By Grief to Heal

At a Good Friday service, a minister once advised:

There are some sorrows too great for the body to bear, and for this reason we have rituals.

If this is true, then perhaps also the converse is true. To confront our deepest wounds, we strip away all semblance of ritual, and connect to our experience through the simplest practice.

For the final workshop of my Soul Play Fall Fest, I participated in Clarity Breathwork with Ashanna Solaris. The thirty attendees almost filled the space. After a brief explanation of the practice, Ashanna passed a crystal around the room, asking each of us to share our name and a few words that described the goal we hoped to achieve. Seated just to her right, I received the stone last. Held in my left hand, the crystal was infused with the energy cupped in my right as I slowly intoned:

Empowered feminine partnership.

But the Father asserted himself.

We were organized in two rows, heads toward the center with a footpath to allow Ashanna and her assistant to reach easily those overwhelmed by powerful emotion. I positioned myself next to the wall, actually a short space from the others.

The practice was simple: a slow rhythmic breathing, described by Ashanna as “feminine.” The inhale was heard as “ah” and the exhale as “oh.” No pauses between – we were to create a deep, steady cycling of energy.

Whether fighting food coma or afternoon lethargy, for the first twenty minutes I had trouble staying awake, much less maintaining the rhythm. Eyes closed, four times or five I heard a female voice in my ear encourage me to “Keep breathing.” Finally I got the knack of it, enjoying a steady cycle that built energy between my hips and solar plexus.

The voice was not satisfied. “Breathe into your heart. Let it rise into your chest.” Allowing my ribs to expand with the inhale, my back arced away from the carpet as my breastbone lifted upwards, falling with the exhale. The blocked energy washed upwards. Running from shoulder to shoulder, an intense band traced my head.

Sorrow awoke in my heart and built through five or so repetitions, and I was there again. My breath caught on the grief of the experience, losing its rhythm. The voice again ordered “Keep breathing.” I went deeper, and then crumbled in psychic agony. Wracked by sobs that broke into moans, the inhale became a brief gasp. I struggled for a minute, the blood-streaked visage filling my mind’s eye, until the voice commanded, “Breathe, breathe.” Slowly the inhale became longer, the exhale less explosive.

I was astonished by the serenity of the face above the broken body. My forearms just below the wrists began to glow with energy. He suffered, but when the animal reactions asserted themselves, he projected them away. That urge to scream, to struggle against the pins that held the limbs against the wood, to flee the pain of metal grinding against bone, these were suppressed and projected forward, finding their way through two thousand years to me.

I screamed, a long, impossibly slow articulation of agony that stretched out for twenty seconds. As the sound echoed in the room, my amazed intellect observed that the lungs were not deflating. Hands took my head and the voice, less assured, again commanded “Breathe!” I did, but the rhythm was marked by short, choked sobs.

I broke again, long waves rolling through me, hips and shoulders seeking freedom from the floor made intimate by the discipline of the practice. A last paroxysm brought my head against the carpet hard enough to thump against the concrete floor. Intellect stilled me with alarm.

And then the serenity transfixed me. I lost bodily awareness, floating in a space of sacred regard. The twelve elders stood guard around me, finding focus in the twelve apostles. My sacred lady turned her tender gaze upon me. Returning to earth, the glow in my forearms brightened and lengthened, and filled my feet. He thought “Father, I offer these wounds to you.” Pulled skywards, my arms and legs left the floor. Tears came, punctuating the impossible serenity and the compassion that sustained it.

The voices around me broke through, others sobbing in grief. I realized that I had triggered this. I came instantly to alertness, again in the room. Rising up on one side, I caught Ashanna’s eye as she ministered to a woman near me, and breathed the question, “Do you want me to help?”

“Whenever you are able.”

I gathered my legs under me, stretched my palms into the heavens, and washed the room with love.

The woman next to me was the most distressed. I won’t describe in detail. Ashanna’s assistant and I spent several minutes with her. Others needed attention, and left alone I advised. “Feel the love in the room. Breath it into your lungs. Now let it flow into your blood, and gather in your heart. Now let it flow from your heart to the rest of your body.” She steadied, and I offered simple praise. “Good job.”

She gasped “You too. Good job.” Then she turned away to her man. Gathered in his sturdy embrace, she immediately steadied.

