Friday, July 26, 2013

The Bewitchment of our intelligence by language.

Highlighted by the setting sun, three lilly pads,
 having fought to the surface through dark, 
algae-clogged water, reveal the perseverance, 
mystery, and transcendental beauty of life.
CC Jean Stimmell 

“Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced”  – Rilke

I like this quote by Rilke so much that this is the second time I have written about it in my blog. The first entry by that name, back on September 27, 2011, includes an ethereal photograph of Cadillac Mountain and a magical quote by Alan McGlashan. Today, you are viewing a straight photograph of the last sunbeams of the day illuminating three lilly pads combined with my own musings about the role language has played in making life into a problem rather than a sublime mystery to be experienced.

When you think about it, the only direct knowledge we have of this ongoing mystery we call life is our moment-by-moment sensory awareness of it.  If we are in our natural state, attuned to spirit of what it is to be human, our senses, instincts, and intuition bind us into the world, connecting us directly to our fellow humans, other sentient beings, Mother Earth, and the universe beyond.

Cognition – thinking about what we have experienced, comes later – and, in moderation – is a valuable addition, fueling our human evolution. Unfortunately, in today’s overly rational, materialistic society, we have taken cognition too far, spurning what our direct senses and intuition tell us. 

Disavowing the infinite richness of our primal selves, we are now trying to subsist on abstract knowledge alone, a thin gruel made up solely of words, words and more words, building blocks upon which we have built an empty edifice which we have arrogantly proclaimed to be the one and only reality – and had it blessed by our newest incarnation of our supreme god whose name is Science.

We forget that words are only a socially constructed map, one of many we could choose to navigate by; we forget that our word map is not the real flesh-and-blood territory[1] of our pulsating, ever-changing world. 

But hope is on the horizon!

At last, we are finally re-learning what indigenous people always knew about the nature of language: “Oral, storytelling cultures wield words in a very different way [from us]. For such folk traditions, language is not primarily a tool for getting at or figuring out the world, but more a way of binding oneself into the world.”[2]

Social constructionists and philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein have been instrumental in recapturing the spirit of this indigenous ethic in a postmodern manifesto that denies that words, in and of themselves, have any ultimate validity.

Wittgenstein, probably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century tells us that while we can look up a word in the dictionary, that doesn’t necessarily tell us how it functions in the real world.  In order to do that, he says, we must determine the particular meaning our friends, acquaintances and society place on the words they use and how that meaning shifts over time, something he calls "learning to play the language game," a game where knowledge is always provisional because it is based on an ongoing dialogue that never ends.

Harlene Anderson[3] describes this process as “a way to find meaning and understanding which are constantly interpreted, re-interpreted, clarified and revised. In other words, dialogue is a process and therefore a generator, of possibilities.”

Knowledge, seen in this new postmodern light, is no longer fixed and static but relational and open ended. It’s a whole new way of experiencing the world. In the words of Janice DeFehr, such an open-ended dialogue becomes more than just a conversation, it becomes “a discursive way, joint action and a philosophy of life.”[4]

How we define our reality is more than idle philosophical speculation. It has immense ramifications going far beyond mere political posturing, cutting to the root of the culture war that is raging around us. Wittgenstein called it the “battle against the bewitchment of our [native] intelligence by means of language.”

[1] paraphrasing Gregory Bateson
[2]  David Abrams
[3], [4]  Of Crabs and Starfish: Ancestral Knowledge and Collaborative Practice 
Rocio Chaveste and Papusa (Maria Luisa) Molina

Monday, July 22, 2013

Joan Didion, Blogs, Vietnam, Childhood, and Carl Jung

Mouth of the Mekong River, Vietnam
CC Jean Stimmell: 1966

Joan Didion comments in her essay "On Keeping a Notebook": Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.[1]

Keeping my blog is a modern equivalent of Joan’s notebook and, alas, I can't deny often dwelling on myself, recounting my recollections and dreams. Is this a clear indication my old mind has slipped its moorings like those ancient ships we passed, just before heading up the Mekong River in Vietnam in 1966, or is it possible that, instead, my old mind is purifying itself, regressing back to the unfettered bliss of the very young as Carl Jung attempted in his old age, to dwell happily in dreams, myth, and the collective unconsciousness. 

