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Eckhart Tolle on enlightenment, ego, and apocalyptic collapse

 

Eckhhart_Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

I have sometimes wondered about the reactions of my readers whenever I mention the writings of Eckhart Tolle with approval, as I have done several times. Tolle is a best-selling writer whose books occupy the same general “mind/body/spirit” publishing niche as those of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, etc. He’s a speaker who has now appeared at Google’s headquarters, the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, and other trendy signature places and events representing the front line of tech culture’s faux fusion with spirituality. He has famously been associated with Oprah Winfrey. (One of the most read posts here at The Teeming Brain, by the way, continues to be “Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity.”) The organization that is set up to promote his work puts out a veritably relentless flood of merchandising associated with his books and teachings. All of the marketing markers point toward his being another fluffy new-gen spiritual guru of the kind whose apparent mission is to make money by encouraging the wealthy and the upper middle class to feel good about themselves by exploring their own specialness.

The thing is, he’s more than that. As I and a bunch of other people discovered well over a decade ago when Tolle’s The Power of Now became a grassroots publishing phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, he is a writer and teacher of frankly astonishing power who manages to communicate to a general audience, in exquisitely lucid prose and spoken words, the same nondual spiritual message that was formerly propounded to a much more rarefied audience by the likes of J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, and others (and indeed, Tolle has named Krishnamurti and Maharshi as being among his primary influences). Say what you will in criticism of the various directions his “brand” has taken in recent years — and a number of such criticisms, some that I view as valid, have indeed been offered — the man himself appears to be the genuine article, as in someone who experienced a profound spiritual awakening/transformation (arising out of intense personal suffering, by the way) and then found that other people wanted to hear about it, and that he was gifted to convey it in words and personal presence. I sometimes wonder whether, in both sociological and religious or spiritual terms, his presence in modern digital mass media culture, including the various aspects of it that invite criticism, might not represent the arrival of a new guru/anti-guru model that’s valid for the present age.

And in a way, I said all of that to say this: hey, look, Eckhart is talking about apocalyptic collapse again. I’ve quoted his apocalyptic observations before. Now here’s a new one, appearing in a recent interview for The Huffington Post that was conducted by Arianna Huffington herself (who has headlined with him at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference). I never fail to find it fascinating when he says things like what’s quoted below, because although on one level he might be taken as just another spiritual guru who is barking about the supposed imminent end of the world and possible advent of a new spiritual age involving a forward leap in consciousness, on another he is truly saying something insightful when he links the age-old nondual realization about the fraught relationship between ego and world, self and other, inner and outer — and about the ground reality that encompasses and gives rise to both — to the quite real disruptions that are visibly attending our ongoing journey into formerly unknown realms and configurations of technological, ecological, economic, and sociological reality on a new planetary scale. Which is all to say that I find his words well worth attending to, not least because he offers not a rosy optimism but an honest recognition that we may well fail the challenge:

Collectively, we are at a point where the old — I call it the old, dysfunctional, egoic state of consciousness — has become extremely dangerous. We can go back 100 years ago, which is 1914, when World War I started, and that was the first time humans fully realized how insane warfare was because of all the advances in technology that had happened by that time. Millions upon millions of people died in World War I from chemical warfare, tanks, poison gas, machine guns and all the other clever inventions of the egoic mind. That was the first time we realized the magnitude of the dysfunction in the collective consciousness, as it became amplified by the advances in science and technology.

We have reached a point now where if there’s no shift in consciousness away from the dysfunctional, egoic state that generates all that insanity, then humans would most likely destroy themselves, or at least bring about a complete collapse of civilization. We have arrived at a point of great danger, collectively, but danger also means great opportunity for change. There’s a fundamental universal truth, and that is humans do not change until they reach a point of crisis. That applies not only to individuals, but it also applies to humanity as a whole. It’s only when we reach a state of crisis, the suffering that it produces creates the impetus behind the shift in consciousness. This is the point that we have reached now, and we’ve been moving towards this for the past 100 years. This is why so many people are now ready to undergo that shift.

