Saturday, January 9, 2016

"A Webbed Vision" ~ Reflections on Interdependency and Individualism

"What might we see, how might we act, 
if we saw with a webbed vision?  
The world seen through a web of relationships…
as delicate as spider’s silk, 
yet strong enough to hang a bridge on.”  

Catherine Keller, "From a Broken Web"3



The quote above, from Theologian Catherine Keller, derives from the ancient and original root meaning of the name "Penelope", the "faithful wife of Ulysses".   It is likely that Penelope was originally a Fate or Oracular Goddess before she became demoted in patriarchal Greek mythology, and as such her name meant "with a web on Her face", one who "sees the connections".  I have never forgotten the significance of that.

It's been 5 years since the shooting of beloved Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  Because I lived close to her former office, I saw a candlelit altar develop for her, with so hundreds of  wishes for her recovery and for peace.   Having been witness to this  tragedy in my home town  of Tucson,  which took the lives of 6 people including a child, and remember so many other atrocities committed by men with guns since,  I' ve been  unable to think in terms that are too abstract.  When confronted with the horror of violence, and the heavy pall of grief, the need to experience  inter-dependence, with-in our bodies and with-in the refuge of our imaginations -  is very real and immanent.   We want to know we are not alone, we want to believe we can support each other.

I was struck by  the  way "Together We Thrive" became a  theme echoed throughout Tucson at that time, and a motto that headed healing activities, from President Obama's call for unity, to spontaneous Shrines created throughout Tucson.  Does any of that moment remain?  Congress is trying to end Obama Care, which will end health insurance for millions of people, and one of the most arrogant of exploitative capitalist  billionaires, Donald Trump, is running for President.   As I watch the ongoing corporate greed that is eroding not only our former democracy, but the very life of our planet, and the unreasoned ideology of capitalist "individualism" that in many ways makes that possible in this country.............I don't know.  If I am not my brother's and sister's keeper, and they mine - who is?  Monsanto?  Walmart?  
Altar for Gabrielle Gifford at her office, January 2011, after she was shot 

We urgently need pragmatic ways to create community in today's world.  Could a strong community  have prevented what happened?  Unbalanced individuals will always abound, and lethal weapons are readily available - the American gun culture, and easy access to lethal weapons, ensures the violent deaths continue year after year.  Yet even so, the failure of community speaks to this tragedy.  If we weren't in so many ways a culture of "rugged individualism" where "good fences make good neighbors", and our technology increasingly allows us to insulate ourselves from the so-called "outside world" ... would this young man have received the attention he needed before he erupted in catastrophic violence in 2011?

"The Rugged Individualist" writes sociologist Philip Slater,1 "cheers when needy people are deprived of food, battered women are deprived of protection from brutal husbands, children are deprived of education, because this is "getting government off our backs. "   

This kind of thinking fails in every way to communicate that we live within a vast web of human and environmental inter-dependency, a web that is also very intimate. This is my ultimate Iconic Image, the Great Web of Gaia, the "Webbed Vision" that sees and recognizes the sacred links, the archetype of Spider Woman.  I know my art seems obscure to many, but that is what it derives from, in one image after another.  I can't seem to stop making them, because the Web underlies every aspect of our life.   A successful adult is so because of parents, teachers, community resources, and distant ancestors  that enabled him or her to mature.  And without a sense of belonging and contributing to that continuum as it reaches into future generations,  human beings end up feeling alienated and ultimately without a sense of purpose. They feel disposable, and perceive others as equally disposible.

Which is what an unsustainable, insatiable corporate consumer system, as a placebo for the pain of spiritual and communal isolation, feeds on.  And by the way, local free enterprise is not the same as the kind of souless capitalism we now have.  Within a healthy free enterprise system the wealth circulates within the community - if the baker does well, the   pharmacy does well, if the dressmaker does well, so does the restaurant, and so on.  In what we now have the wealth is removed from the heart of the community to the mega stores, like Walmart, on the outskirts, and all the jobs imported to slave labor overseas, to the loss of all except the very, very wealthy exploiting the situation.  

In tribal societies, survival depended utterly on cooperation, as well as the collective ability to  adapt continually to new environmental challenges, be it drought, invaders, or the exhaustion of resources.  The mythic foundation of any tribe (or civilization) is the template upon which they stand;  a culture with a rigid mythos that cannot adapt and change is doomed to collapse. Without a theology of co-dependency, which we have lost in the advent of mega global capitalism and its "individualism" which benefits only a very, very few individuals, that collapse is apparent.  Because the system, ultimately, cannot adapt, cannot become sustainable, cannot become viable.

