Saturday, June 25, 2011
Book Review: Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World by Wangari Maathai (Doubleday 2010)
This is an awesome book by 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Wangari Maathai. She is a woman from Kenya who pioneered a tree-planting movement in Kenya called the Green Belt Movement that has helped to stem soil erosion, river silting, and desertification in her native country. It has also helped to inspire other movements and empower poor indigenous peoples to improve their environment. She presents a sensible and scholarly analysis of human’s relationship to their environment and of people-inspired and people-powered environmental movements.
The focus of the book is on the – Four Core Values of the Green Belt Movement
These are: 1) Love for the Environment – this is a motivating factor, 2) Gratitude and Respect for Earth’s resources – this encourages us to reduce waste, 3) Self-empowerment and self-betterment – this implies developing self-reliance and changing bad habits and, 4) The spirit of service and volunteerism – which is simply taking the time and putting energy into improving the environment without expecting compensation. Much of the book is an expansion on these values along with anecdotes and examples of how they have been applied successfully and can be applied successfully in the future.
There is a current throughout the book of cultivating gratitude and respect for the environment and all that it provides for our life conditions and our ways of life. Also the idea of spiritual and cultural precedents for cultivating environmental balance and restoration is examined. Much is from her Christian perspective but also a significant amount is from ideas stemming from many religions and some cultures as well as her own knowledge and affiliation with the traditional Kikuyu people of Kenya. She does a good job of examining the impact of religious ideas on environmental relations including some negative effects due to religion, culture, and imperialism.
In the introductory material she talks a little about the development of environmental thought – Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis which sees the Earth as a self-sustaining organism, the development of the ideas of global warming and climate change, and particularly the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of the various environments of the world in terms of things like weather patterns, resource extraction, deforestation, etc. There is a range from small local ecosystems to regional and global ecosystems.
At the grassroots level Maathai’s Green Belt Movement began in 1977 as a few volunteer citizens planting trees to protect their future environment. Through education about their environment and the effects of their actions – people became empowered to prevent and repair problems. Planting trees, terracing fields to decrease soil erosion, collecting rainwater, utilizing better food growing and management techniques ,and building and maintaining simple sand dams for backup water in dry seasons are some of the practices that began then. Tree planting happened to be a positive factor for a lot of these environmental problems in Kenya. Maathai is quite aware of environmental challenges particular to Africa. She gives a story of being affected by the logging of giant 200-year old sapele trees in the Central African Congo region – not so much by the timber company’s management policies – but by the fact that only 35% of the large tree was used for wood. The other 65% was used to make charcoal used for brick-making. Certainly trees with less of an impact on the ecosystem could be used to make charcoal, she contemplates. She cites a lack of foresight – as she says construction workers could have used the remaining part of the timber to build their homes rather than in making heat to make bricks which are shipped to other parts of Africa. Here she, of course, speaks for the practicality and frugality of buying and using local products in reducing the overall ecological footprint. She cites some stories from the Hebrew Bible about the consequences of disregarding versus nurturing the land that is God’s creation. Resource management is a big issue right now, especially in less-developed countries as agreements need to be reached between governments, industries, populations, and indigenous populations as to how the resources are to be used, in what amounts, and how they are to be extracted.
She mentions some ideas of – thrift – embedded in people through – rituals of gratitude for bounty – among the Kikuyu people. One cool one is offering a small portion of the first harvest at the crossroads to be devoured by wild animals or the very poor and disabled. This was called ‘the granary of God.’ Actually, the idea of offering the first fruits of harvest is a practice of many cultures and we have done it at home as well.
On a more negative note she mentions that rural people in Kenya, including the Kikuyu used to eat less meat – maybe once a week with special sacrificial ceremonies. In modern times “carnivore restaurants” arose and meat-eating is daily among many folk. There is also an appetite for “bush meats” where wild animals are routinely poached – often illegally, to feed the demand. She notes these ideas of over-harvesting and frugality in the context of the problem of craving in a materialistic sense. She says we need both a shift in consciousness and a change in perspective - to reflect more on our responsibilities to the world and one another and to heal the wounds we have created.
Dust, ash, and smoke from slash and burn agriculture in Africa and deforestation in Madagascar can be seen from space. Part of the dust is from soil erosion due to deforestation. Maathai notes that much of our environmentalism is a reaction to symptoms rather than a development of preventative strategies. She emphasizes a balanced need to see the big and the small, the macro and the micro, the local effects and the global effects. She tells many stories of environmental disasters in Kenya – from small scale to big scale. Most are associated with droughts but also with deforestation and overuse of resources such as water. She notes a story of water being drawn down so much in a lake by the flower industry (many of the famous ‘Dutch’ bulbs are shipped and grown in Kenya then shipped back) that two Hippos got stuck in the mud and starved to death. Indigenous plants have been replaced with massive coffee and tea plantations – although coffee does come from a region fairly near to Kenya so it can be said to be nearly indigenous.
She covers the biblical concept of ‘dominion’ – where God tells Adam to “have dominion over the earth and subdue it.” In the same section he is also told to “serve and protect the garden.” Apparently this reference to ‘dominion’ does inform the Hebrew and particularly the Christian environmental perspective – as once when I was a representative in a panel discussion regarding religion and sustainability – the woman representing Christianity brought up this idea of dominion as a religious prerogative. Maathai and several other theologians think that the word dominion may have been misleading or perhaps mis-translated and a better word might be ‘stewardship’ or ‘custodianship.’ Thus the idea of a license from God to control nature without need to consider the consequences may not even be an accurate idea. In older religions – the relationship to the environment was often one of reciprocity where drawing from the natural world had consequences and rite around it rather than a divine decree to take without giving in return. On the other hand our excesses have led to technological advances and discoveries that help many things – but perhaps the aeon of dominion over nature is past and a new time of responsibility and accountability is upon us.
One thing I like about this book is that she acknowledges our limitations and failures and those of prevailing institutions:
“It’s clear that we still have a great deal to learn about the earth’s extraordinarily complex set of interconnected regions. Climatologists recognize that the predictive models of the effects of global warming they are developing – while a great deal more accurate and using more data than were available in previous years – nevertheless can only speak in terms of trends and patterns, risks and likelihoods, rather than in specificities.”
In a chapter called – The Power of the Tree – she covers tree lore from around the world. She notes the Kikuyu practice when cutting trees to leave one big tree or several big trees to keep the tree spirits in the forest. One would either plant another tree in the spot or place a stick on the tree and ritually transfer the spirit of the tree to another tree not to be cut. There was also the custom of the indigenous fig trees there being sacred and where sacrifices were performed. Logs and twigs from the fig were not to be used as firewood. She notes that this may have had an ecological basis in that those fig trees develop a deep and extensive root system that prevents slope erosion and landslides and allows water to rise to the surface from deeper reservoirs. She goes through quite a bit of tree lore – of the major religions and also of the sacred trees in various parts of the world. She notes that the nature of the universe can be compared to a tree in many mythologies, that sacred groves and forests are utilized for rites, pacts, and treaties, that relationships to trees figure in the lives of sages such as Buddha, and that temples are often built from specific trees. She also goes through some data regarding the conservation and renewal of forests – how planting trees where harvested may actually be a mains to save significant amounts of money by protecting soil. She notes the disastrous effects of shrimp farming Vietnam which generate income but result in loss of income due to the clearing of the coastal mangrove trees. She also notes the great successes they have had in Kenya of restoring the greenery, the soil, and the forests merely by planting trees. Another admission of the failures of institutions that she notes are those of the destruction of sacred areas venerated by earlier cults overtaken by new ones – particularly Christianity. She notes the destruction of the sacred groves of the Druids and other European pagans, and much earlier the destruction of the asherim, or the sacred poles of the Canaanite Goddess Asherah, by the Hebrew Israelites. She notes the effects of imperialism and conversion to Christianity on Africans such as the Kenyan Kikuyus – so that they could no longer worship outdoors, but in a specifically built building and under the authority of a non-local priest. She mentions the Chipko Movement in India which was inspired by an event in the 18th century when 300 people were killed trying to protect khjeri tress from being cut down by aggressive loggers in the Himalayan region. Today they follow Gandhi’s satyagraha, or truth-power, method of non-violent resistance. The famed Indian physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva has been a part of the group which began as a means to protect a large swath of forest to be cut down to build a dam – so that the local people could keep small scale economic opportunities in tree-felling and providing local resources rather than having everything hauled away by non-local industries and government projects. She also mentions the 1997 story of Julia Butterfly who climbed a giant redwood in California slated to be cut down and lived in it on a tiny platform for over two years.
