Saturday, September 17, 2016

Amplification Leads to the Secret Pearl

The Hidden Pearl

Having focused on image and the technique related to its representation/production in Week 2, a rebalancing back into the experience of story felt right for our third week of Good Stories.  In order to deepen the oral-story-experience beyond attending to the surface story line, we’ve also brought in an emphasis on amplification
We returned to a theme from our first day, buried treasure, and now in week 3 we’re amplifying this archetypal image with stories on “the water of life,” a wonderful variation on the theme. In order to connect X (a treasure box hidden underground) with Y (a healing tonic: water of life), our minds are pushed toward abstraction where broadened terms like “treasure,” "talent," and “grace” provide gateways for illumination and vision, where the gifts from the ocean of the unconscious flow bringing vitality and insight, as well as a healing touch for the world. While we don’t want to risk inflation (for example, by presuming to have the healing power to fix anybody or anything), we might, by amplifying the archetypal images for treasure, open our intentions toward accepting each of our talents and taking on the concomitant responsibility to know and develop these gifts, not just for personal gain but to contribute to peace and justice.
          The story we call “Golden Water” (which amplifies the Grimms’ tale, “Water of Life”) launches with three sisters playing a wishing game. Consistent with the treasury of wish-fulfillment stories ranging from King Midas to “The Monkey’s Paw” and including “The Fisherman and His Wife” (from Shaw’s World Tales), we’re cautioned about attempts to shortcut the maturation of destiny. When the youngest sister in “Golden Water” makes a flippant wish to marry the new Shah, her dream amazingly comes true; but she was scarcely prepared to handle the demands of being a co-ruler, particularly the jealousy of her sisters. In addition to stories, a sampling of persons considered to have had great success and who died young also brings a sobering reflection on the wish-making enterprise. So what might we glean from our amplification that guides the path of destiny and avoids tragic consequences from making a wish?
          Fairytales concentrate character into extreme forms and fast-forward time so that we’re offered a glimpse of what might otherwise elude us when we're walking in the more subtle and slow-moving pace of everyday life. For example, while we might underestimate the danger of presumption in “real life,” presentation of the two older brothers in “Water of Life” magnifies the effects of greed and arrogance so we can hardly miss the warning. Each brother scorns the small voice that asks “Where are you going so fast on your high horse?” Soon enough each is stuck, wedged in by canyon walls; it happens in real life when a person fails to heed the warning signs of hangovers, smoker’s cough, overwork fatigue, on and on. Even when rescued by their compassionate, though naïve, younger brother, the arrogant ones immediately betray him and steal the treasure.
When we amplify with “Golden Water,” we’re warned that it’s not only brothers who betray; sisters or anyone else can do it, too. The amplification helps us shift from just making applications to our external social life and include interpretations into the inner level. For example, we might recognize that we have internalized older voices that dominate more fragile possibilities. Our imagination can be chilled by the scorn of status quo so that the adaptations needed to change our environment are left in the fantasy heap. C.G. Jung’s discussion of the need to attend to the inferior function connects with this bit of guidance from the stories.
          In the closing discussion of our third-week classes, I observed and commented on a student’s amplification of the archetypal treasure. Among the many possible applications of treasure, she selected the treasure of knowledge. As she brought the images from “Golden Water” to her exploration, I saw that she was pointing us to the SECRET!  “Golden Water” paved the way for opening a vital distinction of knowledge worth knowing. With all the volumes of information flooding our intake valves, how do we discern the bit really worth knowing?
The wisdom to penetrate to essence was being offered through our amplification of the archetype of treasure. “Golden Water” helps by giving not one but three images for the treasure. When the sister climbed the pinnacle of the quest, she found an unusual representative for treasure, a talking bird. We recognize its value when we see it doesn’t just talk but it reveals secret knowledge. In the story, the bird knows and tells the true but hidden identity, and the bird constructs a scenario where the person who has been most blinded from seeing what should have been obvious finally “gets it.” The essence of the way to know comes in the pearl, another fabulous image with the rich associations of being formed through coping with and transforming an irritant, a bit of grit. 
Another view of this secret knowing must involve a person’s perception of his or her destiny. As elaborated in a previous blog, James Hillman tells us about the secret and our destiny:

“So the ‘lot’ [from Plato’s Republic] is the image that is your inheritance, your soul’s portion in the world order, and your place on earth, all compacted into a pattern that has been selected by your soul before you ever got here—or, better said, that is always and continually being selected by your soul, because time does not enter the equations of myth. . . Unpacking the image takes a lifetime” (The Soul’s Code, p. 45).