So this is a very important moment in human history, where there is a possibility of almost a quantum leap in human consciousness. There’s also the possibility, of course, that humans are not going to make it, that the shift won’t happen, in which case there would be a regression in human evolution that could throw us back several thousand years. Hopefully, that’s not going to happen, but it could happen, and even that would not be ultimately tragic, because I believe that consciousness is destined to grow and flower on this planet. I’m fairly confident that it is happening already, but we must not underestimate the gravitational pull, so to speak, of the old, dysfunctional consciousness that is still here and operates, as you can see when you watch the daily news. Most things you see on the daily news are reflections of the old, dysfunctional consciousness, or, rather, unconsciousness. We have reached a very interesting point in human evolution. It’s quite amazing to be alive at this time.

 

MORE: “A Conversation with Eckhart Tolle

Image by Kyle Hoobin (twitter.com/kylehoobin), via Gregcaletta at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity

A few weeks ago I went and jumped headfirst into the ruckus about Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth over at Oprah Winfrey’s message boards.

Surely you’ve heard about the controversy, haven’t you? Ms. Winfrey recently picked Tolle’s book as the subject for a groundbreaking 10-week video class that streams across the Internet and around the world. Her decision has catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller lists (making it by far the most awesomely popular of her numerous book club picks) and has elicited both great excitement and great negativity from crowds far and wide.

The excitement has come from two types of people, those who already know Tolle’s brilliant work as a spiritual author and teacher and those who are thrilled to be introduced to it for the first time. The negativity has come from legions of fundamentalist Protestant Christians who are filling Oprah’s message boards, and also a lot of the rest of the Internet and World Wide Web, with criticisms of and attacks upon Tolle as an evil New Age deceiver and Oprah as the founder of a proprietary cult that probably has something to do with the anti-Christ and is certainly leading many people away from God, Christ, truth, and so on. It’s as if Winfrey’s decision to promote Tolle’s book has popped a kind of boil on the face of American religion, releasing a flood of pent up, festering nastiness.

You can find out all about it, if you like, by visiting YouTube or Google and entering Tolle’s and Oprah’s names as search terms. You’ll find homemade video segments about Tolle and Oprah that aspire to the status of exposés. You’ll find Pentecostal pastors speaking to large crowds at revival meetings about poor and/or dastardly Oprah Winfrey and her satanically inspired deception of the masses. You’ll find an Internet pastor challenging Oprah to a public debate about religion. You’ll find articles and blog posts by fundamentalist Protestants arguing that Tolle is just America’s “guru of the moment” who preaches a watered-down New Age pantheism and feel-good self-help philosophy, and that Oprah is a veritable she-devil who has made it her mission in life to twist, corrupt, and oppose the (literal, inerrant, non-negotiable, non-interpretable) truth of the Bible.

You can also visit the section of Oprah’s message boards devoted to discussing Tolle and A New Earth, where you’ll find vigorous conversations and arguments in progress about all of these things. If you poke around there long enough, you just might stumble across the following message written by me in response to somebody who suggested that participants in those conversations should consider drawing distinctions between types of Christians, since not all of the self-identified Christians who have been jumping into the conversation at those message boards are writing from a fundamentalist viewpoint.

I happen to know a little something about religion in general and Christianity in particular. I even have the by-God academic credential to talk with some authority about the matter. So here’s what I wrote in response to this very reasonable suggestion:

* * *

You raise an excellent point. Over the past 30 years the words “Christian” and “Christianity” have been hijacked, so to speak, in America’s general public discourse to refer primarily or even solely to fundamentalist Christians and Christianity.

Fundamentalism is the attitude or approach to any given subject or issue (not just religion) that reduces it to a handful of rigid beliefs that are then held as utterly nonnegotiable. They’re also viewed as being pretty much the only points worth talking about. Moreover, in the specific phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, the beliefs are generally held in a literalistic, externalized sense. Anybody who won’t give assent to these rigid beliefs is viewed as an outsider, somebody who’s completely wrong and probably dangerous to those insiders who assent to the beliefs. In short, fundamentalism reduces religion etc. to a dogmatic belief system.

For American fundamentalist Christians this belief system involves a number of standard items, including the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the only Son of God; that his death on a Roman cross was in reality a substitutionary sacrifice where he played the part of a sacrificial lamb according to the old Jewish system of ritual animal sacrifice (an idea that came not from him but from later interpreters of his life, death, and teachings, including, especially, Saint Paul); that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are completely without error, are to be read in a literalistic sense (six days of creation and so forth), and are the sole statement of religious truth, beside which all other purported scriptures are satanic deceptions; and so on. Fundamentalist Protestantism is entirely about “right belief.” It teaches that spiritual salvation is found in intellectual assent to its propositions.

