Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pure and Without Any Darkness

Becoming a father, and being allowed the great opportunity to observe in detail the growth and development of human beings- my precious daughters- has been the greatest blessing and privilege of my life. These years of being a father have brought me more joy than any other years- but it also brought up many personal challenges. These challenges are chiefly tied into how a father or a parent feels he is best able to guide and protect his children, as they slowly prepare to be launched into the world to live on their own.

Adults know the world- insofar as anything can be "known" when filtered through the lens of opinion and preconception. They know that the world is beautiful and wonderful (or at least most might use those words from time to time) and they know that it is full of perilous dangers, as well.

We were all children once, and we grew into adults- learning of the world's perils and gradually assimilating ourselves into the risky venture of human life. We adults have all come to grips, in some way, with what we face- as much darkness as the world contains, we find a way to rationalize it; we find a way to cope and survive and to sideline thinking about the darkness too much. We know the pitfalls of the world, but few of us go too far into addressing them directly.

We have all become used to "things as they are"- and this is not an entirely bad position to take, accepting as it does that some darkness must exist, and integrating that into a (more or less) stable condition of mind.

Becoming a father changed the extent to which I was content to accept "things as they are"- while I, like nearly all adults, have come to see threats and dangers to myself as acceptable and unavoidable on some level, I cannot tolerate the idea of threats and dangers to my children. My situation is further compounded by the understanding I have that I am not the author of Fate, nor the author of my children's lives and destinies. As much as I would like to protect them perfectly, I know that I cannot. I can only go so far- perceptually- towards fulfilling my fatherly desire to see to my children's well-being.

I can't make the world better for my children, in the way that it would need to be "better" to assure their safety and well-being perfectly. In our world, we have many religious traditions that cluster about and preach ways to understand darkness and light, to understand salvation and redemption. Many preach and teach about the real goal of an essential human's life, the "true" story of mankind, and the moral truths they say we should embrace, if we wish to be assured of lasting happiness. With so many voices raised to teach and guide, a din exists, a confusing din of fear and hope and conflict.

This is another danger for the world- the danger of being lost and confused. I worked for years to lift myself above this particular confusion- the lonely battle of the soul- and what success I achieved has also been brought into question by my children's young, innocent lives.

I say this because the world of religion and philosophical paths also poses its own array of dangers and risks. Who has the "right" way to live? I've studied and learned of so many- some threaten us with eternal hells; others with endless cycles of confusion and grief if we don't find the clarity they promise. People say, and have always said, many things. I was (and am) willing to "take the risk" of the soul with myself- I can and always have ignored the dire warnings of the hysteriarchs and fear-mongers, and chose the path of conscience and inner guidance- something I was dissuaded from doing at nearly every point. But I did it.

And I am willing to live as I live amid the confusion. If I fail, then it is my detriment. But my children? What can I tell them, how can I guide them, when it is their own metaphysical risk at stake? How I guide them now will influence them greatly in the future; what can I do for them? In the middle of the din, it is hard to know. My children are my flesh and blood, but they are not me- they have a path to walk that is not mine, life experiences to have that I may not have.

Any attempt on my part to truly impart my deepest values may harm them, in unexpected ways. This doesn't mean that I will leave them without guidance, or simply defer them to whatever random encounters they meet, to learn as they will; I will do my best to be honest, and to be intrusive to the smallest degree that I can be.

I want so much to shield them from the dangers and the traps of the world, but I have been left feeling helpless in the face of the sheer immensity and complexity of this world. I am not the sort of person who dulls out his feelings with the opiate of repetitive labors, or of "cheap good deeds", nor do I take shelter in the herds of people who gather to behave repetitively in the name of spirituality or to smile about the good deeds they have done for others.

All of that, as Nietzsche said, is contrary to the truly healthy person. I face my sense of helplessness and accept it as part of my destiny unfolding; I wait for it to change, on the tides of its own natural cycles, into something else, for change it must. While it is here, I endure and feel, and discuss my feelings, as I am doing now.

So I'm not writing this to lessen my distress; I am writing this, in a sense, to celebrate it- and to celebrate what places it led me to, this very day. For without it, some important understandings that I won today never would have come to me.