Monday, September 12, 2016

Dealing with the Image/Word Dialectic

The Web of Image

For several days now, I’ve been trying to pull together my reflections on our second week of Good Stories. I’ve missed my self-imposed deadlines for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Now it’s Monday midmorning and I’m reconciled to this phenomenon: these words are just not going to compose nicely! In a somewhat perverse manner, that’s the theme. Words and images make for a dialogue, maybe an unresolved dialectic, in which neither really “gets” the other. It may even be that each is trying for dominance, or maybe even for separation from each other.
          Yet it seems that this very word/image engagement constellates the very purpose and opportunity in good work with stories. And results happen mostly with surprise, but it's the kind of surprise that comes from disciplined labor. If there were an emergent word for this phenomenon, it might be Creativity—a happening not to be defined, but to be danced. In Good Stories, our reach is for the light to come through, the in-sight that illuminates unique gift or destiny or identity, that sense of alignment with reason-for-being. That’s the buried treasure.
It’s a treasure buried both inside and outside, and we need good stories to build the way. Our ancestors knew they couldn’t write a prescription for getting there, not even for a beloved grandchild, but they put the best they could into stories. And stories are much more than words because the good ones conjure images and derive from images, from the archetypal kind of image that translates into unimagined meanings as time moves on and as our consciousness and conscience develop.
          If we are going to participate in the dance with good stories, the play between word and image must be supported. For example, one kind of image-making that I love comes through photography, especially when a digital image appears on my computer screen more beautiful than what I’d seen through the lens of the camera. In this way, the art of Good Stories depends on grace and hard work. The image on my computer screen results from a gift of nature’s beauty and my chance of seeing it results in part from dedicated hours of looking, camera in hand. Similarly, our satisfaction with digital media production builds from attending actively to good stories, looking for insight and direction with intention of advancing peace and justice. The point is that connecting the story words with our own images into a meaning-making production depends on dedicated practice that attends to the dynamic between word and image.
          Our first week set the foundation with recognizing resonance. That’s the essential starting point: an unarticulated buzz, a spark of electricity. We paraphrase the hit in the story in words and make an image to represent it. Going further, we begin to theorize resonance by translating the universal/archetypal level into individual/local applications.
For week two, our next priority emphasized developing technical capacity to represent these “hits” and to compose them into digital media productions. While this might look like a simple bridge to cross, there’s a terrible troll hiding in the shadow that often sabotages the crossing and hoards the treasure. Many textbooks state that the script should be written before entering the production program. The implied assumption, the troll, is that one can split the conceptual (the word-script) from the technical (the image track and other aspects of production). Instead of following this prescription we should be the flashing sign: Danger Ahead!
We best proceed with a continuing awareness that on a special level the conceptual/technical are indivisible. In his Clark Lectures of 1963, poet-philosopher Louis MacNeice put it strongly:
“I doubt whether one can draw a clear distinction . . . between a mode of expression and a mode of thought. As every poet knows, one cannot draw any clear line between form and content. Yet, as every critic knows, without drawing such a line a criticism is impossible. So, just as with any other kind of writing, in order to discuss parable writing at all one has to use what Aristotle would call a ‘bastard reasoning’ and pretend that form and content can be separated” (Varieties of Parable, p. 5).