She devotes some pages to the idea of thrift, or frugality – of reducing waste, reuse, and recycling – the three R’s. She praises a notion in Japanese culture called mottainai, which means “don’t waste.” This arose from a Buddhist notion of mindful gratitude but was later associated with hard times of forced frugality and so fell out of favor as better times came. Now it is being revived as a noble choice rather than a forced habit. She examines greed, competition, and materialism in the context of the developed world versus the less-
“ The very countries that from the 16th to the 21st centuries were instrumental in conquering and destroying civilizations, enslaving and undermining the self-confidence of peoples, and benefiting from the pillaging of the natural resources of other communities are those whose citizens are most informed about what is happening to the planet, and who have most wholly embraced the environmental agenda.”
She notes some of the Hebrew customs like the seventh day as a day of rest, the seventh year as a fallow field year, and the re-distribution of land improperly acquired and cancelling of debts every 50 years of the Jubilee – are ways of re-balancing both the environment and the poverty/wealth continuum of the tribe. Among a few more modern Jews comes the idea of “eco-kosher” – noting that preferred food can be that which is produced sustainably and ethically. In this chapter about gratitude and respect she makes an interesting comment about the Catholic Saints:
“The church partly invented the concept of sainthood to express gratitude to often wealthy or noble people who had served the poor and the sick. The designation of sainthood indicated to other faithful that these men and women were heroes and heroines to be thanked, respected and emulated.”
She also mentions an interesting Japanese custom of gratitude called furoshiki, where the furoshiki is a brightly decorated piece of cloth used to wrap gifts. When a visitor presents a gift to the visited the furoshiki is returned to the giver – much more eco-minded than our customs of disposable wrapping paper – and also the furoshiki becomes an empowered ritual item associated with generosity and joy. Returning the wrapping can also be seen as an act of reciprocity towards the giver which balances things. The Kikuyu have a tradition of offering gourds full of beer where the receiver polishes the gourd with castor oil before returning it to the giver.
“These gestures of giving capture both the spiritual and the practical elements of gratitude and respect for resources. Our connections to the planet and one another are reinforced simultaneously.
She notes her appearances in Kenyan churches to promote planting of trees during the Easter holiday. Sounds as if she is trying to create a positive tradition and empower people in a celebratory way to embrace their environment and also to link it with spiritual practice. She also promotes the idea of pride in one’s self and actions rather than pride in one’s material status.
She exhorts people to acknowledge their own environmental destructiveness as a precursor to healing. I have been working with this myself for a number of years now as I work in a resource extraction industry.
She is critical of the notion in Kenya that the poor people who attend church are expected to contribute money even though they have given up needed work for the day and walked sometimes several hours to get there.
She suggests we cultivate our “Commitment to Service” as a cheerful discipline without hope for monetary gain. This is also the attitude encouraged in the Indian practice of seva, or selfless service, to those in need. She speaks a bit about “Liberation Theology” which inspired people power movements in South and Central America that involved activism against greed and exploitation. She notes a hint of a trend of environmental Christianity from the ideas of St. Francis of Assisi and Clare Assisi and more recently the ideas of Thomas Berry who noted, “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” She notes the idea of Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff who said that, “social injustice leads to ecological injustice and vice versa.” She examines the movements in ‘environmental justice’ and ‘climate justice.’ Though I like the idea I think we have to be careful there in determining exactly who is really to blame and how much and who decides that. Demands need to be well-thought and well-researched. But I do think the justice movements serve a purpose particularly in bringing issues to the forefront and forcing more responsibility and accountability. This has happened recently in the Oil and Gas Industry in the eastern US and has repercussions for the industry and other industries around the world.
Interestingly she talks about her experiences at the recent (2009) UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Here, even a group of religious leaders from many traditions met to discuss environmental issues. She notes something here I think is very important – that these types of gatherings where people from different perspectives come together to solve problems related to responsible and accountable management of resources and developing strategies to protect and restore eco-systems. Here she notes the continuing value of dialogue and continuing dialogue in really solving problems.
She expresses gratitude to her mother and to the Irish Catholic nuns who educated her and helped her develop values and for things like inter-faith dialogue. She also mentions several environmental orgs, and some newer ones associated with religious groups. She also mentions thing like socially-engaged Buddhism and other environmental movements associated with spirituality. She seems to recount and appreciate these differing perspectives, those of Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa, Hindu activist Vandana Shiva, Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal, Jain monk Satish Kumar, and Christian theologian Thomas Berry. She mentions the German theologian and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer called who was a strong advocate of reverence for life. She says the Green Belt Movement participated in the Earth Charter at the Hague in 2000 – which is a document of environmental principles adopted by its adherents.
At the end she gives some advice for those called into service as environmentalists. She notes the value of anger as an initial motivation but any tendency to violence as a detriment to all.
“In addition to being honest about our motivations as agents of change, we have to recognize that in serving others and attempting to replenish the natural world, we cannot let our minds be shrouded by romantic notions of what it means to live sustainably.”
“We all live in different environments, with their own challenges and opportunities to create meaningful change.”
This is a smart book by a smart person that is very well worth reading.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Tibetan Sound Healing: Seven Guided Practices for Clearing Obstacles, Accessing Positive Qualities, and Uncovering Your Inherent Wisdom
Book Review: Tibetan Sound Healing: Seven Guided Practices for Clearing Obstacles, Accessing Positive Qualities, and Uncovering Your Inherent Wisdom by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche – edited by Marcy Vaughn (Sounds True 2006)
This is the Yungdrung Bon practice of the Five Warrior Syllables from the Bon Dzogchen tradition. The Book comes with a CD which guides the practice and visualizations around the syllables. The practice itself is quite simple but the results of such seed mantra chanting can be potent. Originally I purchased this book to prepare for a workshop on the practice which I think was cancelled but in any case I am quite glad I bought and read the book as I have enjoyed several books by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.
The five syllables are associated with the five wisdoms, or panchajnana, of the tantric tradition – although the author notes that these teachings are from the Bon Dzogchen tradition. The five seed syllables are: A, OM, HUNG, RAM, and DZA. Each syllable is linked to various notions and a feeling-tone visualization scenario. Each syllable is visualized in a particular color and in a particular chakra region of the body.
He gives an overview of the outer, inner, and secret levels of experience. In terms of obstacles to awakening from delusion he gives external obstacles as things like illness and adverse circumstances. Inner obstacles are traditionally the disturbing/afflicting emotions like ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, and pride. Doubt, hope, and fear are given as secret obstacles. The level of the secret influences refers typically to just those that are more hidden and more difficult to recognize. On the secret level is where the five warrior syllables are associated with the five wisdoms. On the inner level the practices are said to reveal positive or enlightened qualities such as the ‘Four Immeasurables’ – love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. He says that the five warrior syllables and the path of the warrior function to remove blockages so that positive qualities can manifest and bring us closer to non-conceptual wisdom. In a short section about the goals of meditation he notes that through meditation one may connect with a more fundamental experience of reality again and again and learn to trust this experience of being and rely on it in order to overcome unhealthy habitual patterns.