That’s why fundamentalist Christians are so suspicious of competing belief systems: because their entire religion is at root nothing more nor less than embrace of a belief system. Doctrinal purity is everything to them. This means they’re putting intellect in the chief position. Their religion is, as Tolle would say, “nothing but thoughts in their head.” That means they have trouble even recognizing that some religious and spiritual approaches are completely different, that some religious and spiritual paths are not belief-system based but what we might called “way” based, that is, ways of transformation instead of systems of doctrines. For fundamentalists this is generally incomprehensible and often infuriating.

Obviously I’ve drawn an ideal type here. Most fundamentalists aren’t really as rigid as all this. But they are pretty danged rigid, and some of them conform entirely to the broad picture I’ve drawn. Thankfully, there are lots of other Christians who are not like that.

The world riots, nations shudder, Cthulhu wakes

The world tree is rotten and the axe lies at its base. The Midgard Serpent shudders and flicks open an eye. Cthulhu rouses from his slumber of aeons. Time to wake up. There’s a revolution calling. And not just in the visible world.

Or so my mood tells me on this otherwise mundane Friday morning. (And doesn’t “mundane” mean “insane” these days?)

* * *

Got no love for politicians or that crazy scene in D.C, it’s just a power-mad town
But the time is right for changes, there’s a growing fear. We’re taking a chance on a new kind of vision is due
I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth
But now I see the payoffs everywhere I look. Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?

I used to think that only America’s way was right
But now the holy dollar rules everybody’s lives
Gotta make a million, doesn’t matter who dies
Revolution calling

* * *

“In the wake of a political crisis here in America that left both sides looking more than ever like cranky six-year-olds, a long-overdue downgrade of America’s unpayable debt, and yet another round of fiscal crisis in the Eurozone, stock and commodity markets around the globe roared into a power dive from which, as I write this, they show no sign of recovering any time soon.

“In England, meanwhile, one of those incidents Americans learned to dread in the long hot summers of the Sixties — a traffic stop in a poor minority neighborhood, a black man shot dead by police under dubious circumstances — has triggered four nights of looting and rioting, as mobs in London and elsewhere organized via text messages and social media, brushed aside an ineffectual police presence, plundered shops and torched police stations, and ripped gaping holes in their nation’s already shredding social fabric. It seems that ‘Tottenham’ is how the English pronounce ‘Watts,’ except that the fire this time is being spread rather more efficiently with the aid of Blackberries and flashmobs.

“Government officials denounced the riots as ‘mindless thuggery,’ but it’s considerably more than that. As one looter cited in the media said, ‘this is my banker’s bonus’ — the response of the bottom of the social pyramid, that is, to a culture of nearly limitless corruption further up. It bears remembering that the risings earlier this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere began with exactly this sort of inchoate explosion of rage against governments that responded to economic crisis by tightening the screws on the poor; it was only when the riots showed the weakness of the existing order that more organized and ambitious movements took shape amid the chaos. It’s thus not outside the bounds of possibility, if the British government keeps on managing the situation as hamhandedly as it’s done so far, that the much-ballyhooed Arab Spring may be followed by an English Summer — and just possibly thereafter by a European Autumn.

“One way or another, this is what history looks like as it’s happening.”

John Michael Greer, August 10, 2011

* * *

Movements come and movements go
Leaders speak, movements cease
When their heads are flown
‘Cause all these punks
Got bullets in their heads
Departments of police, the judges, the feds
Networks at work, keepin’ people calm
You know they went after King
When he spoke out on Vietnam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

* * *

Great Britain and other parts of the world are experiencing unrest at a time of global economic uncertainty and stock market volatility….[A]round the world…economic downturns are bringing protestors into the streets [in Great Britain, Israel, Spain, Greece, Portugal, the Philippines, China, Syria]. – “Global Uncertainty Leading to Global Unrest,” CNBC