Another way to convey this struggle involving words and image comes in my personal experience when our class moved into the second week. Because the experience of story is so crucial to the design of Good Stories, I fully expected us to be engaging in oral narrative, even as the demand for attending to the technical was strong. So I was driving to campus still waiting for the right story to settle in my mind. As I listened for the fit of a story that would segue effectively from our first week, the Grimms’ Twelve Brothers came to mind. I was drawn to the sister’s pronouncement of her identity. When asked, “Who are you?” she speaks for any of us: “I’m the child of the king and I’ll search for my brothers until the sun . . .” This story and theme could extend the seam we’re weaving between authentic character and fate/destiny. It also carries the divine tone still humming from week one—like Luis’ mantra and the parrot as spirit-symbol. Yet as I tried to rehearse Twelve Brothers, the flow just wasn’t coming. I scanned in my mind for another story. Water of Life similarly ought to fit in but it also didn’t have the feel. Timing wasn’t right. So what’s going on?
Reluctantly, I stopped trying to push a story into the day’s plan. I still believed including a story is the right way to go, especially early in the course. Why isn’t it fitting? Holding that question, I shifted focus to work on the technical area. I made another demo, using Adobe Premiere Pro on the Dell computer (instead of the Mac) in order to get more familiar with equipment that many of the students use and to have a sample for them to see.
Then in class I elaborated the process they would use in preparing their productions. I made directions much more prescriptive than I prefer but that serve for persons without production experience. As I showed my demo, I noted the way we start by selecting images from sketches made the first week out of the points of resonance. Then we draft our voice-over script.  I commented on how this sequence of image before word contrasts with directions given in most manuals for digital media production. Instead of writing the script first like the manuals say, I talked about the need for a dialog between image and word.
          Later, while driving home, insight came in about the reason why the technical needed the full attention of our class session instead of sharing time with a story. I was thinking that the first production should function primarily to discover the questions that wanted our focus. What ideas were being opened? For example, when I watched my draft, I felt that certain segments needed additional images. For example, at one point the visual flow was not sustaining attention when a simple image was on-screen too long. Also, a few times something was said that was not visually reinforced: 1) add a visual for Epaminondas & maybe for Lazy Jack, 2) add another visual for the Individual Level when I talk about riding Leg’cy,  and 3) add text-on-screen where a phrase might not be clear, “faith statement” not “bank statement.” What if we really looked to our technical production for guidance instead of relying so strongly on another story?
The draft of our production rides at the edge of the ocean where the unconscious laps up against the shore. When images arise before words articulate, they potentially bring the “water of life,” like life-energy that emerges from the oceanic unconscious. But this potential vitality will rush back if we do not hold it while it shifts shape the way the Ancient does with Menelaus (Odyssey, Book 4, lines 487-489). The power of archetypal images in terms of restoring vitality and meaning to life has been elaborated most fully in psychoanalytic work that requires considerable experience and study to penetrate, but a few passages will suggest key themes.
1. The unconscious is the great source of human creativity.
Both [Nietzsche & Jung]—though neither would have put it this way—were in the existentialist tradition of belief that without conflict and suffering, consciousness is doomed to stagnation and regression. Both sought, instead, for a philosophy and psychology (if they would admit a difference between the two) whose test is simply but richly this: does it conduce to a life rich in fulfilment, attainment, even transcendence to a realm of integration beyond what is reachable from the comfortable couches of everydayness. Theirs, alike, was a philosophy of darkness, no less than light, a celebration of the Dionysian spirit wherein is found the scariness of the unconscious with its alarming dreams which are yet the great source of human creativity. . . They agreed that no one’s intellectual or artistic achievement can be understood or fairly assessed without regard for the whole self of the creator. . . Jung would have rejoiced in Nietzsche’s equating greatness in a man with his ‘comprehensiveness, and multiplicity, his wholeness in manifoldness—how much and how many things a person could bear and take upon himself, how far a person could extend his responsibility.’*. . . Thus [to Jung], to neglect the profound questions of the origins and destinies of human consciousness is as self-defeating as neglecting dream and myth. (James L. Jarrett, “Introduction,” Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, pp xx-xxi)
