Got Snot? Part II. Exiting the whole Shebang.
“Could it be that even now our universe is in a cocoon it has spun for itself, is undergoing complete metamorphosis and will soon emerge as something unpredictably different? “ – John Moriarty.
“A subtle conversation. Ah! That is the true Garden of Eden!” - Ali Ben Ali.
One evening in early February I noticed a brief, piercing pain in my throat. ‘Hmm…’ I thought. ‘Suspicious. I’ll have to get to the immuno-stimulants.’ Returning home late, I gave the apothecary chest a miss and fell into bed, waking the following morning to a litany of symptoms: depressed, a pea-soup of a brain fog, my body hurting, a throbbing headache, no appetite and, emphatically, my lungs sorely sick – indeed, I couldn’t ever recall a respiratory decline as fierce and sudden. As I dutifully called friends to cancel appointments for the next few days, I was told I sounded dreadful. “Yup, sick as a dawg,” I croaked. And yet, despite my mental and physical disarray and my worries about what was obviously an uncommonly virulent infection, I was also strikingly aware of a mysterious sense of wholeness tempering my discomfort.
As I hung up the phone and slowly, groggily began clearing the decks, the subtle and complex depths of this felt contradiction deepened. Cleaning house, putting new sheets on the bed, reclaiming my hot water bottle, gathering up my papers, sweeping the floor, collecting my tea-making tools, lifting gallon jars of herbs from my shelves and carefully assembling them in the center of my tiny living room, I became increasingly aware that this pedestrian sequence, without any conscious invocation on my part, was assuming a rare and mysterious radiance. Below the surface of my thinking mind, this particular act of medicine-making was being elevated above its pragmatic, functionalist confines to another level of presence and possibility. The moment was becoming luminous. Beauty was there.
I try to remain alert to the arduous as a means for seeing things anew and I missed not a moment savoring the appearance of what Yeats calls ‘eternal beauty wandering upon her way’. Checking in with myself later, I was clear this gracious gift of receptivity had little to do with any specific, deliberate personal intention or preference on my part relating to the ‘tea ceremony’ I was composing. I wasn’t consciously attempting to enact an inward exploration. Inside and outside my home, I am fundamentally unchurched. I don’t ‘do ritual’. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware as I stumbled foggily around my trailer that what felt powerfully and palpably like genuine ritual was emerging spontaneously out of the occasion itself. As I further pondered the experience in its wake, the words of poet-philosopher John O’Donohue resonated with what had unfolded for me: “What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced carefully rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation and often involved a carefully phased journey of approach. Attention, respect and worthiness belonged to the event of nearing and disclosure…The hidden heart of beauty offers itself only when it is approached in a rhythm worthy of its trust and showing.”
So then, my physical and psychic distress notwithstanding, as I moved around my trailer and garden gathering medicines I felt palpably supported in a great shelter of embrace, woven through with a sense of immense calm, gratitude and celebration. Yes, of course, my impression of foundational wellbeing derived in small part from an intellectual knowing that I had a potent herbal armory at my disposal, the result of years of herbal experience, meriting a quiet confidence in my ability to tackle this particular ailment as effectively as my understanding of phyto-medicinals (herbs) allowed. But the spacious sense of wholeness and harmony I felt was not this reflection in the shallow waters of thought: it clearly derived from an altogether richer and deeper sanctuary. And although the ultimate source of this gift was wrapped in providential mystery, I was nonetheless powerfully aware it was fundamentally not distinct from a larger, earthly web of relations utterly intimate to and supportive of my life. I felt, from profound roots, that the depth of my shelter in the blossoming of this moment was directly a measure of my own dynamic interrelatedness with the immediate natural world around me, born of deepening and intensifying my presence on earth in the long years of a ‘carefully phased journey of approach’.
The British Columbia-based ethno-botanist Nancy Turner reports the indigenous understanding that ‘all is one’: “mirrors but is even more comprehensive than the concept of ecology,” taking in “the interconnectedness of everything around us, cultural and ecological, past and future, and the profound implications of these linkages and relationships,” [my itals]. The holism intrinsic to this understanding transcends the epistemologies (ways of knowing) of scientific orthodoxy, for one, because it mirrors an experience of Nature in thinking that is not detached from the heart, incorporating a felt connection to things, one in which we feel the world from within – a ‘non-empirical subjectivity’ long denied in the name of ‘scientific objectivity’, for example. (Then again, times may be changing. Theoretical astrophysicist Piet Hut, picking up where Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle leaves off, very recently stated, “We have painted ourselves in a corner, scientifically, by describing the whole world in objective terms, and finding less and less room for ourselves to stand on. We are now reaching the limits of a purely objective treatment. In various areas of science, from quantum mechanics to neuroscience and robotics, the pole of subjective experience can no longer be neglected.") Put another way, where our ability to genuinely know anything depends upon our ability to come into relationship with it, an active, intensely-felt kinship with the Other becomes integral to an authentic experience and understanding of the world around us.
That we should even feel the need to clarify a profundity as central to our humanity as this, suggests how greatly our ways of knowing have become estranged from the circle of friendship at the heart of creation – from what the Stoics referred to as sumpatheia ton hollon, a ‘universal sympathy connecting all things.’ In this regard, indigenous voices are not alone in reporting that a sense of kinship or ‘oneness’ is not only an entirely valid experience of the world as it truly is, but that the ability to live well that the loss of this experience in our lives denies us can be recovered if we commit to deepening and intensifying a heartfelt relationship with the one living field of diversity immediately about us.
Where might such a commitment begin? We find hints perhaps in the original, root etymology of the word ecology deriving from the Greek, oikos, meaning not ‘earth’ but ‘home’. The distinction is crucial, not least because the semantic drift appears to mirror an actual cultural point of departure and, now, return, suggesting that a refined ecological sensibility is not a function of a generic ‘earth science’, nor is it to be found in an amorphous ‘environmentalism’ devoid of a sense of belonging which typifies an intellectual love of the earth without feeling an emotional connection: rather, it is unearthed in the deeply-felt, intensely personalized, particularized intimacy of individual home-making.
Indigenous experience has, of course, always been aligned to this integrative nexus of being. As Denise Turner observes: “First Nations spiritual life is completely tied to territory, to their home places.” For indigenous peoples in other words, an experience of ‘home’ is indistinguishable from a fully-engaged ecological conscience - one typically characterized by what anthropologists have identified as an ‘ethic of reciprocity’ and ‘contingent proprietorship’.
Simply put, where an ‘ethic of reciprocity’ acknowledges the mutual dependence of everything within an ecological system with the result that humans are seen as occupying a complementary as distinct from dominant role, the practice of ‘contingent proprietorship’ embodies this kincentric worldview within formalized social and ceremonial structures. For example, in so far as indigenous people did ‘own’ land in the Pacific Northwest, ownership was not perceived in the European legal sense of land ownership. Rather, a home territory’s most productive sites were identified with families or individual owners who had the right to harvest and to control the harvest of other people there. Crucially, however, such rights came with a binding obligation to tend to the needs of the clan or community by sharing with them, and to look after the land’s interest and the interests of future generations of people and other life forms. Using storytelling, teaching and ceremony (such as the “first salmon” ceremony or “potlatch” of many Pacific-Northwestern groups) these rights and obligations were constantly reinforced, inviting a sense of proportion in how people saw, felt and acted. Respectful human attitudes towards local resources encouraged balanced, responsible use and an imperative of restraint - as the Nuu-Chah-Nulth’s Roy Haiyupis observes, “The idea and practices of over-exploitation are deplorable to our people. The practice is outside our realm of values.”
Furthermore, contradicting a century of anthropological orthodoxy, recent research reveals that “First Nations peoples actively managed those resources through strategies more commonly considered as ‘horticultural.’ It was these ‘anthropogenic’ or ‘humanized’ landscapes that Europeans first encountered and mistook as ‘natural.’ ” Such habitats not only supported an astoundingly dense and long-lived variety of human cultural forms – one distinct language or dialect per watershed seems to be about the going rate in the PNW as far as I can make out - but are consistently recognized as being more productive and more biologically diverse than ecosystems without an evident human presence. Some voices, not unwise, suggest that such bio-cultural paradigms - upheld by a lifestyle ethic of ‘pragmatic reverence’ as Turner describes it - hold foundational lessons for all of us, wherever we live.
Which is all very well, but how does the coevolving complex of a society embedded in that society’s sustaining ecosystem emerge from the dense complexity of individual experience? Specifically, where and when does an ecological conscience disclose itself to a 21st century ‘white man’ homemaking in the suburbs surrounding the Gateway Mall? My experience is that it emerges in relatedness to particulars, sculpted by the seasons.
