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Seeing with Gratitude

This Shabbat, July 29th, is “Shabbat Chazon,” (or Hazon), because of the first word of the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for this Shabbat.  Chazon means “vision,” namely the vision of Isaiah who in the first chapter of his book lamented the sins of the people, warned of destruction, and yet proclaimed that “Zion will be redeemed with justice” and the city would yet be the “faithful city.” He could witness to the terrible things that had been done and yet could “see through” to a better end.

So we now call it the Shabbat of Vision because, even though we as Jews are in a time of mourning for past destructions, we can also “see through” to a better future.

In my last post I wrote about the work of imagination, the way we learn to see through to a higher level.  One of the ways we do this, in Judaism, is by saying blessings.  A blessing is a verbal acknowledgment not only of our gratitude but also of the potential that is yet to be unfolded.  It is Jewish practice to say a blessing before eating something (as well as after), such as “Blessed are You, Lord….. Who created the fruit of the tree” over an apple, recognizing that a potential will come to us through the apple that we have not yet even tasted.

Frequently in everyday life we express thanks after we have received something, so we think of gratitude as coming “after.” But if we have not yet used the gift, we don’t know yet what it will mean in our lives.  We may have a glimmer, as we contemplate the present we have just opened, but the future is yet unknown. This is also a “seeing through” or seeing beyond.

During a time of mourning – such as the Three Weeks which will end this coming Tuesday — we don’t buy new things, give gifts, or arrange happy celebrations such as weddings.  Yet we do still say blessings every morning for what we have received.  Even when things don’t look good, we are thankful for another day to live and for the capacity to see beyond.

Gratitude is central to a good life precisely because it “sees the good,” setting the foundation for looking beyond.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the great Hasidic masters, made “seeing the good” one of his core teachings.  Likewise Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine, wrote that gratefulness is “the heart of prayer.”

Gratitude and blessing settle the heart into a state of goodness and happiness, if only for a short while.  It is definitely “worth while.”

Spiritual Climate Change

The political climate in this country is hot and uncomfortable.

The polis, the political arena, should be a vital public sphere where people seek to agree on common values. With that agreement and a common commitment, lawmakers should formulate policies and programs that express those values, pass the laws needed to implement the programs (pay for them and protect them against unlawful use).  The executive branch should embody those values as well.

But we can only have meaningful politics, a vital public life, if we are clear about shared values.  Values – our concepts of worth and esteem – are discovered through Imagination.  And imagination is a spiritual dimension of life.

Imagination is what happens when our core being reaches into higher sources of beauty and goodness. Those sources are real, not fantasized.  They constitute the Imaginal World.*

Imagination operates most freely from a place of contemplation, concentration, or dreaming – an altered state of consciousness, free of ego, without willful need to decide.

Imagination in a waking state comes when you “see through” the ordinary world to its original order or source.  Examples:

  • You “see through” a line of poetry when you grasp the deeper meaning of its metaphor.
  • You “see through” a person’s kindness action when you are moved, you sense its source coming from a place of original goodness.
  • You “see through” a tree when you recognize in its form both its original “treeness” and the forces – wind and rain and earth – that have shaped its distinctive form.
  • You “see through” the process of death when you enter a house of mourning and feel the thin veil that separates the mourners from the beloved.

The word “seeing” is being used metaphorically here, as you can “see” from the above. Hearing, feeling, all the inner as well as outer senses enter into our perception of the Imaginal World.

When we achieve, or are graced with, an imaginative perception, there is a sense, if only lightly and temporarily, of “being at home.”  A feeling of:  “This is what was meant to be.” “This is what it means to see.”

Such imaginative activity also can occur when we encounter things that have been disturbed or destroyed. We can look at the mass of weeds in an untended garden and, as we say, “see its potential.”  Similarly for a child who has been abused but we “see sparks” of her intelligence and creativity. When things are in complete chaos, we often have to take it slowly, as when we clean up a corner of an attic or basement in order to begin to get a “sight” of how it might come back to order again.  We may have to get rid of a lot of stuff, but then the rest begins to take its place.

How do we apply this to our political life?  We will be just churning our wheels in mud until we have first raised our sights to the level of Imagination.  The political climate will not change until our spiritual climate changes.

Indeed, the very term polis as I used it above is an imaginal perception – the concept that there is a freely created public space of equals, for sharing ideas and hopes of what “our city” can and should be.  Some forty years ago, I read Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, and the idea of the polis has stayed with me ever since. She brought it from ancient Greek philosophical discourse, and “saw through” it, clarified its meaning and drew out its implications for modern society.

So this is the direction we must turn.  We must begin again the work of Imagination, for our common life together, seeing through the morass we have let it become.