Reaganomics, according to Asher Edelman, has been proven nonsense “time and time again…it doesn’t trickle down anywhere. The man with a million-dollar income who makes another $100,000 is more likely than not to spend it.” As the world watches London burn under the strain of economic uncertainty, Edelman warns it could happen here: “I think that you should watch very carefully for the possibilities of social unrest in this country unless Washington wakes up,” he tells Big Think. It is already becoming a global conflagration. – Big Think

* * *

“We need to, first of all, not believe what we’re being told in the media: that we should be in a state of fear, that the only real response, the only natural response to what’s happening, is a state of fear. That is an unconscious response. We need to see that change is absolutely necessary in this world, and the dissolution of many of the ego-based structures is absolutely necessary for the planet to survive and for humanity to survive. So what’s happening is not dreadfully bad. What’s happening needs to happen. The totality, the intelligence behind phenomena, is doing it. So it is a good thing.”- Eckhart Tolle

* * *

Revelations of personal insecurity continued to rise in the decades that followed [World War II and the advent of the atomic age]. Depletion of natural resources, spiraling inflation, religious warfare, governmental and industrial corruption, political assassination, street crimes, mass murder, and drug addiction grew and flourished. No heroes appeared on the scene to offer succor or solutions. Like the turmoil and upheaval that preceded the return of the Great Old Ones in Lovecraft’s fiction, the world seemed to be preparing for its final fate now that “the stars were right”…In a time of turmoil there is a widespread intimation — not based on hereditary impulse but on today’s realities — that the evils abroad in the world may come from without as well as from within ourselves. While we may consciously reject [Lovecraft’s] cosmology, a part of us finds in it a chilling confirmation of secret fears. At the time Lovecraft created it, the “Cthulhu Mythos” and its threat of Elder Gods rising and returning to rule over earth could be easily dismissed as merely a paranoid fable of the future. Today there is growing suspicion that this future may become our present.” – Robert Bloch, “Heritage of Horror

Indigenous myths, animal ESP, and portents of apocalyptic transformation

Here’s science writer Carrie Arnold, in a newly published article at Aeon titled “Watchers of the Earth,” discussing the possibility that indigenous myths may carry warning signals for natural disasters:

Shortly before 8am on 26 December 2004, the cicadas fell silent and the ground shook in dismay. The Moken, an isolated tribe on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, knew that the Laboon, the ‘wave that eats people’, had stirred from his ocean lair. The Moken also knew what was next: a towering wall of water washing over their island, cleansing it of all that was evil and impure. To heed the Laboon’s warning signs, elders told their children, run to high ground.

The tiny Andaman and Nicobar Islands were directly in the path of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Final totals put the islands’ death toll at 1,879, with another 5,600 people missing. When relief workers finally came ashore, however, they realised that the death toll was skewed. The islanders who had heard the stories about the Laboon or similar mythological figures survived the tsunami essentially unscathed. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern Nicobar Islands. Part of the reason was the area’s geography, which generated a higher wave. But also at the root was the lack of a legacy; many residents in the city of Port Blair were outsiders, leaving them with no indigenous tsunami warning system to guide them to higher ground.

Humanity has always courted disaster. We have lived, died and even thrived alongside vengeful volcanoes and merciless waves. Some disasters arrive without warning, leaving survival to luck. Often, however, there is a small window of time giving people a chance to escape. Learning how to crack open this window can be difficult when a given catastrophe strikes once every few generations. So humans passed down stories through the ages that helped cultures to cope when disaster inevitably struck. These stories were fodder for anthropologists and social scientists, but in the past decade, geologists have begun to pay more attention to how indigenous peoples understood, and prepared for, disaster. These stories, which couched myth in metaphor, could ultimately help scientists prepare for cataclysms to come.

Reading this triggered a flood of associated thoughts this morning, mostly related to things I’ve read elsewhere that resonate with it. Although the basic focus is different, for me this article somewhat recalls a starkly apocalyptic and millenarian passage from the ending to Benjamin Hoff’s The Te of Piglet (1992), a book that many readers found off-putting for its semi-grimness, which represented a departure from the more charmingly whimsical presentation of Taoism that Hoff had adopted in its predecessor, The Tao of Pooh: Read the rest of this entry

My introduction to Jon Padgett’s ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’

As I have mentioned in the past, my good friend Jon Padgett’s debut horror fiction collection The Secret of Ventriloquism, featuring an introduction by me, is a very special piece of work. It has been gratifying to see how events in the several months since I last talked about it have borne this out. Rue Morgue Magazine selected it as the Best Fiction Book of 2016. Michael Calia praised it in The Wall Street Journal. It has gained additional reviews and enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of Paul Tremblay, who describes it as “a horror revelation,” and Weird Fiction Review, where reviewer Adams Mills asserts that it is “a collection that begs to be read as a whole, and then also to be revisited past the first reading.”