I am discovering that it takes years to bring a mind and life home. My credentials entering the garden some 10-12 years ago were those of a quintessentially ‘left-brained’ city-dweller. A thoroughly modern man with a fiercely unsettled mind, I had no prior gardening experience, and little apparent affinity for the greenworld. I have also, admittedly, consistently felt like a pretender in the garden in the intervening years, painfully aware of a perceived shortfall in my sensitivity to plants. Yes, I always believed in the ability to ‘connect’ with the natural world in heartfelt attentiveness and I often witnessed such ready affinity in the plant-geeks I move among, but the capacity seemed largely beyond me. Instead, for the most part, I have struggled, “sensible of a certain doubleness…however intense my experience,” as Thoreau’s Walden describes the anesthetized heart of abstraction, “…not wholly involved in Nature… sharing no experience, but taking note of it…living a kind of fiction.” And during all this, there continued the slow, simple persistence of growing up plants where I was able, and the extravagant beauty of gardens blossoming under my gaze.
To this day, I note that the measure of my resistance to engaging with the Garden on any morning is largely an index of how ‘unsettled’ I am. When my mind is turbulent, I notice a sympathetic reflex to move toward ‘noise’, to run from my dis-ease by turning toward some resonant cacophony of distraction – a visit to friends, say, or the library, or the radio. On such occasions, I am acutely aware that if I wish to begin recovering the shelter of tranquility which reclaims and calms me, I must turn from the pull of such diversions, relocating my attention toward the stark, polished echo-mirror of my unrest, the still, shy, quiet presence of my garden. This conscious effort to relate sincerely to the Real is surely “difficult because it is excellent.” (Spinoza).
Many years ago I recall encountering an esoteric text on Tibetan psychiatry which recommended a first step for helping the mentally ill: house them somewhere beautiful and feed them good food. Springfield, OR, isn’t the Himalayas, but it’s a prescription that works for me. No matter the cognitive dissonance I wake to, I always feel healthier for days in my garden, eating fresh, home-harvested food. I am acutely conscious of the relationship between the quality of each meal and my mental health. Indeed, my own lifelong, pill-shirking efforts to live with mental illness suggests that consciously mastering these fires - dousing the fundamental realities of fate seems not to be an option - requires that I move without stopping toward grounding my life in as Paradisal a context as I am able. In other words, I find myself called toward a life in which my sufferings and struggles are actively, steadily, cumulatively sublimated in the intricate harmony of a life attuned to ever deeper levels of naturalness and the foundational tranquility which makes its home there. That the impulse should find its fullest expression as, literally, Paradise-with-a-home-address is, it is now clear to me, simply the natural order of things, that living threshold where the harmony of Nature and my own life meets upon a shared pathway toward ever more mutual rhythm and symmetry.
Only superficially, then, does ‘home-making’ refer to refining our external attachment to people, place and things, and the broad array of technes supporting the outer forms of settling in. Ultimately, homemaking amounts to accepting a profound invitation to explore the most vital coherence of our senses and thoughts in congruence with the embrace of Nature, striving for a depth where the form of our emerging growth is brought into rhythm with the concealed order of creation. It is, in other words, an invitation to friendship with our own essential nature. Such is the ground of primal affection mediated by Beauty. “The experience of the beautiful,” as Hans-Georg Gadamer describes it, “is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things.”
Which is easier said than done, of course! You all know the cliché: life can only be lived in the here and now. And as countless narratives, from Dogen’s Shobogenzo to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, confirm, the subtleties of refining our awareness toward the locus of our present life and our present hour, are not without their challenges. This explains much of the specific attraction of Buddhism to contemporary Westerners, a tried-and-tested path emphasizing no-nonsense techniques for accessing the presentness of life where, in contrast, no matter the rich contemplative motherlode sustained by their quieter voices, the gravity of ‘prophetic faiths’ leans toward emphasizing a sense of the holiness of the ought, the pull of the way things could be and should be but as yet are not. The strengths of both approaches complement one another, perhaps.
About the nature of the now in the ‘here and now’ – its teleology included - we are awash in counsel. About the nature of the here, a good deal less so. The oversight is not at all surprising. Hardly anyone seems to understand Marshall McLuhan’s point that a medium is not a neutral conduit of transmission that has little or no impact on the content of communication. One glance at the global reach of all major schools of thought devoted to making sense of the pulse of existence – whether scientific, religious or otherwise – clearly reveals a style of thinking that is inherently portable, a medium available to communities of recognition everywhere. Quantum mechanics in the Arctic Circle? World-Christianity in South-Central? Surrealism in Singapore? Vipassana in Vegas? No problemo, friend. Have we got the lowdown, tools and support package for you, here, wherever you are.
This is the point. What of that part of the sum of psychological and material reality which simply isn’t portable? What, for example, of gnosis utterly inseparable from a slow, sustained experience of a particularized habitat? It may seem obvious to say so, but my here, here, isn’t your here, there. When earth-attentive cultures assert that ‘wisdom sits in places’, they are claiming that an experience of the world and existence as we may fully participate in it, is not only sustained by an attunement to a particularized locale, but is specific to that place, too. Root and branch are in dynamic interplay in a single helix of presence. This is a categorically not an epistemology lending itself to ‘transfer-mediums’ such as sermons, books, scientific congresses, evangelical outreach, words sent from my computer screen ‘here/there’ to yours ‘there/here’ or, for that matter, transmission from roshi to rishi. No matter how breathtakingly sophisticated the ontological depth and reach of their most refined iterations, styles of thought or non-thought which have simply forsaken their connection with the particularized here, rule human culture, globally, and everything following blindly in their wake – from our diets to our democratic processes to our religious practices to our sense of personal and collective identity - is now, in essence, ‘unhinged.’
This begs the question: if wisdom indeed sits in places, are ‘wisdom traditions’ estranged from a sense-of-place but half-wise? Putting further flesh on the religious word, if the supreme personal destiny which awaits us balances the path inwards with the path outwards, may we not safely deduce that where we are called to live the illuminated life matters wholeheartedly? What implications arise from enlarging our understanding of individual and communal religious experience in this light? And what, potentially, is the shape of a Covenant in which the human community embraces a dynamic, reciprocal relationship with the habitat of which we are an integral part?
At one level the Paradise gardening movement is aimed directly at questions such as these because it dares to mount a challenge to the whole sensory-intellectual tool-kit of the unhinged modern mind and the world it validates - a perceptual contractedness, an all-encompassing enchantment, an existential apostasy we co-operate unconsciously with, hypnotically with, and which we maintain with immense energy. If William Blake is indeed correct when he insists that what ails us is, “the Fall into Division”, a fracture between external realities and our inner life, between visible and invisible worlds, between the shell of our condition and the meaningfulness loaded into it, then in mythopoeic terms the state in which we live is one in which, as Rilke describes it, ‘the gods have withdrawn.’ From this viewpoint, organizing religion’s paramount incoherence lies not in the strength of its robust attempts to recover the invisible foundations of culture but in what James Hillman clarifies as ‘its menace in how it proceeds.’ Where the ‘transcendent function’ in individuals may indeed mark a sublime aspiration, the forms of its sensibilities and the categories of its understanding remain, by and large, locked within a consensus of reality that does not as yet embody our magical bond with our immediate world and the One thread of meaning which unites us. But, as A.J. Muste observed, “there is no path to peace, peace is the path” and it is precisely the dynamic communion of path and peace that deep gardeners restore in an act of Reconciliation which heals the fracture ‘between’ interior and exterior landscapes, in the natural sequence of a concrete journey into Beauty’s deepest ground, Paradise-regained and, as N.O. Brown portrays it, ‘the return of the gods.’
If, then, reality is with us in ways we haven't allowed for, in depths of ourselves we haven't often come into, then what? Admittedly, when the Pause Button gets pressed for the vast majority of us, an honest assessment of our condition typically finds us in condition and surroundings not as idyllic as we might wish for. My vision of Paradise-on-Earth involved a small, shy life, drawing water and swinging an axe in service to a stove high up in the headwaters of a sparsely-populated river valley, deep in the Coast Range, a throng of children and their mother at my side and not, as it happens, confronting the radical truth of my aloneness, three blocks off an I-5 exit, encircled by suburbs and the permanent night-sky glow of the Gateway mall.
I chose to set up home here during an especially bleak stretch of mid-winter weather, moving into a leaking, vermin-infested, un-insulated, battered RV parked upon a sea of quackgrass orbited by piles of junk. The last vestiges of my reproductive health were crashing in tatters about me, the bitter, weeping legacy of a blameless childhood trauma, and I was over two years into a crippling spine injury which showed little sign of relenting. Still in chronic pain, partially paralyzed, hunched over and stumbling, I gardened on my hands and knees between long, bedridden stretches. It was an act of home-making heralding a free-fall into an utterly ferocious dark night of the soul. Paradise seemed a very long way away through it all though, as Wendy Johnson, the senior Buddhist gardener on American shores notes, I was fecund soil in the making. “Tangible paradise,” she says, “depends on beginner’s mind, on a broken heart, and on the living earth on which we stand.”
