive and even thrive without needing direct connections with other people. This makes it possible for most of us to live in a manner that suits us with little consideration or even thought about what those around us need. In the developed world, even the poorest people have access to clean, running water, hot or cold, to food, climate control on demand, to medical care, transportation, education and entertainment. If we stay fairly within the law and fill out the proper forms we can have these things without making any earnest commitment to other people.

The only common problem we seem to have is that we feel isolated-we feel this way because we are. Yet because we do not seem to need others, nothing compels us to resolve this problem. Because we sense no immediate threat, we can not even decide what is important. Our capacity for language developed in a context of shared peril. We could say, for example, “look, there is a leopard over there, run this way” or “this fruit tastes good, lets gather a bunch of them” or “this herb is good for the stomach” or “by setting these poles up like this, and covering them with this, you can have shelter even with no caves or trees around”. In all such cases, we are talking about things that present threats and benefits that can best be avoided or exploited through common effort. Those who were best able to recognize threats and benefits won the respect and loyalty of others. Further, threats and benefits were immediate and obvious to most everyone. In our time, we hear much talk of threats and benefits, but these are, for the most part, neither immediate nor obvious. Because of this, we can neither agree on what is important nor how to address it.

If you were a Plains Indian in the 12th century, no one would have to make a case for the importance, even sacredness of buffalo. Buffalo provided meat, clothing, shelter and tools. Because they served so many of your needs so well you would have naturally assumed that they were the gift of some divine spirit. Since everyone would have had the same relationship to the buffalo, anything said of them would strike you as credible, from the best way to track them to the sacredness of their nature. The benefits derived from them and threat of their absence would have presented a real basis for accepting the lore surrounding them.

There is little in our culture that holds such a tangible claim to our allegiance as the buffalo did for Plains Indians. And yet, millions of years of evolution has convinced us, through experience condensed into legend and through the more homely fact of our continued presence here, that there must be something which could fill that role. Nor do we experience any real and immediate threat. Most of us have never even seen a dangerous predator. Our houses keep and climate control systems keep us from weather. Even our “enemies” are safely over seas or locked securely in “ghettos” urban or rural. A lack of immediate and obvious threats and benefits leaves a mind, evolved to seek and identify these, with little to do but invent them.

Some see a God to placate and a Devil to resist. Some find their mana in an ideological position and their “boogie man” in those who oppose this position. Some foods are thought to confer vibrant health while others are little more than deadly poisons. We choose these objects of veneration and derision to give our lives coordinates, the kind of coordinates provided by buffalo and wolves, fair weather and foul. But very seldom do such objects present themselves with the visceral certainty of benefit or detriment that allows us to make firm commitments. We substitute certainty with a brittle militancy or vacillation between what is worthy or unworthy. We find it difficult to arrive at the peaceful resolve which allows us to confidently marshal our inner resources. Without such resolve it is, of course, difficult to impossible to marshal our collective resource.

And this, I think, is why it is hard to build real, face to face human community, why it is difficult to even keep a family together. It is not that we have forgotten how to love. It is that we have no idea what to love. We do not know what we should direct our energies to and so can not agree.  We lack the need-the intuitively obvious value- that makes people a family. Survival is not tough, convictions and masters are another market commodity and real enemies are as difficult to come by as real friends. Until people can agree on what deserves their commitment they will find it difficult to commit themselves to one another.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's In A Map

During my university studies, I took astronomy. The first class began with a discussion of Ptolemy.  Ptolemy assumed the Earth stood at the centre of the universe.  Surrounding the Earth were a number of crystalline shells.  The heavenly bodies were thought to be inscribed upon these shells.

By determining the size and distance of the shells from the Earth's surface, this model founded an astronomical system which made accurate predictions about the movements of stars and planets for centuries.  Over time, however, the model suffered increasing inaccuracies.  these were addressed by adding increasingly complicated epicycles to the system  Eventually the system became too complex to manage while it's accuracy continued to decline.  It was supplanted by the work of Kepler and Galileo, among others, which placed the sun at the centre of the cosmos.

But the system didn't die easily, for it had become powerfully linked with the Catholic Church's world view which favoured placing Earth (and therefore man) at its centre.  In what history recalls as “The Galileo Affair,” the Church Fathers justified their objections to the “heliocentric” (Sun Centred) universe proposed by Galileo because it (according to church authority) contradicted scripture.  They further banned any interpretation of scripture that would make room for such a view of the world.   It is easy enough to presume that these objections were based in fears that the church would be diminished in its authority, and therefore power.  It might be that some feared that a challenge to church authority would weaken faith, and therefore hope among believers.  That some figures in the church hierarchy feared challenges to their own faith seems clear from this excerpt from a letter from Galileo to Kepler:

“My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth."