But we can start with ordinary life. You can find dozens of examples, every day, of ways you “see through” to the higher / deeper dimensions of your own life and those around you.

Notice them.  Be inspired by your own work of Imagination.

(Share your thoughts, examples, and of course ask questions in the comments section.)

 

 

* This term comes from Henri Corbin, a scholar who specialized in Sufism; it was adopted by James Hillman and other archetypal psychologists who developed Carl Jung’s ideas. (See Tom Cheetham’s books on Corbin, especially All the World an Icon.)  From my perspective in Jewish mysticism, the Imaginal World corresponds in many ways to what Jewish mystics have called the World of Creation (Yetzirah).

Mourning and Returning Home

At this time of year in the Jewish calendar, I think of two stories, episodes in the life of two peoples. I will tell them without names and dates for you to contemplate the parallels.

Story #1:   Once upon a time, a great empire expanded in a series of wars and battles. From the east a new and powerful monarch arose whose armies marched across the lands, bringing many weaker peoples under the empire’s control.

One particular country, however, resisted the conquest. At the beginning, the king of this country had quietly submitted, watching to see what would happen, but after a few years realized that the great empire would destroy the civilization of his ancestors, so he withdrew his support. Then the foreign armies poured forth, and he was killed.

His son, only 18 years old, was left to face the armies. He could not fight their power, and so was taken away into captivity, the land of the conqueror, along with all his princes and soldiers, with the women of the court and the craftsmen and smiths.

The young king’s uncle was appointed king in his place, as the puppet of the great emperor. He reigned eleven years and then rebelled, trying to establish independence. In battle he lost his eyes and was taken away into captivity also, and the capital city and its temple were burnt down.

The young king was not killed, however, and 37 years after being taken prisoner, when he would have been 55, he was released from prison by a new emperor, and was given a place of honor – still in the land of captivity, .

Yet he and his people did not forget their homeland, and waited to be allowed to return. It would be 80 years from the departure of the first exiles and 70 years after the destruction of the great capital city and temple, till a new king, a new dynasty would arise that would allow them to return.

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Story #2.    Once upon a time, a great empire expanded in a series of wars and battles. From the east a new and powerful leader arose whose armies marched across the lands, bringing many weaker peoples under the empire’s control.

One particular country, however, resisted the conquest. At the beginning of the invasion, the head of this country, a holy leader and monarch, had just been appointed head of state. He quietly watched to see what would happen and engaged in peace talks, but it became clear after four years that the talks would not be successful. Meanwhile, the great empire was forcing changes that he foresaw would destroy the civilization of his ancestors. Rebellions were beginning to spread to his capital in the mountains. As the foreign armies came nearer, he was warned that he was likely to be killed.

Only 24 years old, and in a country without strong armies, he knew he could not fight. With help from allies and friends, he fled into hiding in a safe country.

The head of another religious dynasty was appointed in his place, as the puppet of the conquering nation’s government, and that government has continued to control him.

In the land of captivity, the holy monarch spent years helping establish refugee communities and supporting his people. As he approached 40 years of age, his work began to gain international recognition; and by his early 50s he was an honored spiritual teacher worldwide and had gained international support for  the cause of independence for his country.

Now, 68 years after the conquest and 58 years into exile, he and his people have not forgotten their homeland, and still await the freedom to return.

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The first story is in the Bible (see 2 Kings 24-25).  The second is the story of Tibet since 1950 (see, inter alia, Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film Kundun.)

As Jews, we spend three weeks each year contemplating the destruction of our homeland (and the time referred to in this story was not the only time). We entering into mourning, and discover in that emptiness the creative energy to move forward once again.

When we weep, let us weep and pray too for others in our world who have confronted the face of destruction and strive to revive and renew the treasures of their collective life.

 

Stephen Bannon’s Political Revolution

Stephen Bannon is a brilliant and extraordinary assistant to Trump. But he is not Goebbels or Goering.  His acknowledged inspiration, according to an interview last fall, is another famous assistant to a political leader – Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII of England.   Here is a summary from one historical site:

Cromwell’s rise to power was extraordinary and occurred just when Henry needed a minister of great administrative imagination and genius, uninterested in the squabbles of his council and determined to empower the machinery of state. Cromwell entered royal service in early 1530 and, from then on, rose rapidly. In late 1530 [a very short time for a newcomer and a commoner], he was sworn into the King’s Council.[2]

Hmm.  And Bannon has just been appointed to the National Security Council.

Many of the circumstances of Tudor England were different, but Cromwell’s accomplishments indicate what he thought was important:

  • To loosen the hold of the church by dissolving the monasteries and selling their property, thus providing money to the crown
  • Establishing royal supremacy, reducing the power of the “lords” or nobles as well as the church (including royal power over larger territory)
  • Reforming the tax system to be more efficient
  • Using the power of that relatively new invention, the printing-press, and thus spearheading England’s first propaganda campaign.