"We live in a world today in which the problems we face are all planetary..........." Philip Slater  commented in his last book The Chrysalis Effect,  "the polarization and chaos we see in the world are the effect of a global cultural metamorphosis".   But that metamorphosis, I believe, is based up the profound realization of our inter-dependency in every single way, the "Great Web", a Webbed Vision.  We need this vision, updated and evolving for the challenges of our time.  
I call on artists and other "cultural creatives" to help to make a new mythology for the global tribe

Renunciate theologies (and mythologies) that teach us to renounce the world, the body, and the demands of relationships of every kind, either in service of some abstract "better place" (be it heaven, paradise, enlightenment or nirvana) or in reaction to teachings that degrade earthly life as "impure" or "unreality"..............will not help us, or those who must come after us.  If we're going to speak of "oneness", we need myths that include tremendous, creative diversity within that "oneness", that can include many gods and goddesses, many voices and languages, and many ways to the truth instead of simply eliminating the competition.  Further, our world myth can no longer be simply a human world myth - it must include many evolutions, many other beings within the intimacy of ecosystems.  If we're to survive into sustainability.

"The culture that is holistic is holistic because its reasoning structure is holistic." wrote artist Rafael Montanez Ortiz"The problem we have with holism is that our reasoning is fragmentary, dissectionist, it removes us from relating things, it structures things in separate compartments in order  to "have control".2  Ortiz maintains that if the logic of one's society is relational, you are in a construct that places you in  relation to all things, and thus, develop an  empathic response to all things.   In earlier societies, he believes,  the entire world mythos was about a living world, alive, entangled, conscious, animistic and full of Anima Mundi, the World Soul.  It's no coincidence that this "primitive"  worldview is very close to what science, from Gaia Theory to Quantum Entanglement, is discovering.

Myths, as the "narrative foundation" for  societies, become more meaningful through embodiment, through an actual enactment - through ritual that is engaging and potent.   Culturally in the West we have, by and large, lost our rituals, or they have become weakened through commercialism - witness the sad transformation of Solstice rituals into the meaningless commercialism of Christmas, or the diminishment of the important days of honoring the ancestors into "scary Halloween". 

Our minds aren't just in our skulls, but in  the entire body, which includes the aura and the etheric networks that exist between us and the rest of life.    Whether we're talking about a forest, or another person, abstractions can remove us from the  experience of communion, the immanent ability to sense what is going on.  Abstractions become what is going on.  I have experienced, and helped to create, rituals that were profoundly transformative.  My experiences of the Spiral Dance with Reclaiming, or with the Earth Spirit Community's Twilight Covening, or the Lighting of the Labyrinth at Sirius Rising......will always energize me when I remember them.  Within those magical circles, I entered mythic time and mythic space and mythic mind, and experienced, as Joseph Campbell put it, the "Thou" realm of existence.  That  does not end when you leave the circle.

In 2004, I directed "Restoring the Balance", a non-denominational event devoted to cross-cultural stories of the Great Mother.  Our cast wished to dramatize the need for healing the great Earth Mother.  We chose as our centerpiece the Inuit legend of Sedna, and the rituals of atonement and reciprocity the Inuit perform with their shaman when they believe they have fallen from balance with the life giving Ocean Mother.   Artist Katherine Josten (founder of the Global Art Project) danced the role of  Sedna.  In bringing up the event, she  observed that:


"The work of our group is not to re-enact the ancient goddess myths, but to take those myths to their next level of evolutionary unfolding.  Artists are the myth makers."
In this same spirit, another member of the cast chose to weave a web with the audience as  Grandmother Spider Woman.   Morgana Canady wove a web with 300 people.  In this performance biodegradable cords from “Spider Woman’s Web” were later distributed among cast members, and scattered throughout the desert, symbolically "extending our web".  As part of the Global Art Project an exchange was made with the AFEG-NEH-MABANG Traditional Dance Company, in Cameroon - a part of the weaving.  


 Among the Navajo, infant girls often have a bit of spider web rubbed into their hands so they will "become good weavers".  

May we all now rub a bit of spider web into our hands for the work ahead of us ..........and, like Penelope, may we all now see "with a web on our faces".


1) Phillip Slater, The Chrysalis Effectt (2007)
2) Rafael Montanez Ortiz Ph.D., interview with Lauren Raine for unpublished manuscript (1989)
3) Katherine Keller Ph.D., "From a Broken Web" (1989)
4) Katherine Josten M.F.A., The Global Art Project

9 comments:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

I equate the rugged individualist with the works of Ayn Rand, who Paul Ryan among others follows. The irony is that Ayn Rand was about the power of the corporation, ot of the individual. Great post, Lauren.