In a certain sense, there can be no shaking off the fetters that bind us without an experience of loss, the room made for something new, when what we have long deemed to be solid and important falls, when the sustaining touchstones of our old identities come crashing down, when we surrender the jealous possession of the life we know and understand. The old wine is discarded along with the wine-skin. To experience the totality of our reality being remade in the image of wholeness can be utterly devastating in the immensity of acceptance asked of us. As poet-philosopher John O’Donohue describes it, this disordered and unpredictable transition toward deep health, “leads you back to the garden, which is the archetypal image of lovemaking, intimacy and fertility, but always through another garden – Gethsemane.”
It is no small matter to suffer and survive the difficulty, danger and turmoil of a trajectory which changes the blood as well as the mind. We can expect trouble, the necessary turbulence standing between us and our destiny, the pregnant disorder that both heralds an end and signals a new beginning. Not one to understate the shape of a transition in which lives are turned upside down as well as inside out, the Irish gardener John Moriarty observes: “There was something I knew: open the door wide enough to let in God and you've opened it wide enough to let in the Great Malice or the Great Adversary; open the door wide enough to let in heaven and you've opened it wide enough to let in hell; open the door wide enough to let in the light and you've opened the door wide enough to let in the dark; open the door wide enough to let in great health and you've opened it wide enough to let in great illness; open the door wide enough to let in great sanity and you've opened it wide enough to let in great insanity”, a sentiment echoed by the Buddhist contemplative, Stephen Bachelor: “Awakening, freedom and sanity are only intelligible in the context of confusion, constriction, violence and chaos.”
Upon this disturbing threshold, I am reminded of Gandhi’s observation that the essential teaching of all authentic wisdom or ‘awakening’ traditions is an awareness of what it is to live without fear – as depicted, for example, in ancient iconographic portrayals of the Buddha, the Christ and the Hindu deity Shiva, whose hands are commonly shown raised in the outward-palm-facing abhaya mudra, the supreme, divine gesture meaning ‘do not be afraid.’
It bears noting that all the great world traditions which emerged during the historical period which the German philosopher Karl Jaspers named the Axial Age, grew up in the context of endemic violence and warfare. And no matter the psychosis and brutality subsequently demonstrated by wayward ‘traditions of religiosity’ themselves, what the original Axial sages created was, the religious interpreter Karen Armstrong has observed, “a spiritual technology that utilized natural human energies to counter this aggression...The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggest that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked.”
In this regard, the advanced insights of contemporary voices confirm the continuing relevance of spiritual genius to the realpolitik of our age. “It would be a mistake to approach violence with any simple idea of getting rid of it, “ notes Thomas Moore. “Chances are, if we try to eradicate our violence, we will also cut ourselves off from the deep power that sustains creative life. Besides, psychoanalysis teaches, repression never accomplishes what we want. The repressed always returns in monstrous form.” Only think of Hydra, originally a snake with a single head. Our challenge, the sages insist, properly lies not in inhibiting violence, but in transmuting it.
What do they mean? The word violence is derived from the Latin word vis (“force”) which, in turn is derived from the Indo-European word wei, or “vital force”, a root etymology supporting the deep insight that in violence the thrust of life is making itself visible. In the inimitable delivery of a snarling Johnny Rotten, “Anger is an energy.” Punk rock is, however, stating nothing new under the sun. Moore, again: “Renaissance doctors placed both anger and the life force under the aegis of one god, Mars…Mars is infinitely greater than personal expression of anger…Creative and destructive, he is life itself poised for struggle…All people…have an explosive force ready within them to be unleashed into the world…When we allow ourselves to exist fully and truly, we sting the world with our vision and challenge it with our own ways of being…Simply being oneself – letting one’s individuality and unique gifts come forth is a manifestation of Mars…When Mars is overlooked and undervalued he is forced to appear in fetish and violent behavior…I suspect that anger and its expression are only a route into the force of life that has become attenuated and difficult for people to feel in modern society…‘Repression of the life force’ is a diagnosis I believe would fit most of the emotional problems people present in therapy.”
Rough as this sketch may be, what Moore has seen, others have also seen. In the visionary genius of William Blake, “War is energy Enslav’d.” To the American philosopher N.O. Brown, ‘Make love, not war,’ won’t do because they are the same thing. “Peace lies in finding the true war. Find the true fire; of which the fires of war are a Satanic parody…War is war perverted. The problem is not war but the perversion. And the perversion is a repression.” (LB X) As Blake and Milton perceive it, “corporeal war” is the lowest form of violence, the anti-Christ, the demonic parody, the death decreed to those who run away from the true battle of learning to love the fire, the sacramental fire of transmutation. “The thing then,” Brown concludes, “is not to abolish war but to find the true war.”
Look carefully enough and you will find Brown’s transmutation imperative informing the core teaching and practices of every authentic wisdom tradition, Axial or otherwise, all of which must surely have drawn their original appeal, in part, from a need to communally support the intense and sometimes desolate psychic territory involved in consciously and skillfully transfiguring natural human energies into their most refined, life-affirming iterations. Consider the purifying fires involved in the agonizing inner struggle to accept or forgive, or surrender what we most love, for example, an unfolding in which the painful obstructions of our fears, the admitting of the vis or violence of our own hearts, gradually yields to the transformative thrust of Life, to the innate and ultimately tranquil integrity of “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” (Dylan Thomas) passing through us. What the sages have always understood, of course, is that the refinement of such consciously-contained suffering births a force for transfiguration greater than any political, economic or media power and, furthermore, that any effort to deal with the outer socio-political ancien regime without transmuting our own, individual inner ancien regimes in this manner is a course forever condemned to sewing more darkness, more violence, and more of the literalism of war into our own worlds, no matter how enthusiastic, engaged or long-lived our efforts to shape an ideal society may be.
It is a simple enough equation, echoed by today’s psycho-therapeutic avant-garde. Where ‘religious’ psyche-technes such as devotional or meditation practices are intended to cultivate ‘emptiness’, ‘secular’ disciplines such as psychoanalysis aim for ‘the absence of neurosis’, “which is essentially an interfering with the unfolding of life and the desires of the deep soul,” notes Thomas Moore, “…nothing more than anxious attempts to prevent life from happening.” From both religious and secular perspectives then, the complementary intent is to recognize our defensiveness and address ‘repression of the life force’ in ways adequate to the task of birthing a higher sanity. Awakening to the Real is never therefore a dull, repetitious flatland of pacific mediocrity or predictability, a suppression of life in whatever form. Precisely the antithesis. As Tibetan Buddhist Robert Thurman explains it, “Enlightenment is not a simplified state. Not at all. It is the supreme tolerance of cognitive dissonance,” and O’Donohue: “Real power has nothing to do with force, control, status, or money. Real power is the persistent courage to be at ease with what is unfinished.” This, then, is the fierce, animating intensity informing authentic peacemaking. In the very same act as allowing ourselves to exist fully and truly in context, by entering the fray with our total reality, by fully risking living in meaningful ways, by committing to a destination where experience comes alive to its truest individual depth and destiny, we honor the supreme, passionate, creative impulse of Life itself moving through us. Here, and only here, is Mars appeased, and the violence of literalism undone.
In this light, many of our culture’s most entrenched assumptions reveal themselves as innately repressive, a masquerade of ‘absolutes’, ‘knowables’ and ‘guarantees’ driven by an unspoken but clear desire to hold at bay the troublesome emotions accompanying an engagement equal to the challenge of a profoundly complex, teeming, diverse, ever-changing world. Generally, our culturally-constructed mindsets – and whether the originating sensibility is ‘secular’ or ‘religious’ matters not a whit in this regard - promise the control of explanations and answers and the insistence, explicit or implicit, that the world will and must conform to those constructions. (“Ours is the way because it is the way.”) We make the profound error of mistaking the map for the territory, rational analysis for understanding, singularity of vision for wholeness of being, and comfortable thinking for clarity of thought - as though wisdom precludes holding more than one view simultaneously. “The daily calculating mind works in a binary way,” observes Richard Rohr. “Either-or thinking gives one a sense of control. The small mind works by comparison and judgment; the great mind works by synthesizing and suffering with alternative truths. The ego cannot stand this suffering, and that is exactly why it is so hard for religion and individuals to grow up.”
And so, in our small-mindedness, we subscribe to views, beliefs, ideologies, creeds, faiths or formulas, take your pick, that spare us the anxieties of a constantly evolving sense of self, and the accountability for our own participation in meaning-making that keeping the eye of insight open, implies. In this way, we pull an artificial barrier around ourselves, reducing the expansive permissions of life to the limits of a narrow and unyielding bandwidth of experience, snubbing our inner faithfulness and the very possibilities and responsibilities that would free us into the promise and fulfillment of a life fully engaged with the Real.
The fierceness with which we are inclined to defend a particular flavor of fixity tends, of course, to be a measure of our need to self-signify and self-validate where our foundational significance is shaky. In this regard, our immediate challenge arises not in embracing alternative cultures, creeds, races, religions, species and so forth – superficial attributes, in a sense – but in the struggle for inclusiveness in our inner lives, in our own intensely personalized efforts to engage with life’s ‘bitter’ side, its rich paradoxes, its genuine dilemmas, struggles, imperfections, doubts, failures, agonies, confusions and curveballs. Creation is itself an infinitude of diversity and in denying its overarching inclusiveness, inner as well as outer, its darkness as well as light, we cut ourselves off from a vast portion of life. Specifically, when we demonize, push away or deny our own inner ailments, divisions, contradictions and pain, we project them upon the world, generating division, despair and discord. And, of course, in the absence of ‘outsiders’ to scapegoat, our communities project division upon themselves. In both instances, we ourselves become messengers of the devil we would overcome. In the language of archetypal psychology: “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” (Jung.)