The first syllable is A (Ah). The Tibetan letter A is visualized on the forehead in white luminous light. This syllable is associated with the Wisdom of Emptiness. It is the experience of clear and open space – also as a vowel unbounded by consonants. Space is considered the ground of being. A has a mind aspect and a breath aspect. When we experience the sound and the breath as inseparable there is the experience of the self-arising of breath and sound. Anyway, in Tibetan metaphor there is the notion of mind as rider and breath as horse. The syllables are referred to as the armor of the rider as the horse takes him through the chakra zones. The experience of openness is said to be enhanced by being on top of a mountain or gazing out into the vastness of ocean or sky. The visualization analogy given is that of a clear desert sky with no clouds. So ‘A’ is said to clear, to clean, and to open. The instruction is merely to abide or rest in the dzogchen view of space/openness. He notes that the experience of openness entails that there are no obstacles and he implies that this can be a way to work with obstacles and mental and emotional blocks. Space is the foundation. He says to recognize it as mother, as buddha, and that this is the empowerment of the dharmakaya (body of qualities, or truth body of Buddha). He notes abiding as “resting without changing.” He says that when an obscuration is removed or cleared there is new space or openness and that is an opportunity to rest in that state of primordial purity of unobscured openness. Interestingly he says that the obscuration itself is experienced (as changing) when it is cleared and it allows one an opportunity to experience the wisdom of emptiness – or as he says the experience of the changeless dimension of being that underlies all experience. He also speaks of an experience of “changeless confidence” in the experience of the stability of open awareness.
“So this is our practice. We approach the highest level of dharma with the lowest level of problem. We begin with a very specific awareness of a situation of life we wish to transform, a direct and intimate sense of our confusion, and we transform that condition into our path through the method of singing A – through our direct experience in this moment. Through the power of the sacred sound, we glimpse an opening, and through recognizing this opening as the pure and fundamental ground of our being we abide there without changing: open, clear, awake, confident.”
The second syllable is OM and radiates red from the throat chakra and is associated with the mirror-like wisdom. As A connects with space, OM connects with awareness. He says OM is like completeness without conditions. So progression is that first there is openness which allows the experience of conditionless fullness. Space allows experience. Our typical habit is to immediately occupy the new space with our emotional tendencies. The visualization metaphor given is that of the sun shining in a cloudless sky – and he often compares light and awareness. He syas the mirror-like wisdom is that which reflects without judgment. It is a wisdom that is mere clarity and is unaffected by what it encounters. With OM one abides in the clarity of awareness, the nature of mind. “Wisdom is the A, the space. Compassion is the OM, the quality.” “We overcome fear with A. OM overcomes hope. Fear is related to space. Hope is related to clarity.” Hope relates to a sense of incompleteness and non-clarity. He says that an ‘ordinary result of practicing OM is that our sense perceptions may become clear and vivid. A ‘special” result may be “the capacity to abide in clarity, which refers to the awareness of essence rather than of the object.” Another result he mentions is that of ‘ceaseless confidence.’
The third syllable is HUNG in blue light at the heart chakra and supports the wisdom of equanimity. Here we discover the inseparability of space and awareness which spontaneously produces positive qualities. Rinpoche suggests that one reflect on the positive qualities of the Four Immeasurables: love, compassion, joy and equanimity as HUNG is chanted. Connecting with and abiding in these positive qualities is the HUNG practice. As a means to work with obstacles and summon positive states the author suggests that one does the following:
“Work directly with body, energy, and mind. On the level of body, join movement with awareness. On the level of energy, work with prana, or subtle energy, by joining awareness and breathing. How do we work with mind? Observe directly, without elaboration and without following whatever arises.”
The analogy with HUNG is the reflection of sunlight. The pure qualities of space and light are reflected in all appearances. The arising confidence is called ‘undeluded confidence.’ This is the wisdom of equanimity arising from the union of space and awareness. The notion is to let go and experience without the grasping mind. The external result of HUNG meditation is less of this grasping mind and more of a spontaneous connection with objects and experience. The special result is abiding in the inseparability of emptiness and clarity, which is experienced as bliss. Emptiness, clarity, and bliss, he says, are the three meditative experiences talked about in dzogchen.
The fourth syllable is RAM experienced as a red glow from the navel chakra and it is linked to the arising of the wisdom of discriminating awareness.
“With A we have changeless body, OM is unceasing speech, HUNG is undeluded mind, and now with RAM we have ripened and perfected virtuous qualities.”
RAM is linked to the ripening of the positive qualities of the Four Immeasurables – or integrating them into one’s life situations and encounters. The metaphor in the RAM meditation is the sunlight ripening fruit. When things ripen they get characteristics and a story. With ripening things become distinct manifestations. The wisdom of discriminating awareness is knowledge of this distinctiveness of the manifest realms. RAM is said to overcome the demons of negative emotions. “The meditative experience of RAM is the burning fire of potentiality.” He notes that it can involve a creative ability to see potential in the situations one encounters. In terms of compassionate action it is the ability to see what action the situation calls for – whether that be peaceful, wrathful, expansive, or powerful.
“Openness is wisdom, and wisdom must be present for any form of action to be compassionate. To the degree that wisdom and compassion are present, an action is more enlightened.”
“By singing RAM again and again, you clear your own agendas, ideas, and projections, and open yourself to be truly available for the needs of others.”
The ordinary experience of RAM is restless enthusiasm or excitement. The deeper experience is that one feels more and more the power of the positive quality(s) and the manifestation of them becomes more spontaneous and effortless. There is ‘ripened confidence.’
The fifth and last syllable is DZA as a green light from the secret chakra four finger widths below the navel. It is associated with the all-accomplishing wisdom and ‘effortless confidence.’ DZA is the syllable of action. DZA is about sealing and manifesting the quality. DZA is dependent on the successful implementation of the previous syllable qualities. He notes that people often have difficulty in actually manifesting something (and I have noted this is true with many of us – myself very much included).The manifestation power of DZA naturally follows the ripening power of RAM. Effortlessness and spontaneity are the qualities of the all-accomplishing wisdom.
So in review there is the space/oppenness of A, the awareness of OM, the inseparabilty of space and awareness of HUNG, the ripening power of RAM, and the manifesting power of DZA. Interestingly, this seems to be a downward path through he chakra zones from the unmanifest to the manifest – not so unlike the MEZLA or lightning bolt path of Tree of Life/Qabala – or the pathway from unmanifest Brahma to the Maya of the manifest world. It is a path from subtle to gross – only in terms of manifesting positive qualities in one’s life. It seems perhaps less of a path and more of a maintaining of the connection between the subtle and the gross through awareness and action based on awareness. The whole idea of this practice is to connect to an enlightened quality and manifest it into your life.
Next Rinpoche gives some advice on establishing a daily practice. He suggests for this practice reflecting on a particular quality that you want to change in your life and subsequently manifesing that positive quality. He notes the - Three Excellences – of any practice: the intention (always with the greater goal of benefiting others), the main body of the practice where one mindfully focuses on doing the practice with awareness and focus, and the dedication of merit to all beings as well as those especially in need. He then gives further advice on practicing all the syllables in one session. On the CD there are sessions with just one syllable and a longer session with all the syllables.
Finally, there is an appendix which gives the Tsa Lung exercises for clearing obstacles. These are yogic practices working with prana, breath, and the body. There are five practices related to the five winds/five pranas - and also to the five elements, the five wisdoms, and the five subtle natural lights given in the dzogchen tradition.
This is another excellent book by a great writer and holder of a very interesting and meaningful tradition. The book is very rich in detail and as with most of his books has some nice detailed philosophical precision.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Book Review: Phoenicians: Lebanon’s Epic Heritage by Sanford Holst
(Cambridge and Boston Press 2005)
What a fun ride this was – a 350 page book that was hard to put down and reads like a novel as it was often presented as a characterized history. The Phoenicians were a remarkable people with very unique characteristics as the author discovers and unfolds.