Ten minutes later, as I delayed waiting for the others to depart so that I could check in with Ashanna, my coparticipant caught my attention. “Thank you. I never would have done it otherwise. You went for it, and I decided to do the same. You filled the room with this incredible energy, and I just went along.”

I’ve been there before, triggered by the passing of the elements or the words of a song. Eyes filled with awe, people huddled together in groups, glancing over shoulders turned against me.

So this was the greatest gift of the weekend: to be told that in that suffering the seeds of healing could be found. That is why it was done. That was its purpose. It is the only way to make meaning of it.

Slippery Slope

I’ve been home with a prostate infection, of all things, and so managed to get through all except the last two chapters of Judith Simmer-Brown’s Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s been a difficult but enlightening read. I have some concerns with the methods of the path as she describes it.

First, though, the positive: Tibetan Buddhism has a deep model of the manifestation of sacred principles in the world. Simmer-Brown traces that through secret, inner, outer, and outer-outer manifestations.

I related the essence of the secret dakini in my last post. Prajnaparamita manifests as space, wisdom and knowledge. As she builds the lore, Simmer-Brown explains that possession of these qualities makes the feminine principle dominant in Tibetan Buddhism, for skillful means (the use of compassion to transform experience) is both inspired by and guided by them. The secret dakini can be neither visualized nor understood, only known.

The inner dakini manifests as the deity Vajrayogini. Vajrayogini confronts the practitioner with the fear of death, and transforms it into acceptance and freedom. As a deity in Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayogini is depicted in mandalas that define her relationship with the world. The most important elements in her depiction are the instruments of the charnel ground: skulls, flames and sharp implements. The logic of this depiction reflects the hazards of the sacred knowledge known to Tibetan practitioners. To advance, an acolyte must find a living guru that channels the sacred experience into the world, a yidam (devotional deity) to meditate upon, and a protector of the teachings that guides or violently transforms the personality to prevent corruption by residual grasping of the self.

The outer dakini mediates the transformation of the subtle energy system, similar to the system of prana or acupuncture. In Tibetan lore, all of our bodily functions are manifestations of energy flow through these channels. The central channel flows along the spine, but has two side channels that focus masculine and feminine tendencies. The goal of the practitioner is to merge the side channels into the central. In this process, the practitioner must cultivate relationships with twenty-four dakinis that originate the energies of the subtle body system. In a sense, the practitioner becomes a living mandala, and calls these energies into the world to create and transform experience.

The outer-outer dakini is the dakini in human form. In this section, Simmer-Brown celebrates the female figures in history that contributed to development of Tibetan wisdom. Here is where tantric sex comes to the fore, as well as validation of authority through esoteric action (magic). Both are cast in a positive light. Tantric sex is a method for mutual inspection and transmission of traits that facilitates personal growth. Magic is described as the means by which the physical infrastructure of the tradition is protected, including the bodies of practitioners meditating without food or shelter.

Through this summary, I hope that I reveal my respect for this tradition, whose richness and depth reflects a careful construction of interlocking elements that ensure the outcome of practice is compassionate engagement with all living beings.

However, I perceive certain issues.

First and most important is the conflation of space and mind. Mind existed long before this reality came into being, and is the realm of pure spirit to which we will return. Space exists in this realm only as a means to protect compassionate personalities from experiences more intense than they can mediate. To serve in this way, space was designed to capture and localize mind. Where that occurs, we find matter. This is the truth that Tibetan wisdom shares as the secret and outer dakinis.

Secondly we have the sense of privilege accorded to advanced practitioners. This manifests itself in the characterization of them as heroes rather than servants (the term used in Christianity) of humanity. The thanotic imagery of the inner dakini is particularly troubling. Death maintains the disintegration of spirit, something obvious in the description of the outer dakini. It’s adoption as a protector of privileged knowledge seems a dangerous compromise.

Personal privilege also seems evident in the rather sterile rendering of the relationship between tantric consorts. The gurus celebrate commitment, but not monogamy, each relationship broken off when the mutual benefits are exhausted.

This flies in the face of the most serious problem with the tradition. Simmer-Brown recounts that the assignment of a yidam (devotional deity) is driven by the tensions that exist in our lives. Meditation on the yidam resolves obstructions in the subtle energy system that manifest as perceptible heat in the body. Simmer-Brown refers to this in the title (warm breath), but never stops to wonder what tension is attendant to that heat.