It needs be said that simply because whole populations are estranged, together, from an intimacy with the Ground of life fully lived, does not make our experience of Exile any less true. We live in the shadow of an immense epistemological grief, a deep loneliness “which derives in large part,” O’Donohue observes, “from the intense desire to avoid suffering and pain, and the repudiation of commitment.” Denial, of course, is another word for this and, “The capacity to deny,” in the words of James Hillman, “to remain innocent, to use belief as a protection against sophistication of every sort – intellectual, aesthetic, moral, psychological – keeps the American character from Awakening.”
That we remain unawares, for the most part, of this vast culturally-constructed dark night of the sleep suggests how far, to varying degrees, most of us lead lives of dislocation, divorced from a sense of presence in ourselves and the landscapes we walk upon, exiled from the intimacy of true unity with ourselves, each other, and creation. Unable to read or decipher this great lonesomeness, unable to understand it or transfigure it, much of our activity is unwittingly designed to fill this absence with some kind of forced presence - with distractions, things, achievements, uppers, downers, consumerist culture, noise and, for that matter, the excessive drive towards higher states of religious or scientific consciousness. So much of our suffering is self-made by responding with the partial satisfactions of maladaptive human artifice to an entirely natural longing and quest for meaning, to the honest search for intimacy with that part of us which secretly sustains and guides our impulses and actions. Lost in the thicket of diversion, we have lost touch with where our sense of life is most deeply rooted. We stand remote from ourselves, ghosts in our own lives.
The condition amounts to an immense, tragic neglect of ourselves, one in which we forgo the unlimited depth of the here and now for a deliberate ‘experiential homelessness’, a life lived outside itself, or, to paraphrase Kabir, the ‘throwing of intensity elsewhere’ - in an ontological sleight-of-hand our social constructs are only too willing to encourage. In salvational fantasies for example (“science…religion…politics…‘Daddy’ will save us”), we subscribe to consensual assumptions shielding us from today’s deep, rich entanglements of choice and necessity. In our reliance on hybrid food, we abandon a foundational bio-cultural dynamic to the exigencies of an overarching economic model expressly engineered to dispossess us of a relationship with the Real. In the cult of celebrity or personality, we abstain from own life’s great possibilities and responsibilities by giving over the life-giving spark within us, our own inner brilliance (or scintilla as the medieval philosophers named it), to someone else. And so on. And all this because, Wallace Stevens noted with remarkably succinct perspicacity, “the way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.”
As the floods of change in our world continue to rise, so do the complexities and uncertainties reinforcing the tendency for individual positions to polarize around cultural extremes of thought and belief, fleeing precisely that awkward point of tension where the transformational alchemy of Awakening occurs. “A single idea, a fixed principle, a unifying theory or a blind belief,” notes Michael Meade, “becomes preferable to the growing tension of opposing forces and conflicting opinions…As things are taken to extremes, people run out of room, become inflexible, dig in, and hold on tight. Any issue considered must quickly become divided into opposing attitudes with one side claiming to be completely right and the other having to be utterly wrong. The tendency to reduce the complexities of life and insist upon an absolute way of seeing things becomes stronger.” And as the reality of a culture coming unstuck in the stormy seas of dissolution increasingly departs from our fixed notions about the way things are or should be, a riot of events sweeps our perished certainties toward a boneyard of broken assumptions and, potentially, the abiding temptations of chilliastic madness, millennial follies or ‘the war of all against all’ that Rudolph Steiner predicted could be a possible end for the 20th century.
The danger, of course, is real, in that efforts to ‘liberate’ the distraught personality of its personal anxieties with no transcendent purpose in view is the bread-and-butter stuff of political missions which, as Arthur Koestler grimly observes, continue to incite “the holocausts resulting from self-transcending devotion to collectively shared belief systems.” While Theodore Roszak astutely recognizes such behavior amounts, essentially, to “relieving the tormented ego at the expense of murdering the spirit”, perhaps we have finally reached a fork in the evolutionary road where murder dressed up in the name of a social contract, whether ‘political’ and/or ‘religious’, is a reflex we are now called to transmute. “As I have said,” George Steiner offers, “Israel, like all other nations has to torture to survive. But is even survival a justification?” The answer happens to be blindingly obvious to me. But if not torture, what? Curb-recycling will obviously not suffice.
“The question then arises,” states Robert Sardello, “if it becomes possible to accept that Sophia is behind all this change in the world, and that inviting her out of exile seems to be accompanied by such uncomfortable results, is it not better to keep her confined?” Funny you should ask, because where and when so very much of our activity and attention remains unhinged from the here and now, the upshots certainly aren’t. One sure glance at our world makes it plainly clear that favoring comfort over the demands of conscience, avoidance rather than commitment, ontological ‘tourism’ of whatever form in place of the diligence of tenure, and the reified in place of the real, has propelled us not only to a profoundly torn, diminished and dismal self-image but, as our scientific Cassandras daily confirm, an unprecedented extinction event. Not only is the repression of consequence doomed to defeat but, as Thomas Berry notes, “the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human.”
William Irwin Thompson is equally penetrating around the subject of choice and consequence: “When we cannot create our destiny through enlightenment, our fate is inflicted upon us through ignorance.” Invited or not, Jung noted, the gods will be present. But to suppose that the inevitable surge of natural and manufactured entropies accompanying the great tide of awakening now rising among us (‘the cascade of accumulating differences’ that in chaos dynamical theory leads to a new ‘catastrophe bifurcation’) amounts to one and the same as a Dark Age in the making, is to succumb to a fundamental failure of the imagination – and one which we simply cannot afford. What we are now encountering is not the End of the World but, as Michael Meade perceptively observes, that confusing historical moment of evolutionary proportions when “the way we see must end as another version of the world ensues”, when we are immersed in the flux of difficulties befitting an all-encompassing shift in perspective, when our dominant worldview has begun to reveal its inherent limitations and before a satisfying and coherent replacement has found its feet. The act of creation is associated intimately with the act of dissolution. “Welcome,” Meade says, “to the end of the world as we knew it.”
Given the seeming smallness of our individual trajectories in the face of such collective immensities, the messiness naturally implicit in reorienting ourselves to a shifting horizon, and the epic personal challenge a genuine response to this mystery implies, is it any wonder the routine of an unlived life holds so many of us in its predictable yet fatal thrall? We are paralyzed, in a sense, not only by the inertia of a high culture invested in the ‘dream of realism’, but, consciously or not, by the threat of a personal salvation as apocalyptic as the doom that hounds us. Yes, falling into the inner-outer spectrum of a paradigm shift is indeed a fearful thing, “for beauty,” Rilke reminds us, “is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”
We may, however, safely assume that no matter how daunting our personal and collective circumstances appear in the face of such a transition, no matter how baffling or frightening this metamorphosis proves, a coherent response is nonetheless available to every one of us, wherever we live, in whichever culture or creed we have called our own. We can rest wholeheartedly in this assurance because, as ‘luck’ would have it, we and the ground upon which we individually stand is not only that locus where the here and now meet, it is also where our wellbeing and that of our world finds its truest common ground, what we have primary access to, and what we can do something about. Ultimately, Paradise-with-a-home-address is simply a way of living in and with reality that enables it to work with us, where we stand with what we have to hand. We turn back, as upon a hinge, towards the Source of our foundational wellbeing.
Admittedly, if the makings of an Arcadian wonderland appear far removed from where you’re at just now, it can be tempting to regard the shortfall as some sort of cosmic faux pas, unworthy of the true in-situ you, and one best addressed by hauling off the sofa and shovel to Edenic pastures for a nice, fresh, clean, break. Best beware the short-cut hustle, however. As the Sages have long observed, the view through our eyes is precisely a reflection of the state of our souls: when the beauty of our inner country escapes us, so paradise without is also in absence. And if the bio-cultural territories we inhabit are unfamiliar to us, noisy, polluted, fractured, covered up, they are also a remorseless description of what we have tragically become. When savvy contemplatives observe that the global ecological crisis is, fundamentally, a global spiritual crisis, this is what they understand and this, the god of u-haul rentals cannot fix.