If this whets your appetite, be advised that right now, for a limited time, the Kindle edition can be downloaded for free. (After reading it, I think you might also find that you want to buy a physical copy.) [UPDATE 3/26/17: Alas, this offer has now expired.]

To whet your appetite even further, here’s the complete text of my introduction.

* * *

Introduction to

The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett

S. T. Joshi has famously argued that the truly great authors of weird fiction have been great precisely because they use their stories as a vehicle for expressing a coherent worldview. I would here like to advance an alternative thesis. I would like to assert that one of the characteristics of great weird fiction, and most especially weird horror—not the sole characteristic, of course, since weird horror is a multifaceted jewel, but a characteristic that is crucial and irreducible in those works of the weird that lodge in the reader’s mind with unforgettable force and intensity—is a vivid and distinct authorial voice.

Can you imagine Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” without the sonorous narrative voice that speaks from the very first page in tones of absolute gloom and abject dread? Can you imagine Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” minus its voice of detached, dreamlike trepidation tinged with cosmic horror, as generated by the author’s distinctive deployment of diction and artistry of prose style? Or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House without the striking establishment of voice in the classic opening paragraph (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream…”), which then develops over the course of the novel into a sustained tone of mingled dread, loneliness, and melancholy? Or what about Ligotti’s “The Last Feast of Harlequin” without its measured tone of fearful discovery foregrounded against an emotional backdrop of desolate inner wintriness, as delivered in the narrative voice of an unnamed social anthropologist investigating a strange clown festival in an American Midwestern town? Each of these stories would be not just diminished but fundamentally altered—neutered, hamstrung, eviscerated—by the removal of its distinctive voice, which, vitally, is not just the narrative voice of the individual story but the voice of the author expressing itself through the environment of that particular work. Read the rest of this entry

Collapse and awakening: Thoughts on the American apocalypse

“When we get past the chaos, the horror, and the paradoxical hope of all that’s unfolding, what we’re talking about and living through is apocalyptic collapse as a spiritual path.”

Last Thursday I noted that we were then living through a week of apocalypse here in America. The very next day saw the first-ever police (and military) lockdown of an entire U.S. city in the service of a massive manhunt for a single (so we’re told) suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. This prompted the Associated Press to produce its own article about the sense of collective calamity that had engulfed us:

Moment after nail-biting moment, the events shoved us through a week that felt like an unremitting series of tragedies: Deadly bombs. Poison letters. A town shattered by a colossal explosion. A violent manhunt that paralyzed a major city, emptying streets of people and filling them with heavily armed police and piercing sirens. Amid the chaos came an emotional Senate gun control vote that inflamed American divisions and evoked memories of the Newtown massacre. And through it all, torrential rain pushed the Mississippi River toward flood levels.

. . . America was rocked this week, in rare and frightening ways. We are only beginning to make sense of a series of events that moved so fast, so furiously as to almost defy attempts to figure them out.

. . . In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends. “There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

. . . “Is this week feeling a little apocalyptic to anyone else?” tweeted Jessica Coen, editor in chief of the Jezebel.com blog. “Boston. Poison. Explosions. Floods. Tomorrow, locusts.”

— Jesse Washington, “Across America, a Week of Chaos, Horror — and Hope,” ABC News (AP), April 20, 2013

And so now we’re living with the open — and troubling — question of what the Boston phenomenon in particular may mean for life going forward: Read the rest of this entry

Art, meaninglessness, and salvation by despair

Start the music playing and then read the excerpted texts that follow, which may or may not be connected to each other and/or the music.

(The music is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Fordlandia,” titled after Henry Ford’s epic, disastrous, and somehow mythically tragic folly of trying to create an artificial industrial worker’s utopia in the Amazon rainforest in 1928.)