The frustration Galileo must have felt is clear from this passage.  It is easy to sympathize with him, especially since he was proven to be, at least half right (the Earth does indeed move, but so does the sun).  Yet, we might see in him a degree of righteous arrogance in his description of his opponents as stupid and stubborn.  What he may have missed, and what I wish to address in what follows, is that people do not hold the views that they do based exclusively, or even primarily, on what is objectively true about reality. 

The great Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton once said; “Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than him”.  When you hold a flower in your hand, the feeling is as much about your hand as about the flower, the colour as much about your eye, the smell as much about your nose.  Our own bodies, and the way these bodies (minds) have been shaped by experience, is the glass through which we see darkly. Our ideas about the world are as much about us as they are about the world.  Why should we assume that this world, as it appears to our mind's eye, is any less a product of that eye than of the eye that looks our from our body?

Our models of reality, the maps we draw and read, disclose the world as it appears to us.  That others may agree and use these maps may tell us more about our kindredness of vision than about its accuracy.  The poet Walt Whitman wrote:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
This passage suggests that our understanding of the world reveals us to our selves.   Perhaps the world is more a mirror of our mind than the other way around.  Whether we think that it reveals a divine plan into which we must fit ourselves, or a welter of blind forces that we must simply ride as a sailor rides the wind, this says more about the kind of thing we are than about the world we look upon.  The truth we find is a truth about ourselves.  Perhaps this is the only truth of which we can be sure.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Between Winter and Spring

The day that falls directly between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal (Spring) Equinox is a day of great power. For Celtic Pagans it is Oimelk or Imbolc, when Ewes begin lactation, in later Christian traditions it is the purification of Candles (Candlmass) as well as the Purification of the Virgin. St. Valentine's Day and even Ground Hog's day also echo the recognition that, at this time of year, something is definitely stirring in the winter darkness. For an in depth look at the manifestations of this recognition see here: and here: What all these feasts and celebrations share is the recognition that “light” is returning to the world. The nursing Ewes are symbols that life, having emerged from the obscurity of the womb, is now beginning the long rising arc into radiance. The purification of the virgin, a Christian holiday, hearkens back to the Hebrew tradition of a woman's emerging from her postpartum sequester and returning to active life in the community. These notions, and others, point to one simple and powerful natural fact-spring is coming-life stirs and begins to grow. But when exactly does this day come? A little nerddom with our magic. Let us remember what causes seasons. The Earth rotates on its axis at 23.5 degrees to the sun. As we see, the rays of the sun strike the earth's surface most directly on the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (where we live here in TN). On the Winter Solstice they strike most directly in the southern hemisphere and on the Equinoxes they strike evenly in both hemispheres. The cross quarters are those days which fall between equinoxes and solstices. All such cross quarters have celebrations associated with them.
The calendar dates of the Solstices and Equinoxes are well defined, varying slightly from year to year but always representing specific moments in the Earth's path about the sun (the summer solstice, for example is the moment when the sun has “traveled” as far north as it is going to and begins retreating to the south). The dates of the cross quarters are not so well defined. This is not so much because they do not represent specific astronomical “moments”, but rather, these moments are not considered important to modern cultures (except for their faint echoes in Groundhog's day, Halloween, etc.). Arguably, the specific dates of these, or any such celebrations, do not matter so much as what they represent. New years Day, for example, does not fall directly on the Winter Solstice but it (as well as Christmas), is strongly associated with the meaning of the solstice. If anyone is inclined to acknowledge the importance of Imbolc (Oimelk) I am happy to raise my flagon of mead with them even if the party comes a few days early or late. However, because my geekdom raises my eyes to the heavens, and because I mourn how far we Earthlings have come from understanding that our feasts celebrate real cosmic events, I will suggest that the real date of the February Cross Quarter, at least for this year, is Monday February 17th. True, or “solar” North is 0 degrees of arc on the compass. According to, the sun first appeared on the horizon at 119 degrees of arc on December 22 2013 (the date of the last Winter Solstice). On March 20, 2014, the day of the Vernal Equinox, the sun will rise at 90 degrees of Arc. The distance between sun rise on the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox is, therefore 29 degrees of arc. This means that on the day that falls directly between the Solstice and Equinox the sun should rise at 104.5 degrees of arc. According to, the sun will rise at 105 degrees on February 16 and 104 on the 17th. So, go outside, look up at the sky, note where the sun is and rejoice. This image is from Sharp's Ridge in Knoxville TN. It is taken with the Sun Surveyor App. The compass point of sunrise varies from that given by but the sun's path directly between that taken on the winter solstice (green line) and that taken on the Vernal Equinox (pink line). \