As your common, archetypal-variety gardener might spell it out, ‘hell’ is the ‘heaven’ we aren’t yet able for. What’s more, arrive too soon in heaven, arrive before we are ready for it, and it will become our hell - unredeemed nature in us will make sure of that – and the self-punishment of consciousness going to war on itself is, I can roundly assure you, no teddy bear’s picnic. (Nietzsche, as corollary: “In time of peace, the warlike person attacks himself.” And Meade: “To the ontologically lost male, peace is boring.”) If it is to be secure then, if it is not to end in calamity, our ascent to Realization must proceed from a prior and indeed from a simultaneous harrowing of hell, a passage through healing darkness back into morning. (Nietzsche: “Whoever has built a ‘new heaven’ has found the strength for it in his own hell.” And Chogyam Trungpa: “The chaos that takes place in your neurosis is the only home ground that you can build the mandala of awakening on.") Simply put, shortcuts don’t cut it. Paradise is not a space we go elsewhere to find, but a space we must clear for ourselves.
To soberly accept our immediate surroundings and circumstances for what they are, the authenticity of ‘where we’re at,’ (“Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset. “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.” – Khalil Gibran.) is the first and furthest step we can take along the path to restoring our own lives and that of our world to an elemental integrity. I am not being facetious when I suggest that it is only when we fully embrace our place and role in the poverty of a denuded context that we are paradoxically freed to experience the profound, secret harmony lying hidden within it. At this turning point, the eco-cultural challenges we face reveal themselves not as interferences to our deliverance, not as ‘in-spite-of’ complications, but as initiatory thresholds essential to restructuring our psyches and refashioning our lives in the image of wholeness, part of our growth. As Michael Meade explains, “The conditions in which we find ourselves are the conditions through which we must find our true selves.” In a very real sense, the paradise gardener does not simply remake Eden, here and now, in this very realm of existence, but is herself remade by the landscape, by the work itself. Ultimately then, psychological and ecological integration coincide: Paradise is an emergent, co-evolutionary phenomenon.
Crucially, our trajectory as homemakers is profoundly reinforced when the compass we follow marries our deepest needs to those of the landscape of which we are a part. Sightseeing, while agreeably awe-inspiring, barely dips its tootsies in the Heraclitean riverrun. Rather, we are asked to live the resources and associations of the landscape upon which we stand. Not to live upon it, but to live it from within. Otherwise, paradoxically, we may be born and live out an entire life in one location and, in essence, remain surface-dwellers there, outsiders to the locale and therefore, ultimately, not only to its depths but our own. For my part, I have found through the years that each step I take toward supporting my deepest needs for health and sanity has entailed a corresponding intensification of my engagement with the natural world, the measure of which is my interrelatedness with the habitat immediately about me. The conception of ‘survival of the fittest’ is now re-envisioned, at a deeper more fundamental level, as a foundational resilience deriving from our ability to integrate with the mutually dependent processes we are nested within, our ability to ‘fit’ in.
There is, I have also learned, no keener incentive to care reverentially for a plot of earth than relying upon it to sustain a life deeply through time - and by ‘rely’ I do not mean yoking the land to the mediated, disembodied imperatives of an economic eye but, rather, relying upon our immediate surroundings as our primary, unmediated source of essential everyday necessities, such as food, medicine and shelter. The essential foundations of our life are united to the care and wellbeing of our immediate surroundings in a conversation indistinct from the ‘feedback loops’ essential to co-evolutionary dialog. We recognize consequence and relationship, and the place of mystery, and build on what we observe. The effort to determine where, when and how to give and receive so that we and our gardens continue to flourish, invites us to a sense of proportion in our seeing, feeling and actions. Our own lives and landscapes thrive or deteriorate depending on our ability to live reciprocally in ways that simply cannot be lived vicariously. As Hundertwasser states, “Paradises can only be made with our own hands, with our own creativity in harmony with the true creative spirit of nature.”
However refined our souls may be when we arrive at the Garden threshold and commit to cross it, Revelation has its own cadence and will not be rushed. The shelter of new belonging gathers itself about us only slowly. Subtle presences in a landscape are discreet and reveal themselves only shyly and indirectly, and certainly no faster than the clockspeed that Nature’s own patterns, rhythms and cycles afford. Whereas our gardens are at once profoundly personal and intimate extensions of our own selves, they are also co-creations, expressing the character of the place itself. An incommensurable array of biotic and other influences, far beyond our ken, but inseparable from the harmony of this symbiotic unfolding, pours forth into our lives.
When we return in this way to the embodied acknowledgement that we are incontrovertibly creatures of Context, and a co-evolving Universality at that, we yield to what secular voices call “the irresistible march of evolution”, and the religious, “the integrity of beauty straining towards goodness and completion.” Put another way, we ‘go with the flow’, allowing the energy back of Life to re-orientate us to a destination where experience embraces the totality of the complex biological and cultural process we call life or, described in religious vernacular by the gardener John Moriarty, “there comes a day when we are happy to flow not just from one to another identity but from identity as such, back into God.” The surprises and ramifications of a life gradually deepening into this enigma measure out the many years it takes to bring a mind and life home. “This mystery,” as Rumi-Barks explains, “gives peace to your longing and makes the road home home.”
No matter how unsettled our minds, sick our bodies, or estranged we may be from the wisdom of our clay, with the first, small step of surrendering to the larger influence of natural patterns and rhythms, we begin moving out of our self-contained limitations, harmonizing the music of our lives to the ‘bodying forth’ as Shakespeare described it, of the universal into ‘a local habitation and a name.’ This capacity arises from our willingness to risk the danger of difference by relating genuinely to the particulars of the Real.
As we entrust ourselves to a richer profusion of more natural influences, our lives naturally assume a deeper authenticity. On the one hand, the Garden does not lie. Where our minds and, indeed, many of our most cherished, sacred beliefs have succumbed to epistemological caricatures of reality, the Garden is not in exile. It rests in the sureness of its own elemental integrity. As a primary revelatory experience therefore, its truths can be relied upon completely. On the other hand, the Garden is alive. It creates just as we humans do and as we share ourselves with it, so it embraces us out into pastures of authentic promise and possibility. We encounter an Ally lurking behind what people call ‘the real world’, who was waiting for us here, all along. Fundamentally, when we consciously step toward an integral, co-evolutionary relationship with the Garden, we do nothing other than take the full, vital force of an ecosystem by the helping hand, the genius of the Universe localized into a genii loci, the genius of place. We work with, not against the world, assimilating our lives to a vast supportive process. Life (or, in mythopoeic terms, the ‘soul of the world’ or Anima Mundi) in all its hidden fidelity, nearer than the nearest, rises to meet us. An abundant universe shows its realm.
Initially, we all struggle with the challenge of settling into the genius of place – knowing, for example, where and how far apart to space plants is a mystery engaged only with the practice of settling in. Nonetheless our experience, perceptions and abilities evolve surprisingly quickly to embrace more complex concerns, such as how to support foundational natural dynamics – cycles of fertility, for example - in ways that emulate the inherently regenerative patterns of Nature, of life ongoing. As this co-intelligent dialog picks up, the accelerating biodiversity of our own gardens and the logarithmic intensification of life which accompanies the emergence of cascading, self-supporting synergies within them, lends cumulative impetus to our efforts. Nature fills in the gaps. ‘To those who have shall be given more.’
It all happens at once. Sardello again: “Sophia is accompanied by an archetypal helpmate [who] does not offer stability but functions as one through whom it becomes possible to enjoy instability and navigate in it, though not to control it.” In so far as the shredding of sense and meaning in our lives issues from having abandoned the living world, desolating the earth, desecrating the very matrix out of which higher states of understanding and expression emerge and are themselves nourished, every supportive step we take toward restoring the health and bio-cultural diversity of the living fabric in which we are most intimately embedded, engenders the regeneration and renewal of paradigms we need to read meaning into our lives. As ethno-biologist Gary Paul Nabhan observes, restoring and re-storying the landscape-cultures which posit, sustain and guide our lives occurs simultaneously.
“What are we most essentially?” asks Theodore Roszak. “Before all else we are meaning-seeking creatures. As fiercely as our flesh needs bread, our activity in the world needs a justifying purpose…The way forward is inevitably the way inward.” Pouring our own narrative into root Nature’s, enfolding our own story within the integral, evolving Story of the Earth and Humankind, we therefore not only restore the foreground we call history with its regenerative potential, but the imaginal backdrop essential to providing this extraordinary adventure in beauty and truth with instructive order. In this regard, life in the garden is not a mediate ‘allegory’ pointing to the ‘proper business’ of human culture; nor is it a narrative sideline remote or distinct from our essential destinies. Rather, it is where ‘world-making’ itself finds its truest, literal ground, where the ‘holy, open secret’ as Goethe called it, of the marriage of our own individual lives to the world occurs in the native, unifying experience of raising Paradise, the singular integration of a regenerating totality. Individuation and archetypalization coincide.
When our own autobiographies take on the epic stature of Paradise-making in this way, we make the transition from the limiting, anxious ground of self-imposed Exile at precisely that point where our inner resourcefulness graduates into the larger, inexhaustible resourcefulness of Anima Mundi. In other words, when we embrace the genii loci we ourselves assume a genius beyond our limitations. We awaken, in a sense, to the greatness of the earth coming alive in us. And where our lives were previously caged within a severe censorship of experience, within the meaning-impoverished strictures of a correspondingly unlived life, we are now set free to romp in a harvest of consciousness where dimensions of meaningfulness, previously denied us, are redeemed. We gift ourselves an opportunity to live life to the full. The disenchantment and disillusion born of ‘the great enmity between daily life and the great work’ as Rilke sees it, dissolves in a radically altered conception of ourselves, our primary needs, our place in life, our sense of enduring purpose. Ultimately then, wholeness is liberation.