Rain-in-the-Face said...

Spooky!

A few hours ago, I had read about the fad in the late 18th century
"Lover's Eye Miniatures" - of antique brooches which had the image of an eye in the center. Created to honor a lover's eye and were popular for a short time at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. Toward the end of their popularity they began to memorialize a loved one who had died. If the person had died, the eye was often surrounded by pearls or included a tear. The pearls symbolized tears.

Wes Hansen said...

The following is chapter 5 from The Dawn of Tantra by Herbert Guenther and Chogyam Trungpa (chpt. 5 was written by Dr. Guenther who was, at the time, Professor Emeritus of Far Eastern Studies at the University of Saskatchewan). It’s a very direct explanation of bodhicitta.

The Indivisibility of Openness and Compassion

I would like to discuss the implications of the following Sanskrit verse:

sunyatakarunabhinnam bodhicittam iti smrtam

"The indivisibility of shunyata and karuna is termed bodhicitta."

Here we have two terms which are of key significance in tantra, shunyata and karuna. The terms are not restricted to the tantric level, but appear fairly early on in the development of the Buddhist tradition. Shunyata was originally an elaboration of the concept of anatman. The meaning of anatman was that there is no abiding principle in things. Later on, shunyata became one of the central concepts of the Mahayana. For the student of tantra, it remains a sort of objective reference of which he must be aware in order to pursue his practice onto further levels of subtlety.

Shunyata is usually translated "emptiness" or "void." These translations are thoroughly misleading, because shunyata is a highly positive term. Unfortunately, the early translators were not very sophisticated and allowed them-selves to be misled by the sense of shunya in ordinary everyday language. In this popular language, if a glass had no water in it, it could be called shunya. But this is not at all the sense of shunyata in Buddhist philosophy.

Shunyata can be explained in a very simple way. When we perceive, we usually attend to the delimited forms of objects. But these objects are perceived within a field. Attention can be directed either to the concrete, limited forms or to the field in which these forms are situated. In the shunyata experience, the attention is on the field rather than on its contents. By "contents," we mean here those forms which are the outstanding features of the field itself. We also might notice that when we have an idea before our mind, the territory, as it were, delimited by the idea is blurred; it fades into something which is quite open. This open dimension is the basic meaning of shunyata.

This openness is present in and actually presupposed by every determinate form. Every determinate entity evolves out of something indeterminate and to a certain extent also maintains its connection with this indeterminacy; it is never completely isolated from it. Because the determinate entity is not isolated from the indeterminacy and because nevertheless there is no bridge between the two, our attention can shift back and forth between one and the other.

The perception of shunyata as openness is connected with the development of what is known as prajna. Because there are some very fantastic translations in vogue of this term prajna, it is worthwhile having a good look at what the term means. There are various words in Sanskrit which refer to the cognitive process. Two most frequently used ones are prajna and jnana. If we look at the words, we immediately notice that both contain the root jna, which signifies the cognitive potentiality. Jnana is the primary formation from this root in the Sanskrit language; in prajna, the same root jna is there with the prefix pra.

Wes Hansen said...

If we look at the Tibetan translations for these terms, we find that the very same root connection has been preserved. The Tibetan for prajna is shes-rab, and for jnana it is ye-shes. In both cases the shes, the cognitive potentiality, is there. Ye means "primordial" or "original." Thus ye-shes refers to primordial awareness. The Sanskrit prefix pra and the Tibetan particle rab have the sense of "heightening" or "intensification." Therefore, shes-rab or prajna refers to an intensification or heightening of the cognitive processes. The cognitive potentiality that is present in everyone is to be developed, intensified, and brought to its highest pitch. To bring this potentiality to its highest pitch means to release it, to free it from all the extraneous material that has accumulated.

What does it mean to free something? In the Western world, freedom has usually been used as a negative term: we speak of freedom from this, freedom from that. The logical conclusion from this usage, a conclusion which nobody likes to draw, is that we must also reach the point of getting rid of freedom from freedom. It does not help to have recourse to the construction of "freedom-to," freedom to do this, freedom to be that. Freedom-to implies subordination to some transcendental hocus-pocus and that makes freedom disappear as quickly as the negative proposition does. We see, then, that freedom cannot be considered as a separate thing relative to something else. It must be itself an existential fact. In this sense, freedom is not something that has to be achieved - it is basic to everything.

