Call to Action in Dark Times

This time of year in New England is cold and dark: short days and long, starry nights.  As the planet wheels towards the winter solstice, human beings, for thousands of years, have huddled around fires and turned to storytelling as a bridge back to warmth and the coming of springtime.

It’s no different now, except that now most of us burn oil for our heat, and hang up strings of electric lights to symbolize the return to light.  We watch movies, read books or play video games instead of listening to clan storytellers.

In America, as in much of the world, the dominant religious stories of this time of year have to do with keeping hope and faith alive in dark times.  Jews remember, with the lighting of the Menorah candles, the preservation of their faith in the 2nd century BCE, after the destruction of the Second Temple; Christians celebrate miraculous birth of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer who would bring the word of God to the people.

All of the traditional religious stories document a continuing human saga of light against dark, with light representing life and good energy, while dark represents death and possible danger.

More contemporary mystics also point to human life as a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

Rudolf Steiner, for example, the influential psychic who reported many out-of-body experiences where he made direct contact with metaphysical beings, routinely talks about angels and demons in his copious writings, with angels representing the good forces of light and life, and demons being the dark forces of destruction.  Freud too, in a more secular register, described Eros and Thanatos as primal human drives that align along the same lines: light/life/love, dark/death/hatred.

Is there something to all this?

In a scientific age, it’s hard to write with a straight face about angels and demons.  We are trained to see them as figures of speech, metaphors for empirically definable natural phenomena.  To whit: Human beings tell stories about angels and miraculous births at the darkest time of year as a metaphorical way of talking about the winter solstice and the return to light.

Yes.  But there have always been persistent voices telling us that this is not just metaphorical.  That there really are forces of dark that are destructive and forces of light that represent goodness, and that human beings, as the most self-aware sentient beings on the planet, are able to recognize the grand struggle between Good and Evil playing out in our psyches, and on our battlefields.

For instance, take Derrick Jensen‘s latest book, Dreams, in which he talks about his growing belief that there are metaphysical realms that human beings access in dreams, and that in the dream world there are “sides”: the side of life and the side of death and destruction.  As humans, we have a choice, Jensen says; we can choose which gods to worship, those who represent the life-giving energies of the planet, or those who represent the blood-sucking zombies that are leading us down the capitalist/imperialist road to doom.

Even further out along the spectrum of contemporary metaphysical thinkers is Alex Kochkin, who has been sending out dispatches through email and Web for some time now, warning that the end times are coming.  One could mistake Kochkin for an Armageddon-spouting Christian fundamentalist, except that, like Jensen and Steiner, he has no religious scaffolding framing his ideas.

All of these thinkers agree with indigenous shamans the world over that there is much more to human beings than our physical bodies, and that we can interact with higher powers through individual psychic work–paying attention to our dreams, meditating, being open to the realms of human consciousness where, they say, we can connect with what Steiner called “higher worlds.”

Alex Kochkin: “”You” are the result of a portion of your larger being extending something of itself into this level of density. In this case, it is a human bio-vehicle that comes equipped with basic firmware and an operating system. Flawed as the whole package may be, it is still a viable and valuable way for individuations of The All of Creation to reach into its own deepest recesses, even those that have become overwhelmed by the disease of the Dark.”

Derrick Jensen gives the “disease of the Dark” more concrete names: capitalism, imperialism, and the science that justifies and extends the reach of these destructive ideologies that have, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, been rapidly reducing bio-diversity and inexorably altering our eco-system.

Jensen recalls the Aztec sacrifices to their gods, and speculates that we too are unthinkingly making sacrifices to our contemporary gods of Science and Capitalism.

This is an idea that one of my mentors, Rigoberta Menchu, suggested years ago, talking about how destructive the Euramerican ideologies and technologies have been to the natural world and indigenous peoples: “I often wonder why people criticize the Aztecs for offering human sacrifices to their gods when they never mention how many sons of this America, Abia Yala, have been sacrificed over five hundred years to the god Capital,” Menchu said in her second testimonial, Crossing Borders.

Whether or not there are “higher powers” involved in the life-and-death battles we are seeing played out at ever-accelerating speed in these dark times, it is true that we human beings are the ones with the power to change the course of events we have set in motion.  The fish and the birds and the great bears cannot change what is happening to their environments because of human short-sightedness and greed.  The ancient forests that have stood for thousands of years cannot withstand the bulldozer and the chain saw.  The river that has flowed for eons cannot resist the concrete dam.

Only we have the power of reversing the “disease of the Dark.”  If there are higher powers involved, they are not going to do it for us–they will only work through us.

Which stories are we listening to now as we huddle around our mechanical fires?  The old stories of dominion and destruction, “manifest destiny” and technological prowess leading to “progress” have held sway long enough.  It’s time to listen to stories that are older and wiser than the Judeo-Christian myths, stories that remind us of our deep connection to the natural world that sustains us.

Let every candle lit this solstice season be a call to action on behalf of the life energies of this planet.  And then, let us act, before it’s too late.

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4 Comments

  1. From an atheists point of view:

    There is nothing bad about spirituality, it is one of various ways to address things that cannot be properly comprehended and verbalized because of our limited brain capacity. Our working memory can only hold and relate 8 to 16 items (scientist are divided about the number as well as about the whole concept of a “working memory”).

    The world around us is a nonlinear dynamic system and everything is connected to and depending on everything else, bringing 8 to 16 items in relation to each other comes not even near the reality outside our brain. It is evident that because of our limited intelligence we cannot expect to understand the world around us in all its complexity, at least not in scientific terms. Every explanation, every theory, the most sophisticated computer models will always be an abbreviation, an abstraction, a simplification.