In accepting an invitation to let the whole of life into us, “that passage of another will” to use Thomas Moore’s phrase, we move further toward trusting life’s wisdom rather than our own. Often, harmonizing the music of our deepest needs and aspirations to the larger symphony of Life involves surrendering to a destiny we hadn’t planned or maybe even wished for. Tell me about it. But no matter where the pilgrimage and privilege of growth carries us, the clearer it becomes along the way that the striving to bring harmony to our lives is, in essence, a homing instinct - and one which ultimately requires a deepening and intensification of our life on earth at that “one good place” (Thomas Merton) where, Anita Lange observes, “we may become present with ourselves within the wholeness of the world.”
Coming to wholeness emerges naturally out of what coming to ourselves asks of us. “Living in place is something that takes practice,” affirms Gary Snyder. “Practice...means doing it, and doing it a lot of times. There is no substitute for that.” Lange: “The prolonged, earnest practice of tending growth and harvest finely tunes a particular quality of attention that enables intimacy with wisdom inherent in the land. With growing discernment we learn which of our human understandings are in accord with the cycles of nature; a decisive requisite to being fully at home.” And Wendy Johnson: “Growing food and plants and preserving the seed and diverse genetic inheritance of those plants is an ancient human practice or moral custom. ‘Moral custom’ or what I call ‘moral presence’ is at the root of the word ‘ethics,’ the study of those principles that govern the conduct of human life…True moral presence in the garden gives room to experimentation, risk, and strong lessons from danger and failure.” Our direct, daily, grounded baptism in the faithful laws of nature and the timeless rituals of birth, life, death and renewal, the ancient and elemental patterns which sustain nature and human culture but which carry none of the false burdens of self-conflict, progressively shape us in an image of the foundational integrity at the heart of Life.
As our intimacy with the Real deepens through time, so does our experience of relatedness. Increasingly, as we walk toward the unity between all things, we find ourselves in the shared territory of common experiential ground. “The waking have one world in common. Sleepers meanwhile turn aside, each to a darkness of his own.” Paradisal perception, then, embraces an experiential realm where Reality comes to fullness in us both individually and together. We come in from the grasp of a culture in which the pale, abstract dimensions of Simulation are taken for ‘objective realities’, in which the intense transience of a manufactured foreground and its crippling chains, connections and false priorities hold us captive, at a distance from life and each other.
For all the eccentricity of my own trajectory, I am not attempting anything that countless others aren’t also undertaking, many locally, and many of you around this listserv, who are, in so very many ways, ‘further along’ than me. Dostoevsky’s suggestion that perhaps the world will be saved by beauty repeatedly comes to mind among the plants I move among, and the friends and acquaintances whose passionate and courageous examples are my great inspirations. In raising Paradise, we homesteaders and the landscapes we inhabit support and teach each other, with such great willingness to give and to receive. I recall a puzzled voice approaching me among the scion wood at the enormous, free, self-organizing, volunteer-driven Spring Propagation Fair at LCC this year, no institutional advertising in evidence. “Who does this?” he asked. “I mean, who are you?” “Oh,” I replied, “We’re just a loose-knit group of friends and acquaintances who like to do things for free.” Such bio-cultural mutuality is the natural territory of homecoming.
Whatever language – secular, religious or otherwise - we are comfortable using to describe a wordless experience which unites us beyond the differentiation of our own distinctive and uniquely precious personal and cultural forms, the territory of homecoming spreads out in the heart-stretching particulars of our own utterly mundane, messy, imperfect lives. This is no abstract shift. Nor does any praetorian guard, here or elsewhere, sit between us and the keys to the Real stuff. To paraphrase Abd-ul-Jabbar Niffari, “Why do you look for Truth up there? It’s here! Here!” The concrete, vernacular, humdrum, ordinary, unadorned particulars of a life available only where we stand, here and now, is the Great Door through which we return to the ground of Beauty’s unifying embrace. In the words of the Kentucky farmer-poet, Wendell Berry, “And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”
In workaday terms, this may involve staggering around an Oregon garden on a chilly winter morning, gathering fresh roots from medicinal plants - with a healthy, good ol’ fashioned dose of headachy, squinty-eyed, fuzzy-brained misery thrown into the symptomatic pot for good measure. Not, however, that my experience this past February precluded a depth, grandeur and refinement that moved me to my ecstatic core.
Completely unexpected though this remarkable visitation of grace was, it nevertheless issued from a deliberate, lengthy approach. The plants I moved toward were not strangers to me. They were herbal allies I had deliberately introduced to my garden and which I have now spent years in conversation with. Through the course of a long engagement, I am becoming familiar with these plants’ unique ecologies, their distinctive characters, the manner in which they continue to interrelate with their world and, increasingly, the manner in which their presence in mine shapes my trajectory through life. Indeed, where my cultural ecology and those of these plants begin and end I can no longer tell – their and my patterns of embrace have become deeply intertwined, seamless. The veil which stood between us has fallen to reveal our wellbeing is interdependent, our need for one another, entire. And as the roots of these plant allies have gone down into my garden, so mine have gone down deep along with them. We, and the modest little demi-Eden where my tent is pitched, are ‘homeys’.
I see now that the shape of my homecoming was destined long before these plants and I found one another. The emergence from my trailer into the wintry embrace of my garden, the fall to my knees to brush aside plant debris from the base of the desiccated, brown foliage marking the earth where the hibernating medicine I sought lay hidden, marked the grounding of an arc which first catalyzed almost five decades earlier, high in the sky, on vapor trails crisscrossing the globe, as a babe-in-arms, a scion of the multinational pharmaceutical industry – riding a pendulum swing marking the epitome of a ‘homeless’ therapeutic modality. A global education funded by and pledged to that builded world’s sustaining perspective and imperatives, its source and continuance, propelled me soon enough to its most reified, non-local summits - the offshore international financial markets, the leading edge of the advanced internetworking industry and the mandarin classes of corporation and state whose raison d’etre I helped ‘wire’, and then onwards to an engagement with cyberspace’s most far-flung reaches before I fell through the world-wide-web into the ‘greenness incarnate’ of Noti’s embrace, there to slap off the city grime and sniff the air. Did you ever catch the Simpson’s 1995 Halloween episode in which Homer falls through a hole in space-time into the ‘real world’? Hilarious. Apt. As John Perry Barlow once remarked to me, of the web, during its earliest days: “What’s that sucking sound?”
Consequences, consequences, as they say, and Goethe implied, when he claimed there comes a point where our lives and autobiographies inevitably meet. In returning to the exquisite bondage of our fate on and with the earth, the sprawling narratives of our life synthesize in a concrescence of identity-making. In the homey wisdom of Terry Tempest Williams, “There is no place to hide, and so we are found.” To come to ground and truly settle in is to assume the Reckoning of arrival and tenure, the stuff of salvation, the stuff we may no longer outrun. ‘Dealing with your stuff.’ The profound joys, fulfillments, transformation and discovery to be unearthed in the long slow miracle of homecoming therefore proceed only to the extent we sublimate the balance of darkness in our lives, only so long as we remain simultaneously reconciled to the shadow-lands of life’s ‘imperfections’ - the messes, gaps, mistakes, curveballs, foolishness, betrayals, tragedies, injustices and, to small or large degree, the active, unceasing daily challenge of waking each dawn to ransom a life from the edge of darkness. Ultimately then, we are called to stand naked, revealed for the person we are – rather than who we wish to be. James Hillman: “Transparent Man, who is seen and seen through, foolish, who has nothing left to hide, who has become transparent through self-acceptance; his soul is loved, wholly revealed, wholly existential; he is just what he is, freed from paranoid concealment, from the knowledge of his secrets and his secret knowledge…” And Moore, again: “The path of the soul will not allow concealment of the shadow without unfortunate consequences… You don’t achieve the goal of the philosopher’s stone, the lapis lazuli at the core of your heart, without letting all of human passion into the fray…But if you can tolerate the full weight of human possibility as the raw material for an alchemical, soulful life, then at the end of the path you may have a vision within yourself of the lapis and sense the stone idols of Easter Island sanding nobly in your soul and the dolmen of Stonehenge marking eons of time in your own lifespan. Then your soul, cared for in courage, will be so solid, weathered and mysterious, that divinity will emanate from your very being. You will have the spiritual radiance of the holy fool who has dared to live life as it presents itself and to unfold personality with its heavy yet creative dose of imperfection.”