Postscript: It was after midnight when I finished this blog entry and I went straight to bed. Before shutting off the light, I reached for a book to relax my brain after a long day. Among many choices, I grabbed the Tao Te Ching [2] and randomly flipped it open.  The first stanza I read is a good example of what Jung called synchronicity:

“Know the male,
yet keep to the female:
receive the world in your arms.
If you receive the world,
the Tao will never leave you
and you will be like a little child.”

Was this Carl Jung’s motivation in old age to return to childhood?

“If you accept the world,
the Tao will be luminous inside you
and you will return to your primal self."

[1] Essay in Joan Didion’s anthology: Slouching toward Bethlehem p. 136
[2] Tao Te Ching translated by Steven Mitchell, Harper & Row, 1988, page 28

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Dream about Rebirth...

Revolt Against Oppression by Michelle Gumpert

My Dream  7/18/13:
Russet and I wake up early, just as the sun is rising, and are amazed to look out our big picture window and see a huge herd of animals: geese, ducks, turkeys, deer, wild boar, puffins, a black gazelle with stiletto horns, among many others, milling about as they pass by, filling our yard all the way to the road and extending as far as we can see into the woodsy meadow beyond, while at the same time, the air is erupting into chaos as birds of all descriptions, careen this way and that.

Our ancient cat, her long-deceased mother, and four adorable kittens (whom exist only in the dream) scramble on top of a tall stack of cordwood by our cellar door, all in a frenzy, leaping time after time into the air, trying to catch the low flying songbirds hurtling past.

What it felt like:
I felt like I was looking out on the Serengeti Plains at the end of the dry season, at the exact moment when rains have finally come, turning brown to green, triggering the greatest annual animal migration on earth. It felt like rebirth!

What it looked like:
Michelle Gumpert calls her abstract painting at the top of the page, Revolt against Oppression. Because her painting creates vibrations inside me of the same urgency and wave length as in my dream, I think Rebirth would also be a worthy title: From both, I get a strong felt sense of positive energy, long suppressed, surging upward from the untamed wildness and creative imagination of Nature and Jung’s Collective Unconsciousness. Even the blue objects in the upper third of her abstract painting coincide with my dream, looking to me like the swooping songbirds the cats were leaping to catch.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Coming of Age in the Sixies

Part I: growing up in the repressive 1950s

Even in the 1950s, a stealth wave was gathering force
CC Jean Stimmell: 7/10/13
Strangely, out of the blue, I started having what Jung called “Big Dreams.” Interpreting them with my Jungian analyst brought out a flood of repressed emotion. My analyst first suspected my tears were a manifestation of depression, but my anguish apparently is more a reflection of impacted grief: a combination of nostalgia for the 1960s and longing for lost youth.

We grew up in the 1950s serenaded by a constant lullaby that we lived in the best of all possible worlds. The road to my rosy future was to follow the rules, put my nose-to-the-grindstone, and be hormonally frustrated by light petting because “good girls” didn’t put out, all done in the service of following the American dream: growing up to get some vacuous, pencil-pushing job that would provide the means to purchase a ricky-ticky little house in some suburban wilderness with all the modern “labor-saving appliances, along with 2.5 children, a dog, a white picket fence, and a wife that was the perfect robotic helpmate like Mrs. Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver.

In a variation of the movie, Wally’s World, we lived on a stage set directed by Lawrence Welks, Lassie, John Wayne and Uncle Walt Disney broadcasting a mind-numbing agent, the equivalent of the psychotropic drug, Thorazine, which was also being used at the time to sedate our fellow citizens in mental institutions across the land.