Freedom is inherent in all the cognitive processes. Here it helps to see that the opposite of freedom is not determination but compulsion. One is quite free to determine one's way of life, free to determine whether to look at things in a categorical way or an aesthetic way. That is, we can look at things relative to a set of goals to be achieved, or can simply appreciate them, and recognize their intrinsic value. So we must understand that freedom is a basic phenomenon and not some end-product of getting rid of something or subjecting oneself to some transcendental nebulosity, as it would seem that Western philosophy has generally approached it.

Prajna or shes-rab as the heightening of the cognitive capacity, also means a weakening of the network of relative considerations in which, ordinarily, it is embedded. The weakening of this network permits the emergence of the cognitive capacity in its original freedom.

Prajna operates on different levels. It is operative when we listen to someone merely on a rudimentary level, when we merely hear something that the person we are listening to says. Just to hear what someone is saying, some understanding must be there. Prajna can be present on a more significant level. For instance, we can go beyond the mere momentary taking in of what someone says, to the point where we retain it and think about it. This may lead us to weigh seriously what we have heard and to try implementing our conclusions such that we embody them in our lives.

Wes Hansen said...

Prajna can operate on a still further level. Instead of attending to what we perceive, hear or think about, in terms of categories related to the narrow limits of self-preservation or personal ends, we can come to appreciate things as values in themselves. When we come to this point there is a sort of a release, since there is no longer a need to manipulate our perceptions - we can let things be as they are. In speaking of arriving at this point it is possible to speak of freedom as an achievement, but we must see that this freedom has been there all the time. However, we have lost sight of this freedom through being involved with all sorts of unnecessary constructions - constantly seeing things as means in relation to our personal orientation. Having come to this basic appreciation and openness, we have the possibility of staying with it and seeing things as valuable, or we can fall back to seeing things as means for further means ad infinitum.

It is at this crucial point that shunyata comes in. Shunyata is the objective correlate of this heightened or opened state of awareness. In this state, we do not see different things but we do see things differently. When I meet someone, I can immediately snap into a state of mind where I am asking myself what I have to gain or lose from meeting this person and I can then involve myself in the appropriate strategy. Or, I can merely take in the impression of this person and relate to him without preconception. Very likely if I do the latter, a very satisfactory meeting will ensue. I have related to this open dimension of my impression. Now this is a very simple thing, there is nothing special about it and anybody can do it. But, as I have said, the simplest things are often the most difficult. Probably one of the most difficult things is for a person to do without his fixations and preconceptions. They seem to provide so much security; yet a person who follows his fixations always suffers from a sense of lack or loss - as if something were missing.

When we speak of shunyata, we are speaking of the open dimension of being. We can be aware of this open dimension, but in order to perceive it our perceptive faculty must be open, without a bias of any kind. If our way of perceiving is tainted by any sort of predisposition or reservation, we are right then out of the openness. We have already narrowed our view, and this, in the end, will be quite unsatisfying.

We must be very careful not to regard openness as an entity. If we do that, we shall have made a concept of it, which automatically fixes it and makes it something definite. It is precisely this that we have had to break out of in order to perceive it. This is where past mistakes have been made in the history of Buddhism. Someone tried to say that prajna is shunyata. But prajna is not shunyata. Shunyata is the objective pole of prajna, the open quality of things which the cognitive process relates to when it reaches the level of true prajna.

We cannot predicate anything of prajna except to say that when it is properly prajna it must be as open as that which it perceives. In this sense we might say that subjective and objective poles, (prajna and shunyata) coincide. With this understanding, rather than saying that prajna is shunyata, we can try to describe the experience by saying that it has gone beyond the dualism of subject and object. But we must not get too carried away by these descriptions and lose sight of the fact that they are only trying to bring home to us this simple experience that any of us can relate to directly if we so wish. We are free to do it. It is up to us.

Wes Hansen said...

We have now seen that shunyata is always a reference of perception. All action is based on perception, since, naturally, we always act in the light of our awareness. This is true on every level. The less I am aware of another person, the less able I am to act appropriately in my relationship with him. We have the example of certain types of people with so-called "good intentions" who do not take the trouble to become aware of what the people they are being "good to" really need. They are so involved in their preconceptions and biases that they think whatever they like must be good for everybody. Such a person might like milk and exert himself to get everybody to drink milk. But what about people who are allergic to milk? Such a thought would never make any impact on such a person's good intentions. The example may appear ridiculous, but it is precisely this sort of ridiculous action that we encounter constantly in life. We act on the basis of our understanding, our awareness, and if this is not open and alive, then our actions are necessarily clumsy and inappropriate.