* * *

Like all of the many complex phenomena of this world, a precious insight or understanding is compounded of many parts- many threads of force drawn from many other experiences. We stand on the backs of our own histories and experiences when we move perceptually "forward" in our own minds. Many things that I have read before came together for me today, and it all began when I picked up a book from my local library called "The Vision Keepers" by Doug Alderson.

Doug's a guy who, like me, felt a calling back to the primal spiritualities of the "first nations" peoples of this planet- those people who still maintain some sense of what I have come to call "primordial sanity". Flipping through the book, I noticed a chapter about his time with Lakota Sioux peoples, in which he took part in two important ceremonies- "Releasing the spirit" and "Throwing the Ball". I was familiar with both ceremonies from reading "The Sacred Pipe" many years ago.

However, something had changed since the last time I had read them- especially the ceremonial throwing of the ball- I was a father now. It is because of this that I was able to see something in it that I never saw before.

The ceremony, like all Lakota ceremonies, is geared towards the goals of their community, and towards the supreme spiritual reality of their religion: Wakan Tanka. Wakan Tanka, despite the easy mental shelf that most whites try to put him on today, is not "God" in the usually accepted sense of the word. Wakan Tanka, before missionaries came and tried to change this into a monotheistic conception of "God", was the "sacred incomprehensible"- a mysterious power formed of the totality of all sacred powers that existed, and all forces.

In the throwing of the ball, a four-year-old girl is placed in the center of a large ring of participants, and given a buffalo skin ball, which is red and blue. The red symbolizes the earth, the blue symbolizes the sky. Together, it represents "earth and sky"- all powers, the world, the universe, and totality. She throws the ball to each of the four directions, and the people gathered around in that direction fight like mad to catch the ball or get their hands on it- it is quite a competition. The person who catches it, is symbolically catching "everything"- gaining his or her Wahupa, or enlightenment.

Thought many try to catch the ball, few do- which symbolizes how many people in life try to gain a special conscious relationship with Wakan Tanka, and how few actually succeed. If you are standing there, trying to catch the ball, you have a lot of competition- and the people around you, struggling against you to prevent you from getting the ball, represent the ignorance and delusions that stand against you. Because of the state of things today, the odds are always against any single person who strives for this special closeness. We are all beset by many opponents and contrary powers.

But why a little girl to throw the ball? Alderson recounts Black Elk's words on this matter:

"Black Elk said "It is a little girl, and not an older person, who stands at the center and who throws the ball. This is as it should be, for just as Wakan Tanka is eternally youthful and pure, so is this little one, who has just come from Wakan Tanka, pure and without any darkness. Just as the ball is thrown from the center to the four quarters, so Wakan Tanka is at every direction and is everywhere in the world, and as the ball descends upon the people, so does his power."

* * *

Something began to change in me when I read this. Memories came back to me of many things I had read throughout my life- all dealing with the concepts of "the sacred" and "youth". In the last months and years, I have watched my daughters explore the world- watched how they were able, with fresh, new eyes, to take in what they encountered- without malice or prejudice, with simple, open curiosity.

A father sees these things, and if he is a man of any depth, he greatly admires them. Because there is a connection between youth and the sacred that has been recounted to me all my life, from many sources, that only this day came to dawn in me, like the bright morning star.

In my Catholic upbringing, the typically cryptic statements of Jesus were tossed about like popcorn. I find that as the years pass, every now and again, something I was told that Jesus said suddenly falls into place- not in the sense of some "verification of the faith", but in the sense that these words attributed to Jesus had to come from somewhere- and the source of those words sometimes- but not always- clearly shares a root with the same pure core of ancient wisdom that Black Elk's words (given above) came from, or from the same place that the teachings of other sages came. In the gospel attributed to "Matthew", it is written:

Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

The entire notion of becoming childlike to approach the kingdom of heaven also came back to me- and it was a Catholic saint- St.Therese of Lisieux- who said "Perfection seems simple to me. I see it is sufficient to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God's arms."