2. Images reflect multiplicity.
“Images by their very structure are multivalent. If the mind makes use of images to grasp the ultimate reality of things, it is just because reality manifests itself in contradictory ways and therefore cannot be expressed in concepts. . . It is therefore the image as such, as a whole bundle of meanings, that is true, and not any one of its meanings. . .” .Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, p. 15.
3. Archetypal images can be misused but not lost. “today we are well on the way to an understanding of one thing of which the nineteenth century had not even a presentiment—that the symbol, the myth and the image are of the very substance of the spiritual, that they may become disguised, mutilated or degraded, but are never extirpated. . . The “origin” of the Images, also, is a problem that is beside the point. . .” Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, pp. 11, 15.
4. When image-making (digital media production, for example) imitates exemplary models (good stories, for example) and not arbitrary invention, the treasure is opened of psychological reality and spiritual truth.
“It depends, as we said, upon modern man—to ‘reawaken’ the inestimable treasure of images that he bears within him; and to reawaken the images so as to contemplate them in their pristine purity and assimilate their message. Popular wisdom has many a time given expression to the importance of imagination for the very health of the individual and for the balance and richness of his inner life. . . To ‘have imagination’ is to enjoy a richness of interior life, an uninterrupted and spontaneous flow of images. But spontaneity does not mean arbitrary invention. Etymologically, ‘imagination’ is related to both imago—a representation or imitation—and imitor, to imitate or reproduce. And for once, etymology is in accord with both psychological realities and spiritual truth. The imagination imitates the exemplary models—the Images—reproduces, reactualises and repeats them without end. To have imagination is to be able to see the world in its totality, for the power and the mission of the Images is to show all that remains refractory to the concept: hence the disfavor and failure of the man ‘without imagination’; he is cut off from the deeper reality of life and from his own soul.” Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, pp. 19-20.
This point is also asserted by Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows where she quotes Basho who says, “Do not follow the ancient masters, seek what they sought” (p. 82).
5. While the unconscious remains rather inaccessible, the adaptive unconscious as an “informed gut feeling” can be developed for a guidance system.
In Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (2002, p. 23), Timothy D. Wilson defines the unconscious as the part of the mind that “I cannot access even when I try. A better working definition of the unconscious is mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior.. . [including] the way I select, interpret, and evaluate incoming information and set goals in motion.”  He elaborates: “The term ‘adaptive unconscious’ is meant to convey that nonconscious thinking is an evolutionary adaptation. The ability to size up our environments, disambiguate them, interpret them, and initiate behavior quickly and nonconsciously confers a survival advantage and thus was selected for. Without these nonconscious processes, we would have a very difficult time navigating through the world…” Wilson illustrates with pattern detection studies (e.g., Pawel, using computer screen, 4 quadrants, choosing the one where X would appear, and learning ‘nonconsciously’ the complex rule but not being able to tell what it is); interpretation/translator; feeling & emotion to evaluate; goal setting.
Wilson summarizes the significance of the adaptive unconscious: “As we have seen what is typically thought of as the “proper work” of consciousness—goal setting, interpretation, evaluation—can be performed nonconsciously” (p. 43). Wilson adds guidance on the application of the adaptive unconscious: “The trick is to gather enough information to develop an informed gut feeling and then not analyze that feeling too much. . . The point is that we should not analyze the information in an overly deliberate, conscious manner, constantly making explicit lists of pluses and minuses. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely” (p. 172).