Simmer-Brown gnaws at the bone of the problem throughout the book, defending Tibetan Buddhism against charges of patriarchy while postulating that its dominant spiritual forms arose from a prehistoric matriarchy. She decries the traps of feminine physicality that bring life into the world, seeing them as simultaneously a personal and cultural impediment to spiritual advancement.

This error is the cause of the warmth felt by those that meditate on Parjnaparamita, the secret dakini.

From the Christian perspective, the answer to this dilemma is obvious: all things are joined in love. Coitus is not necessary to transmission of masculine and feminine virtues, only love. Relationships persist because the love between the couple expands to include the society, and their shared experience is essential to greater service to humanity. And the dangers of esoteric knowledge are lessened because love – the source of all creative power – is unknown to those that would abuse its energies.

In patterning the female path to enlightenment on the masculine path, Tibetan Buddhism does women a terrible disservice. These are precious gifts: the ability to bring life into the world, the determination to preserve it, and the social rewards for their devotion. Any proclaimed feminine spirituality should provide practices that strengthen those gifts, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of death.

Contrast that with the promise of Spirit and his Bride:

“Come! And let all that hear say: ‘Come!’ Let all who desire come and drink of the free gift of the water of life.”

Considering the  filters and constraints of Tibetan Buddhism, this confidence is marvelous!

The Zen of Jesus

Upon waking up to the reality that self-serving does not bring joy, the seeker after comfort tends to a superficial sampling of religious wisdom. The sophisticated teacher needs to avoid becoming involved in blame-shifting for the seeker’s miserable state. In the traditions of Abraham, that begins with a vow of submission, formulated in Christianity as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” In Islam, it is stated as the Shahada:

There is no god but God alone; he has no partner with him; Muhammad is his prophet.

The dissatisfied acolyte is then made responsible for his own condition, in that all wisdom is found in direct relation with the godhead.

Lacking a divine center for its practice, Buddhism takes a different approach, epitomized by the Zen koan. A koan is a cryptic one-liner that organizes an inward meditative journey. The most notorious is:

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The obvious answer is “nothing,” but that certainly doesn’t point the way to wisdom. The student still needs to grasp that the “hand” being referred to is themselves, and that in seeking after spiritual glory, they earn no lauds.

The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22 shows Jesus ministering to the problematical seeker. The poor fellow grasps at eternal life as a guarantee that joy can be secured. Calling Jesus “Master,” he then asks what good he must perform to earn that grace.

Presciently, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus had pre-empted the Christian vow of submission:

Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father.

Consistent with this warning, Jesus immediately deflects the proffered authority:

Why do you ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good.

No man needing anything but faith to draw upon the strength and wisdom of the Father.

But the teaching does not end with the Zen master’s edict to seek inwardly. Jesus lists the six commandments of human relation: edicts against murder, adultery, theft, and lying; and encouragements to honor our parents and love our neighbors. The latter build intimacy with those closest to us; the former prevent those bonds from sundering. Through this practice, Jesus suggests that his protégé will “enter into life.” In avoiding the drama of struggle, adherence to the commandments allows to blossom those quiet moments in which we gain the subtle and sublime assurance of security in our knowledge of the compassion that embraces us.

We are no longer a hand trying to clap alone.

But the seeker is not just young; he suffers another handicap, one known in Islam as Allah’s greatest test of character. He is rich. Thus, while meaning well, others see him as a potential source of material security. They seek a bond with his money, not his heart. And so Jesus offers him this final advice: give your wealth to the poor and follow!

The young man departs saddened. We can only guess at the cause: was he responsible for managing money that ensured the well-being of the community, wealth that he could not trust others to manage responsibly? Was he simply unable to imagine survival without the perks of wealth: the daily bath, the satisfying meals? Or did he arrogantly perceive his wealth as a sign of divine approval, and so Jesus’ pronouncement as proof that hope had been invested with just another false prophet?