This theme of the relationship between the child-like and the sacred or the divine keeps coming up, from all points. The Catholic Church has long taught that children, if they die, go directly back to God, or to heaven, or what have you. Interestingly enough, there is a spiritual (and formally, a theosophical and even Buddhist) explanation for that statement. Black Elk said it best when he said "...just as Wakan Tanka is eternally youthful and pure, so is this little one, who has just come from Wakan Tanka, pure and without any darkness."

In the theosophical sense, when people die, their bodies die, and their minds awaken in an astral/etheric body, and continue on in a conditioned state, very perceptually similar to the world that their bodies inhabited, and which conditioned their astral and ethereal form. Some may not even be aware that their bodies have died, but they become aware, eventually.

From this point, the ethereal and astral bodies begin the process of decay and fading- just as the body had been doing all their lives. At some point, these subtle bodies are intended to fade, so that the mindstream can move into the mental and spiritual planes of experience, which is the theosophical equivalent of "heaven".

But this process- of passage into the higher planes- can be traumatic for those who are entrenched in the astral- it represents a "second death" of types, to fade from the astral level, and go on to a further unknown, because the mental and spiritual worlds are extremely subtle, and most people, in life, stay involved in the physical and astral/emotional realms almost entirely. Thus, this "between" state, this astral state after death, is "purgatory"- a person must be purged of their attachments to this life, their emotional entanglements, and entrenched habits, before they can let go and "move on".

But two categories of people do not arise to become "stuck" astrally- realized, spiritual adults, and children. Why? For two different, but similar reasons: truly spiritual people have already released themselves from attachments and entanglements in this life; they were already turned and open to the unknown spiritual reality before they died. Thus, they fade and move on quickly.

Children are "naturally spiritual" in a sense- not so imprisoned in physical and astral cages of long habit- they do not have deeply imprinted and entrenched opinions and ideas and attachments to things, in the harmful sense that adults tend to. Like my daughter seeing new blossoms for the first time in her life, or airplanes, or cars, or animals, they take what comes before them as it is- it is we adults who decide whether or not what comes before us is acceptable, good enough, ugly, evil, or the like.

This is totally in line with Mahayana Buddhist sutras regarding the Bardo or afterdeath state- those with strong attachments and preferences, who lack the openness of sages or children, will struggle against the strange visions of the afterdeath transition, and create causes for more suffering, as opposed to simply "going into" the Dharmakaya, the infinite and timeless Body of Reality.

In ancient Greece, initiates into the Mystery cults were given the title "Kouros" (if male) and "Kore" if female- both names indicating a "youth". Even old men and women were "youths", if they had been initiated- something that is no longer a mystery to me. In Greek Mythology, when Heracles immolated himself on his pyre, his body is shown dying (in ancient art) but his Kouros- the eternally youthful part of himself- goes up to Olympus, to be with the Gods, because the Eternally Youthful part of all of us is a divine, undying thing.

Black Elk says that the spirit of humans and Wakan Tanka share the same center- wakan Tanka, the sacred incomprehensible power that somehow is reality, is described as "eternally youthful"- and so, by virtue of that powerful statement, is the Wakan Tanka of each of us.

In line with the Theosophical perspectives I was discussing above, the Lakota have an interesting and similar model of death and the journey after death- they believe that, after death, the ideal is for a spirit to move on to "union with Wakan Tanka"- harmony with all that is. However, the spirit in a conditioned state cannot do this, and must walk a long journey to the point where they may either fulfill that union, or be pushed "off to the side" by the guarding power of the sacred road, and have to stay in a conditioned state.

The Lakota ritual of the "Releasing of the Spirit" helps to ensure that the spirit of a recently deceased person will find that sacred union. A child, however, probably would not need that sort of help.

* * *

While reading "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" by Gregory Bateson- one of the greatest books I have ever read, by one of the wisest men this world has ever seen- I found, some months back, this discerning passage in his essay entitled "Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art":

"Aldous Huxley used to say that the central problem for humanity is the quest for grace. This word he used in what he thought was the sense in which it is used in the New Testament. He explained the word, however, in his own terms. He argued- like Walt Whitman- that the communication and behavior of animals has a naiveté, a simplicity, which man has lost. Man's behavior is corrupted by deceit- even self-deceit- by purpose, and by self-consciousness. As Aldous saw the matter, man has lost the "grace" which animals still have.