The site explains:

Cromwell busied himself with … reforming the archaic machinery of Tudor government. In doing so, he continued to ignore Henry’s council of noble peers. When the council did meet, Cromwell dominated the meetings and disregarded most suggestions. To his credit, he was right on most counts; the nobility was quite distanced from the changing nature of government. They were fiercely protective of their own ‘inalienable’ rights as landowners and peers and notoriously difficult when these rights were impugned.

In the USA, we’re not talking about lords and abbots owning land, but about the traditional political leadership and its “rights” and customs.  Remember how the Trump campaign claimed to be not bound to any of the old guard, Republican or Democrat? And many noted that the inaugural speech – reportedly written by Bannon – had nothing good to say about any previous administrations or presidents.

Of course, the details are different from 16th century England. Besides the Catholic/ Protestant and lords/royalties conflict in England, another major difference from today was that foreign policy was deeply connected to alliances through marriage.  Henry VIII’s divorces are famous, but what we don’t realize is that who he married was important for international balance of power.  That’s no longer a factor, so the Cromwell comparison doesn’t work. The similarity is that Cromwell was deeply concerned about, and involved in, international alliances that might negatively affect England.

Bannon is extremely well informed about international affairs and sees the last two administrations – Bush’s as well as Obama’s — as wrong-headed. He has indicated in interviews that he sees American interests having given way to creating a middle class in Asia. (I haven’t seen comments from him about Russia.)  His fierce concern for America as a nation is in line with the president’s.  I’m not convinced he’s a “white nationalist” himself but he needed that support to enable Trump to beat out all the other Republican contenders, and Breitbart was a safe host for them.  Now, the message – quite clear in President Trump’s inaugural address – is “America first”:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.  (January 20, 2017)

American citizenship is the key – and it will be much harder to get. Racial issues will be diluted – as indicated in the inclusion of African-American and Hispanic religious leaders in the group that gave the invocations and benedictions.  BUT that doesn’t mean diversity is welcome. That group was by no means diverse, despite different skin colors. Religious and ideological diversity is what will be in contention. I will comment on that in another post.

What Bannon seems to be aiming for is what Thomas Cromwell organized for Henry VIII:  extending direct control by the Executive branch over as many decisions as possible.  Instead of multi-national trade agreements, make them bilateral – each one with only two parties. That prevents two ganging up against one and, given the USA’s powers in many areas, makes it more likely that Trump can come out ahead.

Bannon is certainly orchestrating the media issue – just as Thomas Cromwell took advantage of the new printing press to propagandize. Trump’s use of Twitter was completely unorthodox, but Bannon saw its tremendous immediate-impact value, short-circuiting the “front page” and making tweets themselves the subject of headlines.  Remarkable!  He has attempted to humiliate the mainstream press – which will throw them off balance for a while, but it won’t be a successful long-term strategy. It buys time – so that in a few months, after seeing some results from executive decisions, he will be able to tout some achievements that the press will have to report.  In the meantime, sowing confusion through challenging the media helps Trump.

Now, with the promotion of Trump’s personal advisers to seats on the National Security Council, and the effective demotion of the National Intelligence Director and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attendance only when necessary, we’re seeing a shift with great potential significance. Whether this is about sealing potential leaks or actual policy differences is yet to be seen.

Some may argue with the idea, stated above, that he is not Goebbels or Goering.  I would say this: yes, he shares with Goebbels a recognition of the power of media (in Goebbels time, the new radio) and the centralization of power, but Goebbels was ego-driven and had no respect for the working classes or the people as a whole. He was devoted to the power class. Goering is even further afield – he was a military man, and the main similarity is one common to most autocrats, his desire to extend Germany’s power and wealth.

Bannon’s saving grace may be his devotion to the working class, from which he himself came, even though his personal income far transcends those roots.  If that remains a true moral compass for him, and if he can convince Trump that it is key to his continued power (as in, re-election), he may be able to ensure that new policies do not make things harder on ordinary people – as, for example, high tariffs on imports are likely to do, if they are imposed on ordinary consumer goods.

Bannon’s biggest challenge may be constructing a new story that will gradually induce more independents – often with more liberal views on personal issues, and more cosmopolitan in their experience – to embrace a nationalist agenda.  Too often nationalism has been associated with jingoism, war, and prejudice.  Many in Trump’s administration want to make it Christian nationalism as well – not a good idea.  Religion is a tricky sea to navigate, as Thomas Cromwell knew, and I’m sure Stephen Bannon does as well.