Whichever it may have been, we as readers should recognize the advice not as some generic one-size-fits-all formulation, but a direct response to the needs of this troubled young man. It is the mark of the greatness of his compassion that Jesus does this again and again throughout his ministry: offering just the words that the listener needs to hear to bring solace and healing, even to the point on the cross of:

Father: forgive them. They know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]

Jesus was not concerned with self-preservation – he was devoted to his ministry to the lost. Thus, while his teaching encapsulates the wisdom of the Zen and Christian teacher, it then surpasses it. None can doubt that he does the best that he can for them, although they might not be able to respond fully. Yes, it is this I believe that gives the young man sadness: his realization that salvation was offered him, and he was unable to grasp it. It foreshadows Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane:

The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. [Matt. 26:41]

and:

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. [NIV Matt. 26:38]

The Soul of Technology

My father, once holder of an open fascination with Darth Vader as the ultimate integration of man and machine, for many years sought to keep me focused on technology by disputing the validity of my spiritual experience. He’s mellowing in the last few months of his life, and we’ve had some great conversations. Sunday afternoon’s brought us around to Elon Musk’s ambition to terraform Mars. He asked my opinion of the idea, and I said that I felt a certain sympathy for Mr. Musk. I countered the claim that we needed an escape route from the mess that we were making of Earth. We’re going to have to solve our problems here, and when we do, the personality of Mr. Musk – from wherever it is at that point – is going to look back on this life and say “Wow. What a boondoggle that was! What a complete waste of my time!” He seems like a man with good intentions, and I’d just like for him to be able to look back and be proud of what he has accomplished.

When I was blogging out at Gaia, one of the most persistent voices in the “Question of the Day” group was a Kiwi nearing the end of his life. Every question produced a number of lengthy posts on the same topic: the necessity of investment in digital technologies that would allow us to monitor everything, and then to link the information to a master control system that would ensure the well-being of everyone on earth. When pressed, he claimed that this was important to him because if it didn’t happen really soon, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to live forever. I offered him the observation that he seemed to need God so deeply that he believe that mankind must create him.

The protagonist in both Ma and Golem is an alien named Corin Taphinal, come to Earth to try to protect life from destruction at humanity’s hands. He describes the situation this way:

The digital technology of [Earth’s] civilization had fascinated him. It was based upon the conversion of the most mystically inert substance in the universe – amorphous silicon – into precisely contaminated crystals. Its proponents spoke of blanketing the globe in digital sensors, constructing communications networks and data centers to aggregate the data, and the development of expert systems algorithms to assure the stability of human communities in the face of massive ecosystem disruption.

Why, in the name of all that was sacred, would anyone choose such methods? Over billions of years, the insinuation of Life into any planet’s surface established a far more sensitive and detailed sensory apparatus, supported by the most widely and freely distributed source of energy available, with representatives far better adapted to local conditions than people.

With this background, you might ask, “Why, Brian, do you work in technology?” Is it just to pay the bills?

I’ll protest my own rhetoric: that’s just going too far. Just because I don’t believe that technology is the ultimate solution to our problems doesn’t mean that I don’t find merit in its pursuit.

First, the world is an unstable place. I’m not just talking about natural disasters: for large parts of the year, seasonal variation makes life pretty tough for most animals. Technology stabilizes local conditions, allowing us to focus on developing our personalities. I appreciate that I don’t have to think full-time about weather, but can rely upon sensors and actuators controlled by computers to do it for me. That our solutions are making the challenge more difficult (global climate change) doesn’t mean that the technology isn’t valuable. The problem is that most of us, rather than developing our personalities, use our freedom from existential threat to indulge our procreative urges.

The solution to that is education. While knowledge is dangerous (life is incredibly vulnerable in engineering terms), I believe that understanding empowers us to make far better choices. We know that when the value of a woman’s mind has been affirmed through education they become pretty determined to limit the number of their children. The response of traditionalists has been to beat women down with fear. In that case, the best means of breaking down the rationale of political demagogues is disintermediation: bringing people together to demonstrate that the “enemy” is a lot like us. Communications technology addresses both of these problems, providing open access to knowledge in the privacy of the home and bridging the distance that separates us.

And finally – motivating my particular fascination with programming – software rescues philosophy from academic obscurity. The purpose of philosophy is to strengthen our ability to describe experience and thus to negotiate solutions. Through linkage to our financial and industrial infrastructure, software allows us almost instantly to express the solutions we negotiate. That is not just a one-off experience when (as in object-oriented design or COBOL) the software is defined using terms understood in the application domain. These act as sign-posts for the maintenance developer given the task of implementing new requirements.

I spoke, however, of rescuing philosophy, and I mean that. Software encodes philosophy, not as a book on a shelf, but as an agent for delivering solutions to the philosopher’s constituency. With the Affordable Health Care Act, software allowed us to implement social programs, assess their effectiveness, and adjust the rules to achieve better results. This is a demanding test of our philosophy, both as regards the degree in which they reflect the truth, and its value in organizing the use of our intelligence when conditions change.