In terms of this contrast, Aldous argued that God resembles the animals rather than man: He is ideally unable to deceive, and incapable of internal confusions. In the total scale of beings, therefore, man is as if displaced sideways and lacks that grace which the animals have and which God has."

This passage struck me, and strikes me to this day. I see a great support in it for my contention that the sacred is not entangled with paltry purpose and the deep, deluded ranges of self-consciousness. And I see this in my children, every day.

Those of you who are parents will likely feel tempted to point out that children, even very young children, seem capable of deceit and manipulation. You may wish to give me the “bad child” speech, or engage the tired, bitter “children don’t stay young for long” line (to which I might say “they lose their natural grace quickly thanks to adults and their warped notions of “maturity” and the extent to which they seem hostile to childhood, or dismissive of it”) or you may wish to say that I am setting my self up for some “fall” when my children lose the innocence of this state they now maintain.

You may wish to be sagely and “balance me out”, strip the stars from my eyes here- but you would only be showing the extent to which you have fallen from the subtle realization that I am now enjoying. Any adult who had this reaction would be showing how little of the child was left in them. Unlike the Jesus of the New Testament who bade the children to come to him, saying that the kingdom of heaven belonged to them, my sagely tutors would be taking the position of the Old Testament patriarchs and misery-mongers who described “maturity” as “putting aside childish things”. I don’t normally quote the bible this much- nor will I again, likely- but the comparison is good, in my way of seeing. I see now that real maturity- spiritual maturity- is eternally youthful and child-like.

I know that children grow up. It is my intention here to discuss “youth” in a different manner, the occurrence of youth that we are all- child or parent- temporarily blessed with. I have seen how ancient and wise cultures and wise people of all ages have noticed the relationship between youth and the sacred- and it is worth pointing out. As crucial as I see it now, it is worth shouting from mountaintops- “Do not lose your youthful sense of wonder!”

My ultimate point rides higher than any worn-out parent’s dim perceptions: my point is that my children- as I have experienced them up to this point- evidence a grace that I certainly lack at most times, and which most people I know lack. My children are happy and content at play, even with simple things like sticks or rocks. They are enthralled and open to strangers, not immediately suspicious of them, as I am. They do not harbor prejudices against others, as I was taught to.

They do not make the judgments I make- all of these things that I know lead to my unhappiness and stress, and certainly which cause everyone I know to be unhappy, ill at ease, and unsatisfied with many aspects of their lives. When my children see blooms, they see beauty and simply enjoy it; I am fortunate if I am having the “good sort of day” that lets me just smile at it. Normally, I wonder at what species it might be, try to dig through a field guide to find out, or worse yet, I don’t notice its beauty at all.

I see the sacred operating through my children in a way that I know it must have operated through me once, and through all of us- but we have forgotten, and grown, and found our "darkness" as adults. Because of that darkness, and because of our entanglements and deceits (especially our self-deceits) we will face a hard road into the afterlife, just as we face a hard road now, in our everyday lives- but it is the pure minds of the very young that still enjoy a special closeness with the sacred incomprehensible.

* * *

I can share an interesting personal insight that I had recently that goes to relevance here. As an adult, I feel- I know- that I have a responsibility to the sacredness of life not to needlessly destroy life. This includes not needlessly hurting or disfiguring life and living systems- and that includes plant life. If I were to walk into a forest, and see a bush covered with beautiful blossoms, and tear the blooms off haphazardly, leaving them on the ground, I know that the spiritual power of that plant-brother or sister would be rightly angry with me; I know that it would be worse for me, lessening my connection with the spiritual community of wholeness, of which I am a part.

But my three year old daughter will grab a flower and yank it from a bush or the ground, to show it to me and glance at it, and eventually just abandon it to the ground. And as I watched her doing it one day, I realized something- looking with my other senses, I saw that the spiritual power of that plant was not upset by her taking of its body as she did- and I was confused about why this was the case. Before this, I had encouraged her not to destroy blooms or plants, and she mostly does not. However, when she does, she does not enrage the powers in the same manner that an adult would.