He begins with the earliest archaeological reconstructions from the city of Byblos along the east coast of the Mediterranean. Archaeology reveals the city of Byblos to have been inhabited since at least 6000 BC. At this time fruits and wild grains were abundant in the surrounding area and up in the nearby mountainous areas were great forests of the giant and long-lived Cedars of Lebanon. The trees would later become the wood skillfully made into Phoenician boats and the wood traded at high value to the Egyptian civilization that had no real sources of large timber. The great qualities and quantities of cedar allowed these peoples to develop boat-building and to become great fishermen. Early on the use of the trident, or a stick with several prongs was thought to be an innovation to increase the odds of spearing fish. Then came the development of fishing with nets. The trident is an accoutrement of the Greek sea god Poseidon and the net of the Cyprian version of the Love Goddess Aphrodite, who arose from the sea. Both a sea god and the love goddess were venerated among these peoples.
He mentions some possible early traded commodities other than surplus grain and tools - pre-Bronze Age obsidian from the area around Catal Huyuk in Anatolia (well-established by 6000 BC), fine linen from Lake Fayum Egypt (made from about 4500 BC), and perhaps smelted copper from Syria (from about 4500-4000 BC). Trade probably began with excess fish. Later things like olive oil and wine were traded and eventually glass bottles. One key item was cloth dyed purple with murex shells from the sea. The Phoenicians were famous for bringing this purple cloth that came to be associated with royalty.
Holst came up with the following Seven Principles of Phoenician Society:
- peaceful resolution of differences
- international trade
- religious tolerance
- creating partnerships
- respect for women
It is these things he says that allowed this society to be successful and last for a long time. His idea is that the early peoples of the cities of Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon were a tight-knit and continuous tradition with the later and more well-known Phoenician society from around 1500 BC. He makes a very good case for this and it seems sensible. They seemed to have relative independence until raids by the Amorites from Mesopotamia began to plague them in the late third millennium BC. Later they were subjects of various empires but still managed to maintain autonomy and independence mostly due to applying some of the above named principles. At times they were thought to have evacuated people by ship when confronted with attack and destruction as in a sense they ruled the sea and the sea was their home. They built harbors in protected spots, often on island coasts. Staying autonomous and heterogeneous was really an amazing feat for a people without an army. Later when some colonists split off to form the North African kingdom of Carthage they wanted an army and ended up in much confrontation until their eventual demise at the hands of the Romans.
The Phoenicians traded with the Egyptians from an early time bringing giant whole cedars to form the four supports and cross-beam for the oldest discovered temple in Egypt – that of the Temple of Horus at Hierakonpolis inland along the Nile. This was discovered in 1985 and so it places this trading relationship back beyond 3000 BC. This trading relationship between Egypt and Phoenicia was to last for millennia and as friends and partners they also shared several cultural and religious notions. They also shared much religion and cultural notions with the Canaanites to the north whose main city was Ugarit. Unfortunately the Canaanites were more prone to war and on the route of Babylonian, Assyrian, and later Persian invaders – as well as Amorite tribes. In the early Iron Age the cult of Ba’al and Asherah was powerful and the notion of drunken orgies to increase fertility was practiced – since spilling sperm was synonymous with Ba’al fertilizing the land. Asherah is thought to have been before Ba’al and is equated with Anat and Astarte (and also to Ishtar and Inanna). Among the Canaanites Asherah was militaristic as consort to Ba’al but among the Phoenicians to the south the female patron was Baalat Gebal – Our Lady of Byblos, and she wore no war vestments. She was regarded as Mother Nature and the source of all and perhaps her tender nature inspired the Phoenician commitment to peace. Later they would blend more with the Canaanites when Ugarit became more powerful, even at times referring to themselves as Canaanites. The author suggests that the worshipping of Mother Nature as Baalat Gebal ay Byblos is more or less a continuous tradition of the worship of the Great Fertility Mother at Catal Huyuk and many other early Neolithic sites. She was also venerated as Lady of the Beasts, a protector of animals – and also children. After the Canaanites adopted the worship of Ba’al as male fertility, storm, and war god, the Phoenicians added a consort to Baalat Gabel – Baal Shamem, or Lord of the Heavens. This deity was invoked to allay sea storms and dangers or to help with fertility. In Tyre, Baal Shamem was called Melqart, or Malek qart, and was more of a sea god as well as a storm god. Herodotus is said to have visited Tyre and equated the temple to Malqart to Hercules. They told him that it was founded when the city was founded around 2750 BC. Archaeological digs have conformed this rough date. Aside from these the Phoenicians did not have many deities compared to surrounding cultures. Another deity of interest was Eshmoun, a healer god who may have influence the Greek Asklepios. In any case, the Phoenicians outwardly adopted worship of deities of surrounding cultures as their ideal of religious tolerance was practiced. They kept statues of the Egyptian Goddess Hathor as a deity they seemed to like. Hathor and the Lady of Byblos were seen to be very similar and were effectively joined. Sometimes the Lady of Byblos was called Hathor and at other times Astarte, Anat, or Asherah – depending on who it would serve, but I suspect that privately she kept her own specific attributes – one being peace. As they became a traveling and trading culture it became advantageous for them to be like those they visited although inwardly they probably kept their own practices. The story told by Plutarch of Isis finding the body of Osiris washed up along the shores of Byblos and suckling (with her finger) one of the babe sons of the Queen – shows the great partnership of these people. Apparently the Phoenicians did not make icons as did the Egyptians and Canaanites. They had small stone stele or obelisks called massebah only a few feet high. The author suggests that these came long before the Egyptian obelisks and that this is their origin. Our Lady of Byblos was often represented by an empty throne. Often she was celebrated in outdoor stone temples such as the famous L-shaped temple at Byblos.
The Phoenicians early on became masters of negotiation and diplomacy and this helped them survive without warring. As well, Byblos was protected by the Lebanon Mountains and Sidon and Tyre were protected by the sea. The ethnicity and culture of the Phoenicians and the Canaanites were the most similar and based on that they kept the Canaanites form attacking them. The author notes that their desire for peace was more reasonable than altruistic in that they could not prosper amongst wars. Their trading had made them wealthy and able to lead luxurious and comfortable lives and they had no need to expand or invade. He notes that they fled their cities often when attacked and then later returned. The Phoenicians founded other cities up and down the Mediterranean coast – Tyre, Sidon, Arwad, and later Beirut. The Phoenicians apparently made a harbor at Pharos Island of the Egyptian coast to stage their trade. Lucky for them the Egyptians were skilled only at river travel and would never really master sea travel. They also had an outpost on the copper-producing island of Cyprus and another in the Aegean on the island of Santorini, or Thera, which they effectively controlled. Another was the island of Dia offshore from the large island of Crete. They also developed colonies on the islands of Malta and Gozo along the coast of North Africa where massive stone temples made with great skill were built and dedicated to a giantess goddess. The author here makes two bold suggestions: that the Phoenicians felt kinship to these people because of their possibly peaceful nature and veneration of the nature goddess and even more bold – that their skilled stone masons were brought to Egypt to design and direct building of the magnificent stone pyramids and other structures of Egypt. He suggests that the Phoenicians helped finance the improvement of the Maltese temples. He makes the interesting observation that the people of Malta and Gozo disappeared from the islands at the same time as the great pyramids began to be built.
One of the most important parts of Phoenician cities was the Trading House. It was here that trading deals were documented and goods counted and stored. Also here was where the councils met to decide other important matters mostly related to trade. He says that even though they declared that they had kings – likely to satisfy the Egyptians and Canaanites – rule was really by council.