This leads us to the subject of karuna. It seems that awareness is not just there for the fun of the thing, but it implies action. Action carried out in the light of the awareness of shunyata, that is, the action of prajna, is karuna. Karuna is usually translated as "compassion" and in many cases that may be correct. But the word itself derives from the Sanskrit root kr, which denotes action. Just as with prajna, we can speak of karuna on many levels. On the highest level, on the level of the Buddha, we speak of mahakaruna, "the greatest karuna." Buddha's awareness was that of the awakened state of mind. He could not act otherwise than in the light of that complete awareness. This complete awareness is the fundamental example of the indivisibility of shunyata and karuna.

According to Buddhism there are three basic emotional complexes: passion-lust, aversion-hatred, and infatuationbewilderment. These are named in terms of their ordinary or samsaric manifestations but they have latent possibilities of transformation. They are related to each other in a particular way. Bewilderment concerning the nature of what is going on can exist without entailing the extremes of passion or aversion. Passion or aversion, however, cannot come into play without the presence of basic bewilderment. Passion and aversion are emotional energies that have been distorted by an absence of precision which is this basic bewilderment.

Now in order to understand the nature of compassion, we can ask ourselves to which of these three basic emotional complexes compassion belongs. The usual response would be passion, since one ordinarily thinks that passion is related to love and love is not so different from compassion. But the Buddhist texts say the opposite: compassion belongs to hatred. The connection can be seen in the process that sometimes takes place when through enmity one person cuts another down and renders him helpless; then the one who has the power can aid the helpless one and feel himself a good person. This is the usual version of compassion and philanthropy.

Wes Hansen said...

But compassion is possible without aggression to create the original intimacy. On this level, the level of openness or shunyata, compassion is far more than the visceral emotion or sentimental urging that we ordinarily experience. On this level, we may speak of mahakaruna, which is based on the undistorted awareness of the awakened state of mind. There is a Sanskrit expression which runs as follows:

sunyatakarunabhinnam yatra cittam prabhavyate sa hi buddhasya dharmasya sanghasyapi hi desana

"Where an attitude in which shunyata and karuna are indivisible is developed, there is the message of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha."

Where the mind is such that it is able to perceive the openness in being, then its action is consonant with this openness because it takes into account what is real. If, on the other hand, awareness is tainted, the mind will manifest in all the emotional forms which are distortions of the real.

Ordinarily a distinction is made between jnana and klesha, primordial awareness and distorted emotional mind. We see here that they are not two different things - the one is a distortion of the other. Because klesha is a distortion of jnana it can be, so to say, rectified and returned to its source. This comes as a result of the development of prajna which, when heightened, can cut through the potentiality for distortion. This was the emphasis of the Prajnaparamita literature. Through prajna a person is led out of the narrow confines of his fictions, led not into some realm beyond, but into the actual world that is right here. Again, the awareness of the awakened mind is not of some new realm of objects; we do not see different things, we see things differently.

When, through prajna, the point is reached where shunyata and karuna are indivisible, there emerges bodhicitta (the bodhi-mind). Bodhicitta is that in which all that has been a limit has fallen away and all the positive qualities of mind have become active. This active aspect of the bodhicitta is what is meant by karuna. On this level, karuna is compassion in the true sense of that word - con-passio, "to feel with." This means to feel with what is real. It goes with the recognition of what is real and valuable in itself, not by virtue of some assigned or projected value which is basically subjective in character.

We have such a strong tendency to approach our experience only as a possible confirmation of the conceptions we already have. If we are able to be open, we grow. If we seek to relate everything to our preconceptions, then we are narrowing ourselves, narrowing being and we become lifeless. If we fail to see the vividness of life and try to pigeonhole it, we ourselves become pigeonholed, trapped. We must attempt to relate to this innate capacity for openness that is there, this self-existing freedom. If we are aware in this way, we will act accordingly. If we see things as valuable in themselves, then we will act productively so that value is retained and augmented rather than destroyed and reduced.

If we constantly relate to and defend our preconceived ideas, everything is automatically reduced to what is known as vikalpa, concept, which means something that is cut off from the whole. Then we have just the fragmentary world in which we are usually involved.

The foundation of the creative approach is openness, shunyata. It is more than the "nothing," by which it is usually translated. According to Buddhist tradition, this openness is the basis on which we can enrich our lives. It is the basis of the various tantric practices.

lauren raine said...

Wes, thank you for your thoughtful and wise comments. You are a true philosopher, and I usually don't know how to respond to your sharings, except to enjoy them. Much to think on here. And I hope that you are well, and looking forward to the New Year as well.

Rain-in-the-Face said...

Gee!