The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world — strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something “out of space, out of time.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters II

* * *

I had gone to the Louvre that night to lay down my soul, to find some transcendent pleasure that would obliterate pain and make me utterly forget even myself. I’d been upheld in this. As I stood on the sidewalk before the doors of the hotel waiting for the carriage that would take me to meet Armand, I saw the people who walked there — the restless boulevard crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, the hawkers of papers, the carriers of luggage, the drivers of carriages — all these in a new light. Before, all art had held for me the promise of a deeper understanding of the human heart. Now the human heart meant nothing. I did not denigrate it. I simply forgot it. The magnificent paintings of the Louvre were not for me intimately connected with the hands that had painted them. They were cut loose and dead like children turned to stone.

— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

* * *

I took up the theme again that music and acting were good because they drove back chaos. Chaos was the meaninglessness of day-to-day life, and if we were to die now, our lives would have been nothing but meaninglessness. In fact, it came to me that my mother dying soon was meaningless and I confided in Nicolas what she had said. “I’m perfectly horrified. I’m afraid.”

Well, if there had been a Golden Moment in the room it was gone now. And something different started to happen.

I could call it the Dark Moment, but it was still high-pitched and full of eerie light. We were talking rapidly, cursing this meaninglessness, and when Nicolas at last sat down and put his head in his hands, I took some glamorous and hearty swigs of wine and went to pacing and gesturing as I had done before.

I realized aloud in the midst of saying it that even when we die we probably don’t find out the answer as to why we were ever alive. Even the avowed atheist probably thinks that in death he’ll get some answer. I mean God will be there, or there won’t be anything at all.

“But that’s just it,” I said, “we don’t make any discovery at that moment! We merely stop! We pass into nonexistence without ever knowing a thing.” I saw the universe, a vision of the sun, the planets, the stars, black night going on forever. And I began to laugh.

“Do you realize that! We’ll never know why the hell any of it has happened, not even when it’s over!” I shouted at Nicolas, who was sitting back on the bed, nodding and drinking wine out of a flagon. “We’re going to die and not even know. We’ll never know, and all this meaninglessness will just go on and on and on. And we won’t any longer be witnesses to it. We won’t have even that little bit of power to give meaning to it in our minds. We’ll just be gone, dead, dead, dead, without ever knowing!”

But I had stopped laughing. I stood still and I understood perfectly what I was saying!

There was no judgment day, no final explanation, no luminous moment in which all terrible wrongs would be made right, all horrors redeemed.

The witches burnt at the stake would never be avenged.

No one was ever going to tell us anything!

No, I didn’t understand it at this moment. I saw it! And I began to make the single sound: “Oh!” I said it again “Oh!” and then I said it louder and louder and louder, and I dropped the wine bottle on the floor. I put my hands to my head and kept saying it, and I could see my mouth opened in that perfect circle I had described to my mother and I kept saying, “Oh, oh, oh!”

I said it like a great hiccuping that I couldn’t stop. And Nicolas took hold of me and started shaking me, saying:

“Lestat, stop!”

I couldn’t stop. I ran to the window, unlatched it and swung out the heavy little glass, and stared at the stars. I couldn’t stand seeing them. I couldn’t stand seeing the pure emptiness, the silence, the absolute absence of any answer, and I started roaring as Nicolas pulled me back from the windowsill and pulled shut the glass.

. . . The second day it was no better.

And it wasn’t any better by the end of the week either.

I ate, drank, slept, but every waking moment was pure panic and pure pain. I went to the village priest and demanded did he really believe the Body of Christ was present on the altar at the Consecration. And after hearing his stammered answers, and seeing the fear in his eyes, I went away more desperate than before.

“But how do you live, how do you go on breathing and moving and doing things when you know there is no explanation?” I was raving finally. And then Nicolas said maybe the music would make me feel better. He would play the violin.

I was afraid of the intensity of it. But we went to the orchard and in the sunshine Nicolas played every song he knew. I sat there with my arms folded and my knees drawn up, my teeth chattering though we were right in the hot sun, and the sun was glaring off the little polished violin, and I watched Nicolas swaying into the music as he stood before me, the raw pure sounds swelling magically to fill the orchard and the valley, though it wasn’t magic, and Nicolas put his arms around me finally and we just sat there silent, and then he said very softly, “Lestat, believe me, this will pass.”