Another bold assertion – but I think well-founded and with much supporting evidence, is that much of the people of Byblos, and some from Tyre, and Sidon left the area after repeated incursions by the Amorites. At first they tried Cyprus but Anatolians had already settled there in abundance. They decided to colonize Crete which they had been visiting for 1000 years and effectively made a deal with the existing population. They also around this time discovered a circular route around the Mediterranean that allowed them to take advantage of prevailing winds going from Crete to North African coast then to their Pharos Island outpost off of Egypt, back to Lebanon and full circle back to Crete. The key to the author’s assertion is that this is the society that began to form on Crete – the Great Minoan society with their elegant palaces at Knossos and finery and artwork. There is good evidence that the Minoans were led by wealthy Phoenicians although they certainly blended with more numerous indigenous Cretan people and traditions. The Minoans had no army as well and he suggests that the famed double axes from Knossos were a remnant of the indigenous Cretans who fought tribal skirmishes somewhat of the hunter-gatherer type amongst themselves and became more symbolic than anything else. The Phoenicians likely enticed the Cretans to join them as they did others in promising not to attack them – by showering them with expensive gifts. Their superior seafaring technology always kept them at an advantage and gave them a way out. Minoan society thrived for several hundred years without invasion although they did encounter a few damaging earthquakes. The great volcanic eruption forming the center of Santorini/Thera destroyed much there but the Phoenicians left before it fully erupted in the 1600s BC. The art found under the ash is clearly Phoenician/Minoan. Some have equated Thera as the home of the Atlantians. The Minoans developed a king who was also chief priest. Before these palaces were discovered and excavated they were legendary in myths. King Minos of Crete was said to be a son to Zeus and Phoenician princess Europa who he saw in Lebanon and fell in love with her and took her to Crete. The myths about King Minos and the Minotaur killing adventurous Greeks may have served to keep the mainland Greeks from invading. Perhaps this represents the melding of Phoenicians and Cretans in history. Some interesting archaeological corroboration of these ideas are that the city of Tyre was thought to be abandoned around 2000 BC (same time as beginning of Minoan culture on Crete) with people beginning to return around 1500 BC. Both the Phoenicians and the Minoans were said to have dominated sea trade at this time (mostly by the Egyptians) and there was no conflict among them so that is another corroboration. Actually, as in the archaeological discovery of the city of Troy in Anatolia in 1871 based on the writings of Homer, the palaces at Knossos were also searched for and found based on mythology around 1900. The palaces were magnificent with highly detailed artwork and frescoes depicting dolphins and men and women equally excelling at sport such as acrobatic bull-leaping. Much of this was probably contributed by the Cretan peoples as previously the Phoenicians were not great makers of these things. While Tyre and Sidon were abandoned and Byblos had a more scant population the new city of Beirut developed near an underground water source coming from the mountains. He mentions that at this time Byblos was mainly a religious city and so perhaps the Amorites would not seek to attack it. The Amorites ended up taking Babylon and establishing the first Babylonian empire. Beirut became the city to rather clandestinely continue the cedar trade to Egypt. There was a legend of the god Adonis (named Tammuz) taken as a child and cared for by Our Lady of Byblos. She placed him safely in the underworld for safekeeping but as he grew both she and the Goddess of the Underworld fell in love with him and each kept him for half of the year. After he was killed by other jealous gods he was also returned for half of the year by the Underworld Goddess. This story is very similar to that of Inanna and Dumuzi – and Ishtar and Tammuz (even same name). Later the Adonis story was applied by the Greeks to Aphrodite and here is a quite clear progression of the Love Goddess from Sumerian to Babylonian to Phoenician to Greek. Raids by Mycenaeans from mainland Greece were originally beaten back by the Cretan navy and piracy was reduced with help from other trading partners but eventually the Mycenaens won out and took over Crete as the Phoenicians boarded their ships and went back to Lebanon. The next few centuries saw the rise of the Hyksos regime in Egypt and the Hittites in Anatolia and the decline of the Amorites. After this was the little understood invasion of the Sea Peoples in the 1300’s BC. The author makes the rather bold assertion that the Phoenicians aided these people basically by bringing them on their ships. It is thought that they were mainly starving people from northern Anatolia along the Black Sea who wanted to find farmland. Perhaps the Phoenicians thought they would help fix all the shattered empires in the area and since they shared an enemy in the Hittites they could be allies. The Sea Peoples fought successfully and settled until they reached Egypt and were pushed back. The Sea Peoples destroyed Ugarit in 1182 BC and it was never rebuilt. They did not touch any of the Phoenician cities when passing through which corroborates that they were in cahoots. The Mycenaean invasion of Troy may have been in retaliation for attacks against them by the Sea Peoples but after the Trojan wars the Mycenaean empire collapsed. Tribes of Sea Peoples seemed to maintain good relations with the Phoenicians such as one that settled on Sicily. Incidentally another of these tribes settled in modern day Palestine and likely became the Palestinians.
By the 1100’s BC the Phoenicians had outposts and small colonies all over the Mediterranean from North Africa to Siclily to Spain and Morocco and in the Aegian Sea. Since the Sea Peoples also invaded and settled Cyprus the Phoenicians could settle there as well indulging in the rich copper trade for bronze weapons. They built a temple to Our Lady of Byblos there as her worship had been there from 1200 years previous. Here the Greeks recognized the birthplace at the Phoenician colony of Cythera and then on Cyprus of the Goddess Aphrodite who was one and the same as the Great Lady of the Phoenicians. She was never a war goddess and accepted no blood sacrifices. At the same time as the Sea Peoples some tribes moved west from the Mesopotamian city of Ur led by a man called Abraham. They settled inland from Palestine and joined with others and became the Hebrews. They were also friendly with the Phoenicians and it was King Hiram of Tyre who helped them to build the famed Temple of Solomon the King with Lebanon cedars among other materials. After the demise of the Mycenaeans the Phoenicians re-established trading partners in the Aegean and went back to ruling the seas for another 700 years or so. The author suggests that a few hundred years later the Phoenicians influenced the development of the Greek culture that was to rise around 700-900 BC and reach its greatness by 550 BC. Even Herodotus acknowledges the influence of the Phoenicians saying they introduced many arts and also writing that was adopted by the Ionians who ruled Greece at the time. The legend is that Cadmus of Tyre brought writing to the Greeks. Indeed alphabetic writing was developed by Canaanites/Phoenicians/Hebrews based on earlier Egyptian models and also likely influenced by Sumerian- Akkadian-Babylonoian-Assyrian cuneiform writing. The Phoenician or Punic script was documented at Tyre around 1400 BC and was used by all Phoenician traders to record trades. Not long after the Greeks adopted the alphabet from the Phoenicians Homer was able to write down his collections of oral tales from the bardic traditions. Alphabetic writing was important shorthand for a traveling a trading culture that were required to learn many languages and in a position to pass on and gather much knowledge through language. From their colonies in Spain such as Cadiz, the Phoenicians traveled up the Atlantic coast to Wales and Cornwall and their coveted source of tin. Here they would have traded with fairly recent descendents of the people who built Stonehenge and the great Megaliths of Britain.
A story told in Greek myth about Elissa and Pygmalian represents the historical split of some Phoenician factions from Lebanon. Pygmalian was the King of Tyre and she his sister. In 820 BC she took a segment of the Lebanese population and established a settlement in North Africa near an outpost and it became Carthage. Carthage flourished and became quite powerful dominating the Western Mediterranean along with other trading outposts. This was the first Phoenician city built on a hill as previously they were built on preferably hidden islands and lowland seasides. Virgil recorded the tale in the Aeneid. The Lebanese cities were forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians in the 700’s BC but otherwise were left alone although sometimes they joined with Hebrews and Syrians to fend them off. After this it was the Babylonians who demanded tribute and then in 539 BC it was the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Also at this time (700s-500s BC) the Phoenicians of Carthage traded with the cultured and Greek-like Etruscans. The Hellene Greeks invaded Sicily in the 700s BC and the Phoenician component retreated to other islands. The Peloponnesian Wars ensued. The Carthaginian Phoenicians also explored the coastal areas of Morocco and West Africa making observations and a few trading outposts. Rome made a treaty in 509 BC with Carthage, the very year of their independence from the Etruscans.