Integrity then, is a measure not of a flawless but an integral life, a coming to wholeness which fully embraces the rich, daily entanglements of life and ourselves ‘as is’. Oregon poet Bill Stafford expresses this memorably: “In the imperfect,” he says, “is our paradise.” And to the degree the profound personalization of ourselves integrates with a particularized habitat - the fullest, integral expression of a ‘homecoming to wholeness’ - the co-ordinates we inhabit are no longer true to falsehood. It is here, at this cornerstone, this immanentized bridge between the ideal and the real, the Word and the flesh, that “Mercy and truth will meet, justice and peace will embrace each other, truth will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the heavens.” (Psalms 85, 10 – 11). Thoreau’s dictum takes manifest shape as a matter of course: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
Because this realm of perception and liberating activity exists, literally, beyond the ecological reach of the mindsets, cosmologies and social forms which largely dictate what Allen Ginsberg names ‘the official version of reality and history’, the unfolding Garden Conversation remains invisible to the ‘Expert’ State which, accordingly, attaches little or no significance to it. Overlooked, it remains disregarded: conceived naively, it appears naïve. “Hidden enfolded immensities,” Hakim Bey notes, “escape the measuring rod.” But don’t let the cosmic oversight of the august academies of big media, law, education, religion, science or otherwise, fool you, friends. The sense of import or significance integral to our culture’s defining ethos is as cockamamie as the distorting mirror from which it derives – powerful yet unspoken values beholden to an ontologically-hamstrung version of the nature of the world and existence, an image-driven Spectacle ‘which commands us to be fooled by appearances’. From a deep gardener’s per-spective then, ‘seeing-through’ the levels of reality well-lit by our dominant cultural arbiters not only confirms the existence of measureless personal and communal potentialities lurking in wait beyond a world contracted to a shadow of its co-creative possibilities, but accelerates our subtraction of allegiance from the old sensibilities and forms which are, as Blake observes, “by reason of narrowed perception…fix’d into furrows of death.”
Where we are headed upon this shore of new invitation, we may only intuit, but we can be confident, for one, that ‘political economy’ as we have long understood it, is done with. “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world; and that is an idea whose time has come” (Nation, 15 April, 1943.) Wallace Stevens may not have been far off the prophetic mark when he proposed an Exeunt Omnes for almost all our old institutions and epistemologies:
Exit the mental moonlight, exit lex,
Certainly, the sheer enormity, in its consequences for consciousness and culture, of an emerging “new intelligence” in league with the Real and, irrevocably, the Truth, simply transcends foundational axioms and assumptions sustaining current notions of legitimacy, leadership, strength, power, health and freedom. Immense pastures of promise and possibility, previously withheld, are now released to us, where so very many of our current obsessions and ‘intractable problems’ are simultaneously freed into redundancy. (N.O. Brown: “the real fight is not the political fight, but to put an end to politics. From politics to metapolitics,” and Heschel: “…not to reject but surpass civilization.”) If Gary Snyder was indeed prescient when he once described the challenge ahead of us “as a revolution, not of guns, but of consciousness, which will be won by seizing the key myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy's side", then the work of our prophets is now essentially complete. The fight to fight is lost. And as efforts to embrace the epiphany of earth loyalty now gather critical momentum, it seems not premature to claim that no matter the rigidity and recalcitrance of the old order within and among us, we are already upon an evolving trans-cultural shift from world economy to ecumene, which will inevitably take on the incarnation not of a ‘united nation-states’ nor a world church or religion, but a ‘global ecology of symbiotic consciousness’ - peace-on-earth or, perhaps more precisely stated, peace ‘on’, ‘of’, ‘with’ and ‘through’ the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they are inheriting the earth. Blessed, blessed, blessed are they.
The origin of the word dwell is “to dig deep.” In settling down and settling in, the experience of deep gardeners suggests some key, initial pointers to keep in mind. Crucially, ‘to be free is nothing: to become free is everything.’ The territory of homecoming, already spread out upon the earth, awaits a personal invocation. It will not come by waiting for it. ‘In order to inherit your freedom, you need to go toward it.’ We cannot learn to swim and hold on at the same time: there comes a point where we must brave a dunking. In this regard, we may have consummate faith in the subversive beauty and profound consolation of Life itself in which, Thoreau notes: “Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength.” My own salutary trajectory, for example, strongly confirms that serious impairments and the lack of a prior inclination for the green wavelength, are by no means disqualifications for beginning, or for learning, to settle in well in time - indeed, that our challenges, falsities and blunders gift us with the makings of compost crucial to the ongoing, glorious adventure of raising Paradise.
As we might expect, our first compost pile is the hottest - the initial ‘hump’ our toughest stretch. I recall well, a decade ago, one of the first occasions I resonated with the wry aside of transpersonal psychotherapist John Welwood: “As one spiritual wag put it, ‘Self knowledge is always bad news,’ at least initially.’ ” A children’s gardening workshop I helped arrange not only marked one of my earliest, fumbling horticultural forays, it was also the first occasion I had attempted to ‘work with’ or ‘teach’ children. On both individual counts I was timid: tag-teamed, I was scared silly. And that afternoon, when a towering western epistemology and its corresponding sense of control, identity and self-esteem met the harmonic bio-cultural chaostrophy of little ones in the garden, the garden gate swung fully wide open before me and I tasted the bitter, ego-shattering immensity of inner transformation that would be required of integral gardening: I simply could not settle in and continue to be who I was.
My falling through the web, in other words, did not come with the affinity, skills or heart-stretching propensity for ‘earth-inheritance’ attached. It’s a shortfall that has been a tough one to swallow. In the decade or so I have been using phtyo-medicinals, for example, deep herbalists have repeatedly assured me that ‘a connection with the plant’ informs the true essence of herbal medicine-making. Others have also suggested that the harvesting of medicinal herbs is an act appropriately marked with due reverence - and, if indigenous practice is a model to abide by, properly accompanied by formal acts of recognition, such as prayer or gift-giving. Frankly, it has been disconcerting to repeatedly encounter such lofty mantras in the face of what has so very often felt like my constitutional inability to connect in a consciously heartfelt manner with the greenworld - in the harvesting of my medicines, a heady thanking of my own good fortune was typically the high point I could ‘naturally’ muster. Where others clearly appeared to feed off a heartfelt intimacy with plants, whatever ‘it’ was, I didn’t appear to have it. But here, where I was most unsettled, I knew best my need for peace. And I held my course, reconciled to the ignominious and unsolved, slowly and patiently persevering with an unshakeable conviction in the integrity of this profoundly humbling trajectory. Rilke: “We must always hold to what is difficult, then that which still seems to us the most hostile will become what we now trust and find most faithful.” O’Donohue: “As with all manner of spiritual discipline, we gain most when we are willing freely to choose what is difficult.” No journey, they say, is too long when you are coming home.
Increasingly, my efforts to properly inhabit a life keep me home. I am a home-based nurseryman: my watering wand and I are rarely more than minutes from my charges for a large part of the year. My daily activities and relationships reflect this coming to ground, as does, critically, the food I eat. I wonder if Peter Bishop was alert to the centrality of the Brassicaceae or Cabbage family in Pacific Northwestern year-round diets when he wrote in The Greening of Psychology: “What better way to touch the ground than through cabbages.”
What’s my favorite fruit or vegetable? That depends on how my garden grows, and the emerging peak taste and availability of the day. During June, it’s more than likely peas, favas, and strawberries, then cherries, sweetening with the heat, the beginning of the fresh-fruit tsunami; in high summer, sweet-corn minutes from harvest, and mixed salads dressed with borage and nasturtium flowers; in mid-winter, keeping-varieties of apples and pears, canned plums and peaches, and a cornucopia of fresh greens; in January, kales, sweetened by bitter cold; in February, it’s Brussels sprouts in my favorite, simplest recipe, an Anglo-Asian hybrid reflecting my culinary lineage; in March, freshly dug carrots before they finally succumb to the rigors of winter, grated into fresh, red cabbage ‘slaw; in April, over-wintered leeks and chard and sprouting broccoli; in May, a bolt-resistant, superfast-to-maturity, spring-planted bok choi I am currently de-hybridizing; and so on, each local day gifting its own particular, delicious, healthful, downward pull. Gradually, cumulatively, my life and my context share a common bio-cultural integrity. With each passing year, I deepen the conduit to the source of my life, breathing more naturally and easily for it, relishing the profound meaningfulness of a trajectory made all the more extraordinary for its intensifying ordinariness. On a cross-country seed-swapping trip almost a decade ago, I recall the wise words of an Oklahoma backwoodsman: “There ain’t nothin’ simple ‘bout simple living, Nick”, echoing, perhaps, an insight of Thomas Merton: “the age of miracles is but the age of naturalness.”
And occasionally, the continuum of experience, the groundwork carrying me forward, enfolds into a miracling-point when a veil parts the day-to-day particulars of growing and being grown by my world to proffer a Report-Card on what it is to become more Real. It was thus with no small measure of reverence that I opened to the surging mystery coming radiantly alive around my act of medicine-making this past February. In an exquisite crystallization of meaningfulness, each step I took into my garden became a stroke of my heart, where the darkness of my illness and worries, and the bright star of a vital reciprocity, dwelled together. In the grounded, groggy ordinariness of a visit to my living pharmacopoeia, every cell of me wholeheartedly identified with a particularized Intimacy dynamically supporting my foundational wellbeing and, as I approached each plant, an immense, singular, giving presence met me. In a rapture of celebration and gratitude, my body and the precious shelter of my little garden home were united in the unlimited depths of an indigenous, primal kinship. The geography of my heart, life and destiny, and that of my garden were held as One.