     Our work/play with digital media production aims at connecting us with this dynamic between word and image through our engagement with good stories as we draw upon our resources of creativity and the adaptive unconscious.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Purpose and Art of Re-Telling Stories.

Making Hay

Rule #1 (maybe): Tell from memory, not from rote but from the heart. If the saying in the Gospel of Thomas applies, the necessity of bringing forth the gift from the heart is serious business. 
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you" (#70). 
I recommend the commentary on this passage by Professors Elaine Pagels and Helmut Koester provided by PBS Frontline.  The elaborated passage propels us into a primary goal of our story-work, especially related to the necessity of knowing ourselves at a deep level. 
This first week in our Good Stories course, we interwove the threads of treasure flowing from four tales (links to versions of the stories are given at the bottom of this page). By opening with “Buried Treasure,” we confronted a tendency to lazily accept conventional values. The protagonist, Luis, is labeled the Lazy Man (see Wilson Hudson, cited below, & the version in Diane Wolkstein’s Lazy Stories)—but we know the way tricksters often play opposites. And, like a parable, this story complicates our own lazy acceptance of stereotypical labelling by showing that the character we might appraise as lazy is the one who manifests the divine mystery instead of the character who models our culturally approved ethic of hard work.  For it’s not the Working Man, but it’s Luis who lives in the light of his favorite saying: “To whom God wishes to give, God gives—even if God has to push it through the window.” To prove it’s not just an idle mantra that he recites, Luis reaches to the mouth of a runaway horse, risking life and limb, and receives the blessing of the spirit-rider. Further, given a vast treasure, Luis takes only what he can carry and shares both with family and with his untrustworthy neighbor, Working-Man Wally. Both of these sides of us are in need; but perhaps it’s the worker-side, the part that thinks to have earned the blessing by being industrious, that is the one most needful, because it’s the worker who needs to be convicted of the reality of faith, of the trustworthiness of providence. The real treasure comes through living the conviction.
 “Lazy Jack” extends the exploration of just rewards. How can it be fair that Jack, who continually fails to adapt, is the one to win the hand of the rich man’s daughter? He’s never successfully brought home his payment for a hard day’s work! Each time he gets told how stupid he is for losing his earnings and he gets told what he should have done. All Jack can say is “I’ll do so another time.” Then the next day he goes out, follows the previous day’s directions literally. He fails again and again to adapt as anybody with common sense would see to do. Does he end up with the beloved simply because he shows up, even when there’s no reward to show off? Perhaps the story offers insight into the persistence that is required to build the inner dimensions, the ones invisible to the external world. A person true to the inner journey has to continue even when the outer response feels harsh and critical. To escape from dependence on the approval of others demands walking a rough road.
When Epaminondas did like Jack and failed to adapt, the repeated response was “You don’t have the sense you were born with!” How many times do we have to experience this judgment until we advance into serious searching out our individual inborn sense, the unique stamp like a fingerprint that codes a person’s authentic destiny! Perhaps the final act of Epaminondas, the footprint left in each of the six pies, marks the decisive step. To claim identity, a person has to escape, has to break free from the collective mind, from the archetypal mother, from the uniform, the corporate approval, the merit-pay. The fourth story of the week reifies the message in the chilling theme: die before you die. The spirit bird, the merchant’s parrot, languishes inside the cage until breaking the secret code and then—freedom!
 Good stories carry secret codes, secret in the sense that the meaning and direction encased within them must be refined by the heart, the mind, and the body into the unique solution where the alchemical process is the person’s being, always in flux, burning, purifying.
          These stories are often classified as nonsense tales. Through our play-work with them as teaching-stories we’re hauled into the difficult movement from nonsense to sense.  I think there’s a connection with the manifestation of gift noted in the passage from Thomas cited at the top. If we gain or are given the capacity to make this passage, to transform straw nonsense into golden sense, we owe a debt to humility. Society, especially the well-educated layer, often favors a presumptuous attitude, evident in tossing out parabolic discourse with “there’s nothing here but nonsense!” Sometimes the story gets cheapened just to get a laugh. 

This presumptuous kind of attitude, along with sarcasm, hits a dead end from which a person cannot proceed to enlightenment.  To join the path of light, a person often has to nurture “not-yet-sense.” The capacity to move from nonsense to not-yet-sense faces extinction in a world hung up on speed and certainty. Instead of engaging these four stories as nonsense tales, our willingness and work in letting them serve as parable offers to liberate our connection with the sense we are born-with, the gift, the talent, each person’s genius. Or in Wordsworth’s beautiful phrase, our “trailing clouds of glory.”