Underneath, we all felt a diffuse free-floating fear and existential dread. Although we couldn’t articulate it, our middle class life was a fantasy, a cozy white cloud projection based on massive denial about what was going on around us: lynchings, unjust wars, massive poverty, sexual repression, gross discrimination, paranoia and ever-present anxiety ratcheted up by real-life nightmares like the bomb shelters the government encouraged our parents to build and duck-and-cover exercises we practiced in grammar school, as if that would protect us from the inevitable Russian nuclear attack.

Cultural conditions were still about the same when I dropped out of college in 1964, resulting in an unplanned sabbatical to Vietnam. Imagine my surprise when I returned from war to a whole new world: a rising tide of unleashed emotion and spirited protest against the stale, gray world I grew up in. What a rush!  I felt the very fibers of my being coming alive like the lush, long fibers of a shag carpet, slowly unfurling and recovering their natural loft, after being crushed by the deadweight of 100,000 cold war bureaucrats.

Certainly one aspect of our awakening was tribal bliss, a bacchanal of sensual abandonment, celebrating our arrival in the promised land after spending our childhood’s locked in the barren, spooky cellar of 1950s repression. Our childhood brainwashing that Americans were the most perfect of all people, living in the greatest nation on earth, blessed even by God himself, began to fade away along with crew-cuts, suit coats, neckties, and girdles. As we emerged from the dark denial our childhood, we discovered new horizons, more far-reaching, authentic, and diverse than we could have imaged.

Part 2: Coming of Age in the Sixties

The cresting wave ushering in the Age of Aquarius
CC Jean Stimmell 7/11/13
Introduction to Part II: As we emerged from the dark denial of our childhoods and came of age in the Sixties, we found ourselves swept up in a paradigm-shifting wave of rapid social change causing us to embrace new horizons, more far-reaching, authentic, and diverse than we could have ever imagined. 
Entrenched authority was being challenged at every turn: The civil rights movement, personified by Martin Luther King, opened our eyes to how black Americans were treated more like farm animals than human beings in many places in our country because of state sanctioned discrimination, disenfranchisement, violence and routine lynchings. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.  The movement soon blossomed to fight for equal rights for other victims of discrimination: women, gay, lesbian, Native American, Hispanic…the list kept expanding, and rightfully so, to include just about everyone but privileged white men.

The word was finally getting out.

Although rivers were catching on fire because of pollution, it took Rachael Carson’s book, Silent Spring, detailing how pesticides were ravaging nature, to jumpstart a resurgent environmental movement. Michael Harrington published to instant acclaim, The Other America, detailing for the first time in the mainstream media the extent of “invisible poverty” in America. How could we have been so morally obtuse and visually handicapped, even if we were segregated in our suburban havens and gated communities, not to apprehend that 25% or more of our fellow citizens were living in abysmal poverty.

And then, of course, there was the Vietnam War where we lost over 58,000 of our brothers and sisters in a war against Ho Chi Minh, who lead a national movement for liberation for more than three decades, first against the Japanese, then the French, and finally the Americans. He fashioned his declaration of independence after ours and was considered the George Washington of his country. 

Before America exhausted itself in our war against Vietnam independence, we carpet-bombed Vietnam for over a decade, saturated its soils with deadly pesticides and killed millions of Her citizens, mostly civilian men, woman, and children.  Vietnam was an object lesson in the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower warned us about a decade earlier. With the blindfold ripped off, we could see for the first time with fresh eyes how many of the wars we had fought for "freedom and democracy” were, in reality, patriarchal wars to dominate, control, and, perhaps most important of all, to provide unfettered access for corporate plundering around the world.

These were incredibly exhilarating times to live through, throwing off the cultural straightjacket of the 1950s, regressing to what is really real: the earthiness of nature, the sensuality of our bodies, our deep intimacy with our cohorts all sharing an identical mindset, and our increasing compassion and empathy with minorities of all stripes and third-world people around the world.  The solidarity was tribal in nature.