Then I realized it- the sacred is resonating purely from her; there is no failing on her part, no underhandedness or viciousness in her action, no treason or disrespect in her, when she plucks the flowers, that the other powers perceive it and understand. This has nothing at all to do with my daughter being "previous to the age of reason"- it has to do with her natural closeness with the divine. That is why the sacred powers do not look askance at her, as they would at me.

* * *

These experiences and understandings which coalesced in me in the last few days have left me at a new place on my spiritual path- a place that is both old and new, perhaps would be a better description. Looking at the world, inside and out, whole and one, and at the sacred powers, including the sacred incomprehensible that is the totality of all, in terms of youthfulness, has helped me to connect to this world in a way I never could before in my adult life.

The supreme spiritual power that is there, within and without all things, is not like a stern adult judge; it is not a blind, careless force. It is not best described as a loving mother or a strict father. It is like a young child, exuberant, free, honest and open. W. B. Yeats said it best when he described the Goddess of Ireland as "your mother... who is forever young." The sacred in the land and sky is eternally young- our experience of youth is an insight into what “eternity” may mean.

All of this has helped me to understand how I could help my children as they walked the path of a human life. I could help them in the same way that I was helped: I can help them to never lose touch with the eternal youth inside them. I can avoid chiding them and telling them to "grow up" in some scornful way, and never make light of their youthful insights into things.

I must always stay aware of what I have said many times before, but which never lacks a necessity to repeat: children are not just "adults waiting to happen"- childhood is every bit as needful and appropriate as adulthood, just as powerful and crucial to the causes of humanity, and spirituality. It is wrong to write off children as "not yet fully developed"- they are in a stage of development which has its own values and power, and should be honored as complete in its own way.

We adults should always look to see what the sacred power of youth has to teach us. I know, as most parents know, how the youth of my children has made me find parts of my own youth that I had forgotten about.

I can be a better father and spiritual journeyman by striving to find the youthful eyes inside this adult head; I can try to learn to give up my adult prejudices and preferences for things that really don't matter; I can try to re-appraise what it means for something to "matter". I can realize the extent to which my own darkness, self-deception, and opinions have walled me off from the direct experience of the world of the sacred. I can try to let those things go.

And I can do this, because the eternally youthful power of the sacred is everywhere around me and with me as it always has been- and now I have my children to remind me of it, to mediate it to me directly every day, with joy and love. My adult dullness needed a child to show me, to my face, what I was missing. My children have become my teachers, the bridge-builders for me, and I am thankful.

My guidance for them, from this day forward, will be to encourage them not to lose the fresh eyes and ears that they have now. When I was growing, opinions were given to me and sold to me as absolute, immutable facts. It took me years to realize that these perspectives were not facts, after all, and to return to some shadow of the flexibility that was once mine, when I had just come from Wakan Tanka.

I will help my children to remain flexible, as best I can. I hope that they will help me in the same way, as I begin the journey back to Wakan Tanka, here and beyond.

1 comment:

puny human said...

Thanks for sharing these wonderful insights that came from your children-teachers.

Perhaps when your daughter grabs that daisy and loves it for a moment, and tosses it aside, the daisy experiences such a burst of love and adoration from her, that it is grateful for its death. Perhaps we are like that, too. Blooming, we attract the wonder and attention of the Creator, so that when he plucks us, and studies us and says, "wonderful!" it is enough.

Meanwhile, your musings reminded me of my own early parenting years. My children are now grown. In spite of my best efforts, I have not been able to keep them from their share of difficulties and pains. They are beautiful, though. They are kind, good, loving people, fit to be plucked by the Creator when their times come.

I remember when I was a teenager, I quoted Kahlil Gibran to my father. "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself." It hurt his feelings. He didn't understand. I just wanted to be free, of course. I was a child of the 60s and he was the "establishment."

Now I know why he felt hurt, but although the words are hard to hear, I also understand how true they really are. Here are the rest of the words:

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Best to you,