Video versions of three of the four stories can be seen by following these links:
Buried Treasure:
Epaminondas & Lazy Jack:
The Merchant & Parrot is found in Rumi’s Mathnawi & in earlier work by Attar. A version is also given as “The Indian Bird” on Page 189 of Idries Shaw’s Tales of the Dervishes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On Stories That Don’t End Happily Ever After

Sometimes a fog obscures our vision.
         Recently we adventured into the African village where the princess searches for her perfect match and discards all the suitors: too fat, too smelly, too boring, pretentious, naïve, goody-goody, too quiet, too loud. All are disdained mirrors. Finally, her father gives the ultimatum for her to find an acceptable man in a week or he will do it for her.
         In an interesting way, this story turns around the theme we explored with Dame Ragnell and the dynamic of choice. How far is the just reach of an individual’s freedom to choose? With Ragnell and Gawaine (and King Arthur!), we suffered the damages of male prerogative and worked into the perennial rebalancing of masculine and feminine from one side.
         In this African tale, Princess Nikun shows the other extreme. What happens when the feminine presumes to know-it-all (cf., Jung’s anima/animus possession). She acts as if the right to choose is cheaply won? In our “real world,” it seems that at every moment someone's hurting due to the illusion of invulnerability. Surely this illusion ranks high among false beliefs. In the mirror of Nikun, we might glimpse our danger and wake up before it’s too late.
         For we are perilously endangered. A great strength also makes a tremendous risk. In Brian Boyd’s summary of the evolution of consciousness, he emphasizes the potential we have to unmask false belief.
Because other agents--prey, predators, and especially human friends and foes--make the most dramatic difference to our chances and choices day by day, our understanding of other minds has evolved into our richest natural mental capacity. We explain the visible behavior of agents of all kinds, especially human agents, in terms of things we cannot see-beliefs, desires, and intentions-and we find these explanations powerful. We see psychological cause as a paradigm of all cause. . . Precisely because we understand false belief, because we realize we may err in action if we err in knowledge, we try to explain events more deeply. (pages 281-2, On the Origin of Stories, my emphasis)
To our extreme risk, we often do not recognize false belief. Our desires can spin delusion, at least misimpression. At times, we don't acknowledge our failure to see, and we even refuse to admit what stands clearly before us.
         Nikun looks so ridiculous especially when she has targeted her dream-match and as she refuses to acknowledge the clear signs that her choice pursuit is not only disgusting but also highly dangerous. No one would act like that, we might scoff. Well, try talking to someone who has watched a loved one sink into addiction. Ask if the wrecks, the lost relationships, the health issues were much too clear to be missed—and yet like Nikun they get denied.
         Good stories offer a chance to witness forecasts of unhappy consequences. Hubris. The old stories often warn us of presuming to know too much, of rushing into freedom as if it demanded little responsibility, as if we knew love. Helen Luke opens the treasure in Good Stories including the Biblical account of Jacob. Her analysis suggests that although Nikun receives a terrible disfigurement, perhaps even the scars, inner and outer, serve a purpose.

If we dare to wrestle as Jacob did, we may be in some way crippled in ordinary collective living. Without this we would not be able to stand it. We would rise out of the weakness of our humanity into the hubris of fancied equality with the gods. After a new insight there are two dangers; either an inflation of the ego may possess us, or we may fall into discouragement, imagining that the insight means that we ought now to be free of all our old inadequacies. The “lameness,” accepted, cures both these delusions. (page 116; Helen M. Luke, The Inner Story: Myth and Symbol in the Bible and Literature)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Winning and Losing: The Marriage