“Play again,” I said. “The music is innocent.”

Nicolas smiled and nodded. Pamper the madman.

And I knew it wasn’t going to pass, and nothing for the moment could make me forget, but what I felt was inexpressible gratitude for the music, that in this horror there could be something as beautiful as that.

You couldn’t understand anything; and you couldn’t change anything. But you could make music like that. And I felt the same gratitude when I saw the village children dancing, when I saw their arms raised and their knees bent, and their bodies turning to the rhythm of the songs they sang. I started to cry watching them.

I wandered into the church and on my knees I leaned against the wall and I looked at the ancient statues and I felt the same gratitude looking at the finely carved fingers and the noses and the ears and the expressions on their faces and the deep folds in their garments, and I couldn’t stop myself from crying.

At least we had these beautiful things, I said. Such goodness.

But nothing natural seemed beautiful to me now! The very sight of a great tree standing alone in a field could make me tremble and cry out. Fill the orchard with music.

And let me tell you a little secret. It never did pass, really.

*

What caused it? Was it the late night drinking and talking, or did it have to do with my mother and her saying she was going to die? Did the wolves have something to do with it? Was it a spell cast upon the imagination by the witches’ place?

I don’t know. It had come like something visited upon me from outside. One minute it was an idea, and the next it was real. I think you can invite that sort of thing, but you can’t make it come.

Of course it was to slacken. But the sky was never quite the same shade of blue again. I mean the world looked different forever after, and even in moments of exquisite happiness there was the darkness lurking, the sense of our frailty and our hopelessness.

— Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

* * *

Henry Ford didn’t just want to be a maker of cars  — he wanted to be a maker of men. He thought he could perfect society by building model factories and pristine villages to go with them. And he was pretty successful at it in Michigan. But in the jungles of Brazil, he would ultimately be defeated.

It was 1927. Ford wanted his own supply of rubber — and he decided to get it by carving a plantation and a miniature Midwest factory town out of the Amazon jungle. It was called “Fordlandia.”

. . . Fordlandia isn’t just the story of a plantation; it’s a story about Ford’s ego. As disaster after disaster struck, Ford continued to pour money into the project. Not one drop of latex from Fordlandia ever made it into a Ford car.

But the more it failed, the more Ford justified the project in idealistic terms. “It increasingly was justified as a work of civilization, or as a sociological experiment,” Grandin says. One newspaper article even reported that Ford’s intent wasn’t just to cultivate rubber, but to cultivate workers and human beings.

In the end, Ford’s utopia failed. Fordlandia’s residents, ever in hope their patriarch would someday visit their Midwestern industrial town in the middle of the jungle, gave up and left.

These days, Fordlandia is quite beautiful, Grandin says. The “American” town where the managers and administrators lived is abandoned and overgrown. Weeds grow over the American-style bungalows, and bats roost in the rafters, and little red fire hydrants sit covered in vines.

— “Fordlandia: The Failure of Ford’s Jungle Utopia

* * *

As soon as a receptive mind discovers the works of someone such as Lovecraft, it discovers that there are other ways of looking at the world besides the one in which it has been conditioned. You may discover what kind of nightmarish jailhouse you are doomed to inhabit or you may simply find an echo of things that already depressed and terrified you about being alive. The horror and nothingness of human existence — the cozy facade behind which was only a spinning abyss. The absolute hopelessness and misery of everything. After publishing his first book in French, which in English appeared as A Short History of Decay (1949), Cioran learned from that volume’s enthusiastic reception that his manner of philosophical negation had a paradoxically vital and energizing quality. Lovecraft, along with other authors of his kind, may have the same effect and rather than encouraging people to give up he may instead give them a reason to carry on. Sometimes that reason is to follow his way — to communicate, in the form of horror stories, the outrage and panic at being alive in the world.

— Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race (from a pre-publication draft)

* * *

One of the most powerful spiritual practices is to meditate deeply on the mortality of physical forms, including your own. This is called: Die before you die. Go into it deeply. Your physical form is dissolving, is no more. Then a moment comes when all mind-forms or thoughts also die. Yet you are still there — the divine presence that you are. Radiant, fully awake. Nothing that was real ever died, only names, forms, and illusions.