It was in 600 BC that was recorded a wondrous sea journey partially funded by the Egyptians that brought the Phoenicians all the way around Africa, a journey that took three years and would not be repeated until Vasco de Gama did it in 1497. This comes from the writings of Herodotus but the explanations of the direction of the sun along the tropics is correct to the reality of land and position.
The Persians freed the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos from Babylonian oppression and although they still had to pay tribute to the Persian empire it was an easier relationship. The Persians wanted to attack Carthage but the Phoenicians refused their ships to attack what would have been their own people – though probably unbeknownst to the Persians. During the wars between the Persians and the Greeks the Phoenician navy was used to help the Persians under Darius. The next king Xerxes also utilized Phoenician ships in his invasion but due to heavy initial losses he executed many Phoenician captains which proved to be a mistake. By that time the Greeks had developed a powerful navy. During the time of the Persian Empire a great healing temple to the healing god Eshmoun, a consort to the Lady of Byblos, was built near Sidon that resembled the Asklepian healing temples of Grecian and Anatolian lands. After the Persians had a falling out with the Phoenicians over their losses in Egypt they laid siege to Sidon and many of the Phoenicians may have fled to Carthage as the Persians wiped out many of the rest. Next it was Alexander the Great who came through wiping out the Persians and setting up government at Babylon. When he came to Tyre they made a miscalculation and tried to hold out the siege with their island position and walls but Alexander’s men patiently built a land bridge and took the city with force and killed much of the inhabitants. He probably would have left them alone with only tribute if they had merely surrendered. The Sidonians aided Alexander’s army but later secretly protected the people of Tyre by hiding them on their boats. This was the traditional end of the Lebanese Phoenician society although the cities continued weakened and sea trade continued and some Phoenicians traveled with Alexander to the East and returned him with their ships. It was Carthage that would now come to the forefront.
Rome was now a significant empire and wanted to extend into the Mediterranean. By 295 BC they had finished the last of the Etruscans although some likely went north into Germanic lands. Rome fought and won the island of Sicily from the Carthaginians. There was peace for a while then Hannibal, the famed general from Carthage attacked a Spanish city under Roman protection and the war was back on. Hannibal marched over the Alps with war elephants and defeated the Roman armies of Northern Italy. Rome went and conquered the Spanish lands then they went to North Africa. Then Carthage negotiated a peace treaty and Hannibal was recalled home. Then Rome won more of their lands and island territories. Finally, a third Punic War was launched where they basically came to wipe out a weakened Carthage. “The Romans reportedly went door-to-door throughout the city slaughtering the inhabitants in what was one of the largest executions of civilians in history prior to World War II.” The rest were made slaves. The cities records were destroyed and the fields sown with salt. It was an utter destruction. Indeed as my son tells me – this was likely one reason for the advertisement of the Roman Army that went something like this: ‘Travel to distant lands, meet strange and exotic peoples, and disembowel them’
After the fall of the Lebanese cities to Alexander it is thought that the Phoenicians adopted Hellenic culture and lost much of their identity as a people although as the author notes, some of the attributes are probably still present among the Lebanese people.
There are three appendices in the book. One is about the ancient art of boat-building. Next is a short history of Egypt. Then there is an interesting account of the legend of the Phoenix which may very well apply to Phoenicia. Many cities destroyed or damaged were never rebuilt but Phoenician cities that suffered such fates often re-appeared fully rebuilt in short time periods. Perhaps this associated them with the Phoenix legend. The bird called the Phoenix is equated to the popular Egyptian Bennu bird and also later adopted in Greece. The author suggests that the legend of the bird bursting into flames every 500 years and then re-emerging was amalgamated with the history of the Phoenician people as the word phoenicia is the plural of phoenix in Greek.
OK – Holst sure can weave a tale and I hope I have told it in concise form conveying the key points in a manner that is readable. It really was a fun and exciting read.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Book Review: Spirituality in the Flesh: Bodily Sources of Religious Experience
by Robert C. Fuller (Oxford University Press 2008)
This is an awesome book that surveys several interfaces of biology and spirituality. Although dry and academic at times it was utterly fascinating at other times. Some very intriguing ideas are collected here at the cutting edge of modern cognitive psychology and genetics, and some re-interpretations of historical situations.
According to E.O. Wilson, “traits that foster group cooperation were consequently critical to humanity’s biological survival.” So according to him the fostering of this group cooperation is a main function of religion. According to the author it is more likely that religion may be a by-product of cooperation. Religion has a tendency to aid group loyalty and support the keeping of specific tribal morality. In terms of natural selection, whatever encourages subordinating self-interest to the interest of the group is favored. Some scientists have proposed a “selfish gene” geared toward reproductive success of our kinship group and others a “god gene” that predisposes us towards religious faith – but these are yet debatable ideas. Some scientists try to pinpoint the neurological components of mystical experiences and others the motivational aspects of emotions to account for a biological basis for spiritual and religious behaviors. The author considers that both genes and culture affect the development of religious ideas but that current ideas are overly oriented toward cultural explanations via the humanities. He supports more balance toward body-oriented views of cognitive science. He likes to emphasize that religion developed as an adaptive function alongside our genetic adaptive functions, perhaps as a by-product of them. One interesting thing he notes is that the function of the cerebral cortex in humans allows us greater flexibility in responding to our environment so that we can override instinctual behaviors. The effect of this is that there is more choice in our behavior.
One recurring notion in religion is the search for and assigning of causal agent(s) to situations and events. This is also a key to our evolutionary heritage and so a main place where religion and evolution overlap. Detecting and identifying causal agents gives us an adaptive advantage. Religious ideas may not be directly adaptive but indirectly supportive of adaptive functions. (sharing a religious view allows the morals of the group to be followed easier).
The first topic of body and religion overlap involves the emotions of fear and anger in the development of cohesive religious views and what he calls religious territorialism. The idea is that both territorialism and certain emotions affect humans in ways that promote biological survival. Humans, like many animals, like to mark our territory and in terms of culture, our tribal boundaries. Emotions seem to be our primary motivational mechanisms. Fear is a very fundamental motivation that isolates and focuses on the source of perceived threats often to the exclusion of all else. Threats need not be physical as “threats to one’s self-concept, one’s integrity, or one’s psychological well-being can elicit fear....” as noted by Carol Izard, who studies emotional systems. Fear is originally an adaptive mechanism triggering fight or flight responses to threats but it can become maladaptive when one becomes overly fixated on the threat. After the initial fear there may be anger directed toward the threat which may be adaptive in the sense that energy is mobilized and sustained at high levels. Fear-induced anger may contribute to communal solidarity by directing energy toward a common enemy. The author relates this fear-anger response to the phenomenon of – the apocalyptic imagination. He refers to two main sources as the Christian Book of Revelations and the Jewish Book of Daniel. Regarding apocalypticism he states that, “Their faith is rooted in the conviction that (1) the world is sharply divided into the forces of good and those of evil, and (2) the conflict between those forces is about to be joined by supernatural forces who will intervene decisively on behalf of the righteous, assuring them that they will be victorious and will inherit a purified earth.” Sociologists tend to agree that these types of teachings are intended for groups in crisis, anxious about an impending threat. He goes through several examples of fear-driven religious action including the historical setting for the Jewish Book of Daniel where the Hebrews are being oppressed by the Syrians who are pillaging their temples in order to help finance a war against Egypt. Daniel receives a vision of monstrous beasts (likened to the foreigner’s gods) and an assurance that a powerful ally being will come to destroy them. So this prophecy becomes a way to rally the faltering morale of the religious community against the perceived oppressor. Similarly, the Christian Book of Revelations served as a rallying cry to a rather minor and outcaste sect during a point of low popularity. The idea is to convey that justice and success is coming to we that believe the doctrine and practice the laws and those of other groups will fail and perish. This idea of The Book of Revelations as a rallying cry has also been compared to Aristotle’s explanation of Greek tragedy as an arousal of emotions and subsequent healing through catharsis, or coming to new terms with the emotions and the crisis situation. Fear-induced behavior is “characterized by tunnel vision, restricted cue utilization, and keen attention to the threatening agent.” Fear is also involved in our alarm system shaped by evolution in order to protect us from danger so this apocalypticism is body-based although in many cases may be maladaptive rather than adaptive. The next step after fear in this way of thinking/being is anger – which protects self-esteem by directing energy away to a perceived enemy. Sigmund Freud related fear to the arising of religious belief in the psychological sense. According the author, though, his understanding of emotion was somewhat limited to stimulus –response. The key question according to the author is which emotions mobilize our cognitive programming derived from evolutionary adaptations. The ultimate enemy is aptly named in the Book of Revelations as the Anti-Christ, making it quite clear that he is the enemy. The ability of modern doomsday theology to turn modern events into symbolic representations of evil on the march does much to inspire followers. Such activity increases self-doubt. An example of this is an increasing popularity of doomsday theology themes shortly after the September 11 tragedy. He does note that some apocalyptic faith may be more based on hope and even care and compassion and that it is most maladaptive when based on fear and anger. But I also think hope-based belief, especially that based on literal interpretation of prophecies, can also be quite maladaptive. Bottom line is that this type of fear-driven religious belief is tied up with boundary posturing and separatism and may be reactive behavior sourced by a sense of powerlessness.