early April 3: the play of light and dark
Have you noticed in the sports world how many #1s there are? While this might seem ludicrous, almost a parody on excellence, I wonder how this claim toward the top might signal a positive pathway.
         Let’s not be naïve about it. The reach for the crown carries a dangerous aspect. Given the dominant paradigm that offers only one ultimate champion, the multitude of claims for being the best often leads to disappointment and heartbreak for everyone but the one winner, generating despair and broken dreams. Viewed rather cynically, this championship enterprise markets gambling, along with drinking and drugs to distract from the pain of loss.
         Yet these dangers do not disqualify seeing a multitude of teams chanting “We’re Number One!” as an opportune moment. In Good Stories, we explore this paradigm-changing potential through teaching-narratives when we probe the depths of archetypal constructs, especially marriage and treasure. As we all know, fairy tales often build to the climactic wedding. This motif opens consideration of the “marriage of opposites.” How, then, do we marry winning and losing?
         Before we move directly into that question, let’s also note a companion theme that helps open the mystery: the treasure. But treasure is also a polyvalent window; it’s a threshold or opening to another world where the prize shifts shape and where what has been lost gets found. Or, in other words, trash turns to treasure.
         We entered a Good Story this week about twins who initially appear as opposites: beauty and ugly. But, in the way of story, it’s the  unattractive, troublesome one who deals with the trolls. And it’s the loss of beauty’s head, a saving transgression, that empowers their travel under the edge of the world and on into the double wedding, the marriage of opposites in a dialectical transcendence where new vision recognizes beauty beneath the superficial.
         Can we imagine a world that sees beauty as the power to deal with dark forces instead of the number of zeros after the dollar sign? The teaching on treasure is continued redemption. Talents are to be wisely invested in the purification and renewal of life, not hoarded and buried away.
         Playing games that mean for us to lose puts us in the face of our fear of ultimate loss, dying. Rilke resonates this in our wrestling with the angel, asserting, “This is how we grow! By being defeated, decisively by constantly greater beings.” John Dominic Crossan in The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story tells: “game is a very serious practice session for life and death, or, more precisely, for life towards death” (p. 5).
         When we and our athletes have to absorb the loss of the dream of being national champion, do we find redemption? Among the variety of possibilities, let’s consider the world of multiplicity.  To struggle with the marriage of winning and losing builds a world with space for paradox. How do we learn to continue to live as if winning is the only thing at the same time that we accept defeat by constantly greater beings? How else do we learn to go under the edge of the world? We must move beyond the world that wins at small things because we realize the loss when winning gains the whole world but loses the soul!
         Crossan says that we live within story where myth and parable shape us “to be human and to remain open to transcendental experience” (p. 39, Dark Interval). In this paradoxical world formed in the Winning-Losing wedding, our treasure chest stores the liberating role of not-yet-sense.  Storytelling’s redeemed from the poor-box where it’s often relegated in contemporary academics. Instead of the singular presumption of objective reality, the gold coins become Uncertainty and Indeterminacy, affirmed even by quantum physics (e.g., p. 116, Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.)
         There is no closing to the mystery wedding of Winning-Losing, but a few lines may serve to keep us going:
“And the wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something ‘wholly other’ by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched.”  Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous, p 237. (Quoted in Crossan, In Parables, p. 2.)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Long View of Old-Growth Cultures

Looking north, predawn, March 19, 2016.

In our study of Good Stories, in addition to reading print versions of the stories, the primary text has been Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Standing out to me from his survey of the dynamics among his subtitle’s three forces are two essential themes: cooperation and reciprocal altruism. In order to survive (evolution), in order to advance thinking and consciousness (cognition), and in order to engage, to imagine, and thus to advance culture (fiction/story), good guys need to work and play together (cooperation). In my simplified paraphrase, Boyd even asserts that for the good guys to advance culture and civilization, they must be willing to punish those persons who share with the goons. To put it even more starkly: altruism has to be strategic; new-agey unconditional love gives away too much to the haters. Boyd says:
Cheaters will thrive in exchanges with altruists unless altruists discriminate against—refuse further exchange with, or actively punish—cheaters. . .
For altruism to work robustly a whole suite of motivations has to be in place: sympathy, so that I am inclined to help another; trust, so that I can offer help now and expect it will be somehow repaid later; gratitude, to incline me, when I have been helped, to return the favor; shame, to prompt me to repay when I still owe a debt; a sense of fairness, so that I can intuitively gauge an adequate share or repayment; indignation, to spur me to break off cooperation with or even inflict punishment on a cheat; and guilt, a displeasure at myself and fear of exposure and reprisal to deter me from seeking the short-term advantages of cheating. We can reverse-engineer the social and moral emotions so central to our engagement with others in life and in story. Rather than merely taking these emotions as givens, we can account for them as natural selection's way of motivating widespread cooperation in highly social species. (pp. 57-58; Kindle, 686-691)