Ultimately, the infinitude of influences which shape an individual moment and world asks of us a respect for a mystery that lies beyond our understanding and control. We surrender to the overarching veracity of a vast, mostly unseen, energy event. And, to the degree we align our vision, understanding, values and choices to a foundational harmony wholly and uniquely available and intelligible to us (only) at precisely those co-ordinates we geographically inhabit, we enter a new level of existence, crossing the bridge between what we can accomplish on our own, and that which requires help from beyond us. From the perspective of quantum physicist David Bohm: “If we have a coherent approach to reality, reality will have a coherent approach to us.” In this regard, a co-evolutionary relationship with our immediate habitat harkens back to the Deus humanus described by Renaissance philosophers, the wedding of earth and heaven, human and divine. As Stewart Brand framed it in his down-to-earth introduction to the original Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods, we may as well get good at it.”
Getting good at paradise-making is not, however, a quest for an ossified cultural fantasy of a bug-free Utopia populated by lifeguards and swimsuit models with flawless abs, pecs, metabolisms, fashion sense, grade point averages and social skills. Rather, the territory of heaven-of-earth reveals itself in the ongoing effort to engage fully with life ‘as is’, including the inevitable, named and unnamed, unredeemed (and, in many cases, irreparable) deficiencies that round out a Real life. Here, we are called to shed the tenacious grip of a pervasive psychological charade – ‘the thought that you are so exalted that in your refined state you would be perfect’. As the quickest of glances at a magazine stand confirms, this illusory, ego-driven ideal of ‘normalcy’ fuels the impetus of much of modern life, reducing the tolerable and deeply ennobling burden of necessity in our lives to the intolerable, excruciating confines of a cultural viewpoint which perceives failure and imperfection as aberrant, a dysfunction or abnormality. If we can only cure ourselves and others of the darkness, we tell ourselves, then our foundational happiness will be realized - in an as-yet, hoped-for, promised ‘fix’. All told, the inclination amounts to a tragedy of epic proportions: in our inability to see and accept the mystery of ourselves as life makes us – a blindness reinforced, of course, by an unprecedented flow of commercial images schooling us in unattainable images of perfection – we stand back from embracing our wholeness, the discovery of our foundational well-being, our unique and essential beauty.
Many of us are no strangers to the truth that beauty is not all brightness; indeed, that it is usually only in life’s most awkward rooms that the special blessings and healings are locked away. As such, challenges such as illness, especially in its serious and chronic forms, can offer a path to profound, otherwise concealed treasures to be unearthed only in the art of deep suffering - “the exquisite crystallization of soul in the midst of turmoil,” as someone in my notes put its. The immense riches to be unearthed in this fecund territory remain largely unacknowledged by contemporary medicine and psychology and, for the most part, religion, which perceive the flaw, fundamentally, as an enemy, to be overcome. But if we remain faithful to the secret light and vital energy found in this deeply challenging force for growth, we are called to an ethic of authenticity and integrity enabling us to peer through and beyond the literal, temporal facts of our limitations. Here, we may encounter a deep purpose and harmony, a level of self-acceptance and integration, a dignity and peace, a letting go and coming home, to be unearthed only in the conflicted Darkness where we ourselves become a light burned for its luminosity. As Keats describes it, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m categorically not proffering a paean to indulging in suffering, masochistic narcissism, going to war upon ourselves, nor indeed to ascetic mortifications, none of which are quite my cuppa herbal tea even as I have flirted outrageously with them all. The difference between seeking pain and accepting suffering is vast. I am, however, echoing insights which suggest that in perceiving life’s limits and deficiencies as a natural unfolding in which our understanding and will are step by step defeated by life itself transforming us (Meister Eckhart: “we are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do,” and Rilke: “Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings”), we put down a simplistic view of human life, opening to the rich, transfiguring potential of Beauty’s complex fullness, transcending the shallow confines of a favored portion that looks and feels superficially positive or is physically healthy and emotionally together. As Thomas Moore, whose work has elaborated extensively around this theme, explains: “In a very real sense, we do not cure diseases, they cure us.” And, of course, our curative diseases also embrace the deficiencies of our context - the psychopathologies of delusion and their associated behaviors, for example - and the profoundly challenging and sometimes harrowing demands of learning how to meet them with discernment and compassion as they present themselves. Sometimes, it is all we can do to hang on until time ripens, the winds shift and the flow of life is renewed at another level. Hence the supreme dictum of the Buddhist sage, Shantideva: “There is no discipline as effective as patience.” Perhaps such courageous persistence is what the Christian tradition understands, elementally, as faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” (Hebrews 11:1), and a core teaching of the Gospels as interpreted by the Sufi master, Pir-O-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan: “What Christ came to teach was faith.” A practice through death.
Fully embracing the Real, therefore, is a maturing process, an intensification of life and feeling, in which we dwell longer and more deeply in life’s challenges as well as pleasures. In effect, we do not so much restore suffering to our lives – it and the consequences of its repression are with all of us, no matter how numbing our denial - but the art of suffering, an aesthetic which allows us to recover and revitalize an understanding that links suffering with beauty and, as innumerable observers from the Buddha to Keats to the contemporary surgeon-writer Richard Selzer have described, beauty’s finest light with truth. Ultimately, then, it is not suffering itself, but the powers elicited by consciously assuming and transmuting the troubles and pains of existence, complementing the glad, that prove integral to the birth of paradisal consciousness.
True homecoming, then, encompasses an interior coming-to-terms mirroring the outer requirements of settling in. In accepting the fragile barque of our mortality, we embrace a life lived within humane limits, “Or put it this way,” Georges Bataille notes, “humanity is divine when experiencing limits.” And it is precisely at the locus where our essential humanness comes to ground in communion with the functional cosmology of life-on-earth that integral-gardeners have stumbled upon the emergent phenomenon of heaven-of-earth. Upon this threshold, the apparent divisions between now and here, inside and outside, self and other, local and universal, rest and motion, psyche and world, meaning and chaos, our individual autobiographies and the story of the Earth, dissolve in the unifying embrace that metamorphosis effects and requires. In the integrity and fullness of a vital coherence in which the passionate complexity and intensity of our everyday lives find inclusion and compensation with the deep ecologies of landscape and all that lives, Paradise arises. “Perhaps the magnetic tension of beauty,” suggests John O’Donohue, “issues precisely from the threshold where passionate extremes come into balance.”
That the tabernacle of homecoming is emerging as the crucible for a gathering, synthesis and integration at the heart of reality should, in a sense, come as no surprise because home, after all, is where we live. At this nexus, home-centered healing defines an incarnational apex of sorts. “Illness,” as Mircea Eliade observes, “is the point of departure for the process of personality integration and for a radical spiritual transformation.” Where this process identifies with our immediate habitat, our experience transcends the scientific sense of therapeutic methods of cure and treatment to assume a care in which the act of healing and journey of homecoming reveal themselves as one and the same - our primary pathway into Awakening. Here, our most pressing and greatest vulnerabilities reveal themselves as our most precious strengths, pathways freeing us fully to the native generosity of what most deeply nurtures our health, happiness, sense of wellbeing and meaning. Here, the philosopher Frederick Turner’s definition of beauty as “the highest integrative level of understanding and the most comprehensive capacity for effective action, enabling us to go with, rather than against, the deepest tendency or theme of the universe,” confirms the ultimate pragmatism of a life surrendered to a heartfelt bridge between two solitudes, Beauty’s homeland and ours. Upon this living altar, Rilke’s passionate invocation to the metamorphosis of lovers, “Let them into one another sink so as to endure each other outright”, garlands our entry to Paradise and the perfection of a moment upon a garden path where the June scent of freshly-harvested peppermint, held in the hand and inhaled, fills an immensity.
“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of lesser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags, and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.” - T.H. White, The Once and Future King.
“Well, I can only teach you two things - to dig, and to love your home. These are the true ends of philosophy.” - T. H. White, The Once and Future King.
“Shamanism is not, in these traditional societies, a terribly pleasant office. Shamans are not normally allowed to have any political power, because they are sacred. The shaman is to be found sitting at the headman's side in the council meetings, but after the council meeting he returns to his hut at the edge of the village. Shamans…are called on in crisis, and the crisis can be someone dying or ill, a psychological difficulty, a marital quarrel, a theft, or weather that must be predicted.” – Terence McKenna.
Phew. Long one, that. In the third and concluding chapter of Got Snot? I hope to focus on the integrative particulars of local native and non-native respiratory anti-virals, and the bio-cultural ecology of paradox. Until then, please take a looksee at the recently-updated guide to winter cropping in the Southern Willamette Valley. It’s prime seeding time, friends.
July 4, 2009
Got Snot? Part I is here.
July 4, 2009