The next topic is also in the category of emotions. This time it is the feeling of wonder and how this can impel us to both contemplative and moral behavior. The author equates this religious wonder with nature religion and aesthetic spirituality. I should point out that throughout this book for the most part the author seems to focus on distinctly American forms of “Spirituality in the Flesh.” The question here is: How can the emotions of awe and wonder serve to re-structure social groups and inform religious experience? Wonder and awe (aided by interest and curiosity) inspire by stretching one’s sense of possibility and the pre-existing boundaries of one’s experience. The effect of wonder is often to open our minds to new possibilities. In that sense it is often considered a positive motivational emotion. Wonder may be initiated by a ‘startle response’ where one has a sudden realization of awesomeness. The author lists three reasons how Wonder differs from the other emotions. First it “is an emotion linked to approach and affiliation rather than avoidance. One often approaches the source of wonder as if it is medicinal with the goal of absorbing its qualities. Secondly, “it awakens our mental capacity for abstract, higher-order thought.” In this way it is more potent than mere curiosity. Thirdly, “wonder temporarily suspends utilitarian striving.” It renders us passive and receptive in our resolve to unite with something magnificent. Most evolutionary cognitive adaptations are active and goal-oriented but wonder is passive and has a “peculiar ability to elicit sustained attention and receptivity.” Next he invokes the work of famed child psychologist Jean Piaget – who studied how children, particularly his own, came to understand causality – the relationships between parts and wholes and change and constancy. Piaget came to describe things in terms of assimilation and accommodation. This is how we deal with new and unexpected experiences – we assimilate and accommodate. Surprise/curiosity/wonder is often how we deal with causality perhaps in a scientifically optimistic way. Wonder also has the effect of opening a broader context of causality and meaning so rather than simply A causes B we seek to understand “the bigger picture.” The author notes that wonder “sustains our desire to connect with the surrounding world.” Wonder allows us to move beyond self-interest says ethical theorist Martha Nussbaum. It aids us in developing empathy and compassion. The author goes on to give several examples of wonder-based aesthetic spirituality including the ideas and experiences of environmentalists John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club who was filled with wonder in his experiences of raw nature without human presence) and Rachel Carson who intently studied the interconnectivity of ecosystems – and transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau whose ideas influenced Muir. Muir discovered and taught a new way of seeing nature as a sacred whole to be venerated and protected and so he strongly influenced the development of the National Park System. His moral prerogative was to preserve untouched chunks of nature. Rachel Carson also demonstrated a new way to see the world based on wonder. She encouraged a veneration for life and the healing abilities of keeping the attitude/emotion of wonder. Wonder seems to engender the sacred and turn us away from the profane.
In a section called the Chemistry of Consciousness the topic begins with an examination of geneticist Dean Hamer’s idea of a genetic component to the Biology of Belief – the so-called God Gene. His main criteria for spiritual measure is: a sense of self-transcendence. Personally, I think the god gene argument is weak as more indirect genetic influences seem more likely to me. I see neuro-chemical responses more as effects than causes of behavior and belief although I concede that the looping back can certainly be causal. I just don’t think he shows good evidence for the root cause being genetic and the measurement criteria is vague and highly subjective. One of the more interesting conclusions he states (I think) is that genes may predispose us to be believers – or perhaps they may affect our tendency to believe. There is no mention of factors such as karma which in Hinduism and Buddhism are said to be the most powerful influence on our tendencies and predispositions and of course the reason for that is that how something like karma influences us is largely unknown and not amenable to scientific study. Of course, our experiences affect our beliefs. What else could?
Many psychoactive drugs mimic the monoamine serotonin. These hallucinogens are known to cause effects that often change a person’s spiritual outlook, both temporarily and long-term. Since the mimic effect is seen as a change in brain chemistry, this is an example of neurochemically-induced belief change. But I do think this change is in varying degrees and still quite subjective. Next he goes on to the work of Harvard botanist Richard Schultes who points out that Native Americans utilize way more psychoactive plants than other cultures due to being culturally programmed toward “ecstatic-visionary shamanism.” This may have something to do with the fact that these people were isolated beginning 15,000 ago or earlier and immune to early Eurasian agricultural and social developments and perhaps more locked into the Paleolithic religious paradigm. Anthropologist Weston La Barre calls this a “narcotic complex.” Tobacco was the pre-eminent Native American shamanistic drug. Nearly every tribe used it and always in a ceremonial context. It is rather strange that now it is merely a secular addictive substance. Of course, there are different types of tobacco, some quite hallucinogenic. Tobacco and the sacred pipe were used in healing rites and in the securing of oaths and social contracts. One can certainly say that drug use was a very important part of shamanistic societies. When Native Americans were segregated to different reservations their cultures were allowed to mix more than in the past so rites were shared. One such cermony that became popularized particularly from 1890 to 1920 was the use of peyote. Peyotism, or the seeking of visions through peyote which originated in Mexico was adopted by many more tribes. For some tribes it replaced long periods of fasting required to obtain a vision. The author suggests that before this the peyote rites were mainly a way for the shaman to effect cures by getting a vision about the patient’s problem. After the diffusion of the peyote cult he suggests that the new goal was to establish harmony with supernatural power. He calls this an Americanized version as even later some Christian elements were added.
In another section he refers to a more experiential religious counterculture that also experiments with drugs, as well as with “Eastern religions, alternative healing philosophies, self-help psychologies, books on the occult or supernatural, pagan religions, deep ecology, or radical feminism.” He mentions some of the early forms that roughly fit this category like Transcendentalism, spiritualism, mesmerism, and Theosophy, and later the Beat movement and the hippies. These alternative spiritualities tend to seek “mystical forms of consciousness.” He goes through some of the social aspects of marijuana use and notes the very important aspect of set and setting on psychotropic exploration. At first in America (and the West) drug experimentation was strongly associated with seeking spirituality and mystical states. He thinks that the zeitgeist changed in the 1980’s when these drugs became more as intoxicants without a spiritual aspiration component. An important observation is that, “Altered states of consciousness temporarily de-automatize our accustomed modes of registering sensory data.” This new inefficiency may allow us to experience the world in new and different ways. He also says that, “Altering the normal ratio of sensory intake to sensory processing radically alters cognition.” Altered states are sometimes accompanied by confusion but it is perhaps this instability that allows the person to see new ways of being. Finally, in this section the author notes that some may see drug-induced ecstatic experiences as acceptable meaningful spirituality while others view them not as authentic self-transcendence but as dangerous and unacceptable self-deception. This brings up the important point of who decides which is meaningful or acceptable or not. This argument model he terms the politics of consciousness. He notes William James in his famed book Varieties of Religious Experience had considered his experiences with Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) to be insightful and meaningful. Indeed James’ viewpoints are noted throughout this book.