         A refreshing complement to Boyd has come in reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of PlantsKimmerer, a botanist and the director of the Center forNative Peoples and the Environment, also shares her vision in a 2012 TED talk: Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest Perhaps her text will soon be added as required reading for Good Stories. Reciprocity strands through Kimmerer’s scientific accounts of plant life and her reflections on the teachings they offer for sustainable living as well as for depth of meaning, extending even into the spiritual realm. I continue to be moved by her grace in re-member-ing our country’s colonization of the “new world” and its many native inhabitants: stone, plant, animal, and human.
         One particular section contributes especially to the prospects for cooperation. In her study of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, she underscores a kind of bittersweet hope for us in our time of endangered global warming.
         When resources begin to run short, as they always will, cooperation and strategies that promote stability—strategies perfected by rainforest ecosystems—will be favored. The breadth and depth of these reciprocal symbioses are especially well developed in old-growth forests, which are designed for the long haul.
         Industrial forestry, resource extraction, and other aspects of human sprawl are like salmonberry thickets—swallowing up land, reducing biodiversity, and simplifying ecosystems at the demand of societies always bent on having more. In five hundred years we exterminated old-growth cultures and old-growth ecosystems, replacing them with opportunistic culture. Pioneer human communities, just like pioneer plant communities, have an important role in regeneration, but they are not sustainable in the long run. When they reach the edge of easy energy, balance and renewal are the only way forward, wherein there is a reciprocal cycle between early and late successional systems, each opening the door for the other. (p. 284)

         In my own experience, I’m cautiously hopeful in voluntarily taking less while increasing gratitude and seeking more deeply while expecting multiplicity. Love, for example, comes in so many colors and textures. In sleeplessness at two a.m., love invites meditation. A touch of pain advises adjusting motion: slow down while weeding and hear the birdsong. Hurt feelings expand care and prioritize inner understanding over external approval.

         And stories, the good ones, open windows to rooms capable of holding all this. Our next one might be “The Mechanical Horse” because it pushes us to realize the dangers of demanding immediate gratification. The eye wanting it right now loses the soft gaze that attends to hard wisdom found in old-growth cultures.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

To Long for the Apprehension of Wonder

Life at the edge of wonder opens wordlessly in the poetry of images, in awe, having to remember to breathe.
         And then words come in, in this shimmering veil of thin apprehension, fearing the magical immediacy slip away. The words I wish to return then: “Fear not. For I am with you.”
         Love is always present. But how to know it in sadness, even in grief, depression? There the wished-for security, the holding-still power of language, fails. How can the word love contain ecstasy and despair the way deep inarticulate knowing does? So we’re released from words back to the dance, the just-enough, the unquenched longing.
         Perhaps that’s why I love the fog, once in awhile.
         Teaching, like learning, at least as I aspire to move within them, long for this apprehension of wonder. That’s where my search belongs: how do we move so fully prepared to risk the presence. How to hunger for the taste of words unashamed of being fragile, of disappearing like the fog, and to be left wrapped in silent warmth.
         Not many educators mumble around like this, distrusting the adequacy of the published word. Rarely I feel companionship, but I do with Robin Wall Kimmerer. She bravely and beautifully writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants:
“To have agency in the world, ceremonies should be reciprocal co-creations, organic in nature, in which the community creates ceremony and the ceremony creates communities. They should not be cultural appropriations from Native peoples. But generating new ceremony in today’s world is hard to do. . . [especially when we] lack an active, reciprocal relationship with the more-than-human world.” (Pages 250-1)Earlier she summarized: “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart. My job was just to lead them into the presence and ready them to hear.” (Page 221)
         Robin’s writings help me articulate my focus in teaching. It’s on gift, on giving back. To discern the advent of life, authentic flow of gusto, the joyful embrace that affirms the connection with the source, love. “I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known” (e.g., Chittick, Sufism, 77-). Love is the presence of the beloved, the eye of the creative force looking back into the Source of Love, the life-giving gift, the indwelling presence, spirit in matter, the voice of gratitude. My intention in Good Stories, echoing Robin: that we enter the presence, ready for giving.