    Having said that, one should not underestimate pattern recognition, this incredible powerful feature of our brain which allows us to intuitively recognize correlations and structural similarities which even the most complex scientific analyses will not be able to identify.

    As an atheist and determinist I view spirituality 1. as a shell (or interface) to harness the power of pattern recognition 2, as a process to rebalance and correct ones neurotransmitters and hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, norepinephrine, GABA, not to forget testosterone and estrogen).

    One could also use religion for this purpose, but the monotheistic religions Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism easily distort our already very limited view of the world. The big religions not only blur and distort our picture of the world, they are also tools of suppression and are used to legitimize and stabilize unjust and exploitative systems. Throughout history the big religions were highjacked by demagogues, fanatics, and morons and they have a terrible track record (Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland argued that very issue in detail).

    Though every epistemological considerations about the limited window, that our senses provide to the outside world, and the limited capacities of our brain to process the incoming sensory information inevitably leads to the conclusion, that spirituality is as good a method to understand life as anything else, my preferred tools for understanding this world are:

    Darwin’s (and successors) theory of evolution by natural selection.
    Neurology, linguistics and psychology (understood as phenomenological branches of neurology).
    Mathematical theories of complex dynamical systems (chaos theory, information theory).

    And my practical tools to get through this life are: meditation and communicating with likeminded people, music and writing, walking in the forest, cats, love in all its variations.

    Yet: All of these practical tools can easily be thought to have a spiritual component, thereby making it unnecessary to further define or discuss the term “spirituality” with words, as it is already defined and demonstrated by its applications. One could also say (as I did already in an earlier paragraph of this comment): Spirituality is everything what helps 1. to understand the world intuitively 2. to rebalance and correct neurotransmitters and hormone levels.

    Boiling down this text into a final statement: I see myself as a “spiritual person” and wholeheartedly agree with your post🙂

    BTW: It is grey and dark here and I’m hungry for a little sunshine to balance melatonin and serotonin and produce vitamin D.

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  December 17, 2011

    A question a propos of your mention of Darwin & natural selection: do you see the extinction of species as “survival of the fittest,” then? And when we die out, leaving the cockroaches in charge, will that be all in the scheme of things too?

    You may be able to tell from my tone that I DO NOT like the theory of natural selection as an explanation for social & natural phenomena. Or at least, I want to modify it to focus on cooperation and collaboration as an essential tool of survival, rather than relentless competition….

    Reply
  3. Thank you very much for your response! As always, making a statement in a few words can never cover an issue adequately. I mentioned Darwin, because his writings about evolution were such a big advance in human knowledge and enabled us to explain many aspects of the world around us.

    Evolution helps us to understand the 3.8 billion year long history of life. Natural selection is only one of the basic mechanisms of evolution, along with mutation, migration, and genetic drift.

    Darwin’s theories have two shortcomings:

    1. They don’t take into account the existence of feedback loops and the emergence of self organizing and self correcting structures in complex natural systems, things that are now to some extent addressed by information theory and network theory. I wrote about this in my post: http://mato48.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/quiet-days/

    2. The aspects of coevolution, symbiosis, social intelligence are not adequately addressed, though Darwin discussed the importance of emotional expression for survival and second adaptation.

    Cooperative (symbiotic) arrangements are central to life on earth and were probably essential in driving evolution by producing useful mechanisms and speeding up genomic experimentation. The origin of DNA itself assumed cooperative interactions between replicating molecules.

    Symbiosis includes predation and parasitism as well as mutualism — partnerships that involve tough bargains and hard compromises in which the continuing survival of participating organisms is at stake.

    Every organism, from single celled creatures to humans and ecosystems, can be seen as super organisms that result from the genomic federation of large numbers of formerly independent life forms (Gaya theory).

    http://www.cooperationcommons.com/node/348
    http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic426436.files/five_rules.pdf

    A Google search of “natural selection cooperation” will yield more detailed information.

    Studies of Salovey and Mayer suggest, that there is a positive relationship between empathy and emotional intelligence. It is evident that our ability to empathize with other humans contributes to the survival of the species and hopefully our ability to empathize with other species will contributes to the survival of nature as a whole.

    Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and trees, dolphins and bees. It is tempting to see evolution as a grand progressive ladder with humans emerging at the top. But evolution produces a tree, not a ladder — and we are just one of many leaves on the tree.

    http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/home.php
    http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/selection/selection.html

    Social Darwinism is a misinterpretation of Darwin.

    The phrase “survival of the fittest” was first used in 1851 by the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who misapplied Darwin’s idea of natural selection to justify European domination and colonization of the rest of the world. Social Darwinism was also used to defend the unequal distribution of wealth in Europe and North America. Poor and politically powerless people were thought to have been failures in the natural competition for survival, and helping them was seen as counter to nature. 

    From this perspective, rich and powerful people do not need to feel ashamed of their advantages because their success is proof that they were the most fit in this competition.  Despite misgivings by Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin used “survival of the fittest” as a synonym for “natural selection” in the 5th edition of Origin of Species.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  December 18, 2011

      “Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and trees, dolphins and bees. It is tempting to see evolution as a grand progressive ladder with humans emerging at the top. But evolution produces a tree, not a ladder — and we are just one of many leaves on the tree.”

      Yes–and what will it take to get dominant human society to see that if we kill most of the other leaves on the tree, the tree itself will die, and us along with it….

      A very powerful metaphor, thank you!

      Reply

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