As I have offered before (see The Trust Mind), I believe that eventually we will be freed from the material infrastructure we use to distribute power. However, as I see the long period from the Covenant of the Flood (in which humanity was authorized to create Law) to Jesus as an exercise in demonstrating the fallibility of fixed systems of rules, so I see this era (as articulated by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization) as a proving ground for our compassion. As technology accelerates the pace of change and resources become more and more scarce, only ideas of real merit will survive. Every thinking being will be confronted with the necessity of disciplining his thoughts.

While the demagogues continue to rant and rave on television, conditions are evolving under which every individual will find such blathering contradicted by direct personal experience. Then we will progress beyond the “birthing pains” mentioned by Jesus into the full flowering of the influence of Christ in our lives. When our ideas are angelic, they will be received and implemented by angels. Life will be vastly different then, and our digital infrastructure, with all its energetic excess, will largely fall away.

I see my work as intimately connected to the manifestation of that future. My work in motion control creates systems that relieve people of drudgery, thus liberating their energies for mindful and compassionate engagement with the world around them. My work in as a software developer builds discipline that is essential in organizing and propagating ideas that I believe are of merit. It’s not enough that those ideas are clever – they actually have to work.

Distributing the Treasure

In the parable of the fields, Jesus says of his kingdom that:

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Then in the parable of the talents, Jesus addresses the Apostles and says of the servant that hid the money he had been given to invest:

‘You wicked, lazy slave…take away the talent from him’…For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away

The two parables illuminate the challenge of bringing divine power into the world. The unsuspecting finder of faith has no idea what to do with it. Looking at the history of the Hebrews, it is obvious how fragile faith is. From Aaron to the Pharisees, from Saul to Herod: the leaders of the nation of Israel corrupted faith for political and economic purposes. Aaron acted in good faith because the people were afraid when Moses disappeared on the mountain, but in the time of Jesus the Pharisees twisted the fear of divine retribution to line their pockets. Saul, having been anointed king by Samuel, was angered when others threatened his authority. In Herod’s time, that pattern had become so entrenched that oppression of dissent was not even remarkable. Given this, perhaps it would have been best to keep the treasure hidden.

But the Apostles were students of a master who prepared them to exercise faith in service to the oppressed. They had seen what faith could do. All that they required to see it multiply was simple courage. For those demonstrating courage, the master would not judge between those with greater or lesser skill in the exercise of power, but reward them all. For those lacking courage, the portion of power that was given them would be given to others.

The tension between the two parables should be heeded by us today as we ponder how to go about distributing the riches that Christ has provided us to do good in the world. As people of compassion, our natural tendency is to respond to fear and righteous anger with promises of aid. The obvious first step is to eliminate the cause of the fear and/or anger. When that cause is hunger, it would be hard to fault an offer of food. But when the cause is political tyranny, forceful intervention (as currently in Russia) can be propagandized to justify further oppression. The Russian people have offered adulation in response to Putin’s aggressive militarism.

So we have to ask, when offering aid, “What are you going to do with the power we offer you?” When the hungry man is fed, will he then seek employment? If an oppressed people is offered political assistance, how will they organize to overcome the tyrant? If these question can’t be answered, then their troubles are merely symptomatic of a large social disease that must be addressed before individual problems can be solved. They may need education, or political enfranchisement – or assistance in finding a leader that can articulate their needs.

I think that many of the world’s problems today require the last: for those offering Christian compassion to go beyond simple charity to supporting the development of leaders motivated by Christian ethics. In assessing candidates, I favor strongly the wisdom of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. In developing leaders, the program upholds this law:

A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

These qualities are an interlocking web of virtue that ensure that power is not diverted for personal gain, but rather directed towards those that first inspired our compassion. They are not qualities that necessarily translate to the easy currency of popularity. That is gained all too often through promises of an end to fear and oppression that cannot be made good until the people themselves begin to manifest the qualities of true leadership. As it is said in the Chinese I Ching:

Of the great leader, when the work is done the people say ‘We did this ourselves.’

God took 2000 years to work his will on the people of Israel. For those continuing that work in the world today, patience (although perhaps on a more human scale) is essential. As in Jesus’s relationship with the Apostles: It is not upon us to do the work ourselves, but only to offer the oppressed the hope that it can be done at all. Hope is the seed of courage, Christian compassion is the seed of faith. When courage and faith combine, anything is possible.