The influence of sexuality on religious thought is examined. The joy, passion, and vitality of sex has long been metaphorically linked to religion in many cultures.
“Erotic desire expresses itself in our quest for self-abandonment. It guides our religious quest for passionate connection with an ideally romanticized “other.”
Evolution biology is based in reproductive fitness and selects in favor of traits that enhance this fitness. Evolutionary psychologists say that “mate selection” is particularly important to humans. The author notes that human males compete for females likely due to the female risking more reproductive potential per copulation than the male. He also says that males may have begun their campaign to control females by luring them with food. Males tend to seek out multiple partners while females tend to be more selective. Ensuring that DNA is successfully transmitted to the next generation is the name of the game. The notion of “falling in love” may also have evolutionary components. This bonding might ensure that we are committed enough to follow through on creating, bearing, and raising offspring. Helen Fisher spoke of three neurological components of love: 1) Mechanisms that get us aroused, interested, and seeking – lust, 2) Focusing attention on one mate – romantic love, and 3) Forming attachments to that mate. There are measurable but likely not uniform neuro-chemical reactions in these states. The author notes that religion often seeks to channel forces such as lust into socially acceptable forms. He also talks about the notion of falling in love with God which has been noted in Christianity both among ascetics and regular people and is an established part of Hinduism in the form of Bhakti Yoga (devotional yoga) and in some ways Buddhism as well in the related Tantric devotional yogas. He notes that Freud’s model of libido – which is mostly biological but with a cultural component as well is too simple and not fully applicable in the view of most modern theorists. His simplification of sexual energy building up and being released is incomplete they say. There may be other things going on as well such as the desire to unite in order to discover deeper truth, beauty, and wholeness. This idea accords more with sacred sexuality. Many cultures regulate sexuality in a myriad of ways and so skirting this regulation and bending/breaking these taboos has become a part of eroticism. Mysticism is also subversive in the sense that one seeks to transcend the restrictions of normal reality. Here sexuality and religion are kin and freedom is discovered beyond the normal world of order and rules. The author goes on to describe some American Christian societies that overturned social and sexual rules such as the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Latter-Day Saints. The Shakers let go of bodily inhibitions in their ecstatic bodily movements – shaking, for them perhaps sublimating sexual impulses. The Latter-Day Saints embraced polygamy as a way to acknowledge the power of male sexual energy and the author suggests that the charisma of Joseph Smith may have derived from his sexual charisma. John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida community went on to practice and advocate sex without male orgasm which they said made it a spiritual activity – of course this is akin to some Tantric yoga traditions. In Hinduism and Buddhism sexual bliss and religious bliss are described similarly and more particular to Hinduism the state of union with the divine is akin to orgasmic rapture. He also tells the story of St. Theresa of Avilla who described mystical union with an angel in somewhat sexually explicit terms. Another was that of Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson who described union with Christ in bodily ecstatic terms. Another example he might have mentioned would be the Afro-Caribbean Voodoo possessions by the loa spirits who are typically associated with Catholic Saints. Finally there is a section on very early American Tantra. He notes the features of Tantrism as : 1) originated outside of orthodox Vedic tradition, 2) positive attitude toward the body in contrast to asceticism/renunciation, 3) use of radical and transgressive methods such as alcohol, drugs, sex, meat, 4) understands body as microcosm of the universe, 5) framework of subtle body and energies. He goes on to mention the work of Paschal Beverly Randolf (1825-1875) the son of an African slave who moved to New York and became interested in Rosicrucianism, spiritualism, and mesmerism. He noted that sexual energy can be utilized for spiritual means. Pierre Bernard (1975-1955) founded the Tantrik Order in America. He went to India as a teen to study healing and claimed to have studied Tantra in Bengal and Kashmir. He taught various metaphysical subjects in San Francisco beginning in 1904. He taught Hatha Yoga in New York and later started a retreat/commune in rural New York which was rumored to have sexual practices. The press referred to him as the “Omnipotent Oom.” His so-called love cult was scandalized by the press in the 20’s but he did manage to bring the practices and notions of sexual tantra and combining them somewhat with Western sexual magic to become a more distinctly American form of Tantra. Wilhelm Reich and the “somatic movement” in psychotherapy and alternative medicine also contributed to American Tantra. Reich extended Freud’s notion of libido to his “orgone” energy that could be collected and used for healing. Reich equated orgasm with flow and lack of orgasm with blockage. Ida Rolf (1869-1975) who originated the deep massage method of rolfing, studied under Pierre Bernard and was interesting in “initiating people into harmonious spiritual consciousness.” The Esalen Institute began in California in the early 1960’s and developed many study and practice programs devoted to Eastern Spirituality, Yoga, Tantra, Psychotherapy, and alternative healing therapies. In many ways it was a precursor to today’s New Age centers.
The influence of pain and illness is next investigated. “Our habitual tendency to view the mind and body as separate entities obscures the subtle ways that thought and somatic tissue are parts of the same organic whole.” Pain is often subjective and individual. Heroes and deities often readily endure pain to overcome foes and situations. We may try to emulate them when confronted with pain. He says that most cultures give models (presumably in myths and stories) of how to respond to sensory trauma. Chronic pain can have the same effect as we try to overcome it. This identifying with cultural icons in order to deal with pain and illness can be seen as religious behavior. He notes the work of Elaine Scarry in the study of pain. She notes that pain can be so persistent and intense that it becomes the main reality and that it may revert us to a state previous to language where grunts, moans and groans pervade. She notes that pain is a “framing event” that re-structures the rest of our world. The author then notes the effects of physically demanding ascetic practice, self-mortification, self-flagellation, and other pain producing religious practices. Enduring pain and exploring painful states is a part of many spiritual traditions. These may be ways to re-organize self. Ariel Glucklich noted that “pain weakens the individual’s feeling of being a discrete agent; it makes the ‘body-self’ transparent and facilitates the emergence of a new identity. Metaphorically, pain creates an embodied ‘absence’ and makes way for a new and greater ‘presence.’” Initiatory rites in various cultures have this effect as Mircea Eliade noted. “He observed that nearly all initiatory rites utilize some form of death/rebirth symbolism. The death/rebirth experience enables initiates to discard dysfunctional identities and discover a new, “higher” self.” The author notes that many people enter various metaphysical studies due to a desire to alleviate their own pain and he goes on to investigate some early American versions of psycho-somatic healing associated with spirituality. He mentions Mary Baker Eddy and Seventh-Day Adventism and their influence on both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostalism. Eddy was a student at one time of Phineas Quimby, a student of mesmerism, who developed Mind Cure Science based on a psychosomatic form of healing. Quimby imbued Mesmer’s animal magnetism idea with Christian Holy Spirit terminology and the rest is history. Body language and body metaphor is another topic of interest in that a lot of our expressions equate directions and various qualities with emotions. Phrases like “feeling down,” “things are looking up,” “falling behind,” etc. are examples of body metaphors. Reich noted body language effects such as what he called “character armor” – or ways we talk and move our body as fear and protective/defensive actions.
In summary we have examined how spiritual/religious behavior is influenced by the emotions of Fear and Wonder, by interaction with psychoactive substances, by sexual attitudes and practices, and by adjustment to the presence of pain and illness. Life is life in a body so of course the body is deeply connected to most all of our experiences while we are alive. It was quite informative examining and contemplating these connections though and for that I am grateful for this book.