In turn, our tribal solidarity fed into, supported, and magnified the social movements, I’ve already mentioned, causing them to gather strength everyday, building like a huge tsunami wave, so big that when– and it was only a matter of time – it would crash over America, changing everything, ushering in the Age of Aquarius. 

Part 3: Aquarius Aborted

 Aquarius Aborted
CC Jean Stimmell 7/11/13

Introduction to Part III:
The 1960s were incredibly exhilarating times to live through, throwing off the cultural straightjacket of the 1950s, regressing to what is really real: the earthiness of nature, the sensuality of our bodies, our deep intimacy with our cohorts all sharing an identical mindset, and our increasing compassion and empathy with minorities of all stripes and third-world people around the world.  The solidarity was tribal in nature.

Our tribal solidarity, in turn, feed into, supported, and magnified the social movements, I’ve already mentioned, causing them to gather strength everyday, building like a huge tsunami wave, so big that when– and it was only a matter of time – it would crash over America, changing everything, ushering in the Age of Aquarius:

Our tribal enthusiasm, born of collective solidarity, gave us supreme confidence we were being swept along on the crest of an unstoppable wave, destined to wash away all obstacles, ushering in a new society of peace and happiness. The unfortunate downside of this was our naïve assumption that this collective triumph would automatically translate into personal happiness in our individual lives, without having to do any work on ourselves.

None of that!

No delayed gratification, no grueling individual hardships, no wandering in the dark forest in search for who we were and uncovering what our unique mission in life was supposed to be. All we had to do is go with the flow…at least that was the unspoken assumption of too many of us.
Hunter Thompson, author and infamous originator of “Gonzo” journalism was, in many ways cynical and hard-core, but even he was driven to rave poetically about the potential of this mythical wave we were riding:

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour...but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: no doubt at all about that...

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil.  Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that.   Our energy would simply prevail.  There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs.  We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.[1]

There is a sad postscript to this story: Hunter Thompson committed suicide in 2005, probably from the same impacted grief I was suffered from. Many of us of my generation have such impacted grief, stemming, I believe, from two sources:

First and foremost, we were devastated when the new age we thought was inevitable was traumatically aborted, dashing our hopes for a kinder, gentler, more peaceful world based on social justice and compassion, a new world that would celebrate the innate worth of not only each human being but every sentient being  – as opposed to our current Military-Industrial-Media-Complex parroting Ayn Rand’s creed extolling the survival of the fittest.

The second cause of our impacted grief was personal. The magical bombast of the 1960s combined with the intense collective tribal identity caused us, as I mentioned before, to neglect the hard work of working on ourselves, learning to individualize and self-actualize into the unique individuals, each of us were meant to be.

Joseph Campbell, famous mythologist and sixties icon, was clued in to all of this, as evidenced by this quote: “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn't, you've got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.”[2]

Our public dream in the 1960s was riding that awesome wave, so well described by Hunter Thompson, surging in, unstoppable, poised to wash over us, baptizing us all into the Age of Aquarius.  Tragically, as we all know now, that wave crested prematurely, reversed directions, started to recede, and still continues its tragic ebb today, returning us to the corporate mentality of the 1950s along with the return of rising poverty, inequality, and a pervasive feeling of existential dread – this time not from fear of nuclear attack by godless Russians but terrorist attacks by heathen Muslims.

Campbell is correct: We are strangers in a strange land and when that happens, like it or not, we have no choice but to do the hard work to find our way to an authentic life.  It’s not easy. As he tells us, you have to blaze your own trail: “You enter the forest 
at the darkest point,
 where there is no path.

 Where there is…path, 
It is someone else's path.

 If you follow someone else's way,
you are not going to realize
 your potential.” [3]

That’s why I’m working with my Jungian analyst, wise woman, blazing a trail out of the dark forest. It’s never too late.  And it is a grand adventure.


[1] Songs of the Doomed, Hunter Thompson, pp. 140-141