I do sincerely wish Mr. Bannon a far better end than Thomas Cromwell.

 

The Forest and the Trees

We don’t often face a stunning surprise in our collective political life.  The biggest surprises in our society are usually the latest whiz-bang gadgets. Occasionally there are unpleasant surprises, like a Katrina or an epidemic – but we accept that nature has its own dynamics, usually favorable to human life but not always.  Every once in a while there’s a terrifying shock from outside like a 9-11 or 12-7 (last week was the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor) or, sadly, a murderer on the loose.

We don’t like bad surprises, so we have a highly developed alert system. We prophesy doom much more quickly than we process goodness, because being ready for doom can be life-saving.  We communicate intensely and profusely when we suspect something dangerous might be lurking around the corner.  But sometimes we are still caught off guard.  That’s what happened this election season.

So what do we do with unhappy surprises?  Let’s not go to life-threatening.  Just think of times in your life when you were extremely disappointed.  The trip that got canceled because your little brother got sick at the last minute.  The promised birthday gift that didn’t arrive – never arrived, because your dad had lost his job. Your fiancé suddenly broke off the engagement.  We all have our own versions, some that don’t seem important later, and others that still hurt.  Some were even life-changing.

Emotionally, we go through the manifestations of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance (not necessarily in that order). With the election, it’s like this:

Denial:  There’s something wrong with the vote count. Let’s get recounts in key states.
Anger:  Spout off about the latest outrage to your friends and on Facebook.
Bargaining:  Can we convince electors in the Electoral College to change their vote?
Depression:  Sink into apathy, and shut down talking about it.
Acceptance:  This doesn’t mean “it’s all okay,” or “we’re normalizing”; it just means that you are ready to re-set, like a car alarm that has been buzzing incessantly, till you’re finally able to turn it off and address the problem.

Now the brain kicks in, from a calmer state.  We can’t change what happened, but perhaps we can deal with some the negative effects of the unpleasant surprise. We can call this strategizing.  How can we keep this from getting worse or happening again?  We begin banding together:  Creating campaigns to write to Senators concerning Cabinet appointments, channeling donations to your party or to other organizations that can help, maybe even volunteering your own time.

But here’s where the title of this essay comes in:  the problem of the Forest and the Trees.  Strategizing is necessary but sometimes kicks in too early. Your brain will work on any problem you give it to solve.  If you aren’t clear about the goal, it will do its habitual thing, which is rework the problem that seems most up front.  You missed this vacation? Plan the next one.  Didn’t get that promotion?  Figure out how to spruce up your resume.

Politically, the equivalent is figuring out how to win the next election.  (And our brain loves it when we give it a win-lose situation to solve).

But this is where we get lost in the Trees.  Winning an election is not the goal.  Elections are a means to a goal.  The goal is a good, healthy society.  Elections are the way we choose people we want to be our representatives in deciding on policies and laws that will give us the framework for a good society. Elections are the way to plant the next bunch of Trees.

But our society – that’s the Forest.  Seeing the Forest means stepping back, looking up and around, maybe getting into a helicopter so we can see the entire area before we decide what to do next.

That’s what we mean when we say we need people with vision. 

The frustration with “Washington” is that millions of our citizens think no one has been up in that helicopter for a long time. They’re following somebody’s old map. They’re just paid to circle around. Or, they just hop in and take it on a pleasure trip. There could be fires smoldering in the forest and no one paying attention.

We the People are being called by this election to take our own look at the forest that we call American society.  It’s not okay anymore to just drive down the old lumber roads or trek the familiar paths.

Once we see the big picture, we will be able to set goals and accomplish them.  But first, we have a little trip to take.  Pack a lunch, hop in, and fasten your seat belt. More to come soon.

 

To my followers:  Sorry, I’ve been away from Inner Dimensions for two weeks as I had a conference to attend and preparation for that… thanks for asking!

Finding the Right Names

Our crisis has taken another nose dive.  We are descending into name-calling and scapegoating on all sides.  We have to stop this, and it begins with each of us.

First, a framework:  A biblical story tells of Adam “naming” the animals. Interpretations of this story abound, but I think the story is about language.  The unique gift of human beings is expression of experience through language, in an immense range of communication. Indeed, there are many languages:  expression includes the arts, music, mathematics, and so on.

In that pure state of first creation, Adam was able to find the right the name for each animal. Like all the Edenic stories “before the fall,” this was an ideal.  After the expulsion Continue reading Finding the Right Names

In Recovery – from Moral Trauma

In public writings and private conversations since November 8th, we’ve been trying to come to terms with shock and awe (whether you think it is awful or awesome). It’s more difficult for those whose side lost, but we should not underestimate the effect on all Continue reading In Recovery – from Moral Trauma