The realization of this deathless dimension, your true nature, is the other side of compassion. On a deep-feeling level, you now realize not only your own immortality but through your own that of every other creature as well. On the level of form, you share mortality and the precariousness of existence. On the level of Being, you share eternal, radiant life. These are the two aspects of compassion. In compassion, the seemingly opposite feelings of sadness and joy merge into one and become transmuted into a deep inner peace. This is the peace of God. It is one of the most noble feelings that humans are capable of.

— Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

You Are a Paranormal Phenomenon

The message, upshot , or bottom line of this Liminalities installment is stated in the title. What follows is simply a sketch of the train of thought and reading, extending over several years, that inspires such an assertion, as spurred by David Metcalfe’s recent report from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference in “Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner.”

In 2010 Marilynne Robinson published Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, a book drawn from her 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” Her thesis was that the influential fusion of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and philosophy in the works of such thinkers as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that all human thought and activity is driven by and reducible to unconscious biological motives, has tended not so much to explain religion, art, and other quintessentially human endeavors as to explain them away, and that this in turn stems from a central attitude and approach that hamfistedly and unjustifiably attempts to explain away the very reality of human interiority. As a categorical contrast with and refutation of this approach, she emphasizes the reality and significance of the fundamental sense of “I-ness” itself:

For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself.

— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 110.

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On transmitting artistic and spiritual vision

Some years ago as I was searching for a way to introduce poetry to the high school writing and literature classes that I was then teaching — not just certain, selected poets and poems but the entire idea and import of poetry itself — I started telling my students that language can have an alchemical power. There is, I told them, a positively magical potency to language, particularly of the poetic sort, since language enables a person to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is especially true of lyric poetry, because this form is specifically meant to capture and express an author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of the poem’s formal content but an actual shared feeling with the author. When this magic works, it actually recreates the poet’s inner state in the reader (or hearer), so that poet and reader vibrate in sympathy, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual mental-emotional experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. The poet, sometimes speaking across centuries or millennia, acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else. And this same phenomenon is active to some degree not just in poetry but in all uses of language.

That, in combination with the reading of several short poems to serve as examples, was how I went about trying to “prime” American teens to understand the nature and significance of poetry. It has often been said that a person teaches best what he or she most wants and needs to know, and in this case that little homily was definitely true, because the issue of language’s magical/alchemical potency was something that I was only then beginning to appropriate consciously after years of grasping it intuitively and even using it in my own writings. And it’s something that has only become of more pressing interest in the years since then.

When we consider the ability of language, particularly in its poetical or otherwise artistically deployed form, to alter, shape, shade, and create states of mind and affect, what we’re really considering is a convergence of art and — for lack of a better word to encompass a vibrantly varied set of studies, experiences, practices, and disciplines — spirituality. We’re also highlighting a key distinction in the way language can affect us in both arenas. This distinction is between the transmission of visions, plural, and the transmission of vision. By the former I mean thoughts, concepts, stories, images — all of the actual content that can be communicated by language. By the latter I refer to the much deeper impact that language can have by working a change not just on what we think or “see” with our mind’s eye but on how we think and see. In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview, his or her fundamental cognitive, emotional, and perceptual “stance” toward self and world. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way not just of seeing but of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.

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Decline, collapse, and doom: Snapshots from Europe, America, and planet earth

This morning when I went to scan the day’s delivery of essays, news, and information, one of the first things that came to my attention was this:

Nothing I’ve heard from politicians or economists on the world crisis has shivered my spine like an hour spent with the gentle‑mannered historian Antony Beevor, whose mighty new book on the Second World War is making him the pundit of the moment. He does not mean to be alarmist, and that is why the soft warnings in his sunlit garden are chilling. Of course the rise of the Right in Europe is not the same as the rise of the Right in the Thirties, he soothes. But isn’t it terrifying the way the Greeks are portraying the Germans as Nazis in their popular press, with Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform? There are “far too many jibes” about a Fourth Reich. The weedlike eruption of extremist parties makes him “uneasy” – and if Beevor is uneasy, it probably means the rest of us should be scared witless. “The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism,” he says. “We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken when people realise how little control their politicians have. We are already seeing political disintegration in Europe.”

— Elizabeth Grice, ” Europe is already falling apart,” The Telegraph,  May 28, 2012

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