Dialogue # 4: Animal Intelligence, Belief Systems, and Spiritual Democracy

March 8, 2011


[In this dialogue Steven Herrmann and I talk about animal intelligence, which Steven describes as unfiltered, pure, intelligence, a welling up of cosmic intelligence in the world of perceived reality. We talk back and forth about the drive within all things toward spiritual fulfillment, recognized by Walt Whitman as one spirit in infinite guises.  Is there indeed universal intelligence, and can it be called “spiritual”? That is, is all this simply one thing manifesting? And of course, we must try not to get ourselves all gummed up in language snares, keeping on our right shoulder Einstein’s “Reality is an illusion, albeit it very compelling one.”  Usually when I come away from a dialogue like this, looking at the Great Mystery for an hour or so, for some odd reason I feel refreshed.  Follow along and toss in your own thoughts. Did we miss anything? There are some striking “coincidences” that come up during our dialogue, too, and we both think that’s a phenomenon that needs illuminated.  We will be discussing that in other dialogues.]

Dreams and Active Visions

McKowen: Steven, you were telling me earlier about a dream you had recently involving a condor and seven eagles. I know it was a significant dream for you and that it involved the collective unconscious and the individual welling up of those influences. Can you refresh me on the dream?

Herrmann: Well, actually, I had three dreams within a few days of each other involving these birds. And just a few days later books I had ordered from Amazon arrived, Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description, and Passage to Cosmos. The coming together of these dreams and Humboldt’s books was quite an amazing synchrony.

[Steven added this later: When I read Humboldt’s amazing story about his climb with an Indian guide just below the top of Ecuador’s extinct volcano, Chimborazo, to a height by his barometer of 19,286 feet, I learned that the only living thing he encountered up there were condors. Thus, I find it interesting synchronisticly that the condor dropped down to visit me while I was waiting for my books to arrive. The condor of South America, like its California cousin, is perhaps one of the best symbols we have for spiritual democracy: the flight of the condor is a living image for spiritual equality, liberty, and freedom to the people of the Andes. And on Mount Shasta, several weeks after this interview, I saw a group of bald eagles circling in the sky. This too was a miracle. Awe!

M: What’s the connection with Humboldt? You’ve mentioned him in some of our dialogues.

H: Well, many of the figures in our dialogues together were influenced by his work, and it continues to have a direct bearing on them,

[The German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), was a major figure in what became known as Humboltian science. His work involved the recognition of the interrelation of all sciences–biology, meteorology and geology, physical geography and biogeography. With his book Kosmos he brought stars and galaxies into the mix.]

M: So back to the dreams.

H: In the first, I dreamt of a giant condor that swooped down from the sky and dropped some big feathers to the  ground from its breast, so I could gather them up and carry them in my hands. The following night I dreamt of seven bald eagles that were looking down at me from overhead; the eagles were circling me. I knew through the eyes of these birds that their consciousness was looking straight down at me, and my consciousness was looking back up at them. Within a  few days, I had  another big dream, just before my  books by Humboldt arrived. A voice was speaking to me. It was saying that all truly great ideas come from a place of animal consciousness within the human psyche; from the animal regions; the reptilian brain; the mammalian brain. The  voice was re-affirming that  the  wisdom of the species comes from animal intelligence: the great discoveries and so forth.

The following weekend, Lori [Lori Goldrich, Steven’s wife.] and I did some shamanic journeying with two friends of ours, and I had an extended conversation with the condor through active visioning.

[Shamanic journeying is a technique–which may include shamanic drumming–for gaining access to the spiritual world through the inner senses in ecstatic trance. It is considered to be an adventure open to whoever wishes to transcend their normal, ordinary definition of reality, and through this process, to be able to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality.]

M: OK. Let’s go on.

H: I knew exactly what the voice was saying to me, a message directly related to my vocation—well, first of all, the condor’s the California state bird. Secondly, it is the national bird of the South American countries near the Andes. I didn’t remember at first about it being our bird; a friend told me that, just like the Grizzly Bear, which humans drove to extinction in this state. The condor was just about driven to extinction, too. We have a few left in the Pinnacles nesting near Big Sur now.


McKowen: Yes, they’ve been re-introduced, and I think the population is growing.

H: Clearly, to me, the condor was asking,  “Why  have  you done this  to our people?” In other words, “We are one. We are equals. We are brothers and sisters together, here on this planet. Why would you do this? What’s the matter with you?”

M: [Laughs.] Yeah.

H: You know, civilization–it was directly saying something about spiritual democracy. We don’t really believe in spiritual democracy if we can do that to the bear and the condor. It says something about the way we disrespect animals, Nature, and the human psyche.

M: Let me interject here, if I may, an idea about all this that’s come together for me after decades of looking at pieces of the puzzle. In recent years, especially in the past few months, it became so obvious that the distinctions I make between me and everything else, no matter what–rock, bear, wolf, other people–are purely linguistic. This “me” idea is just that, something I made up–or bought into. Nature is a continuum. Taxonomy is a human invention; I, you, it–all pure invention laid upon that-which-is.

Separating what’s inside my skin from everything else enables me not only to be brutally cruel to the other animals, indeed to the planet, but also to other human beings, because after all the animals are not me, not extensions  of my  physical and spiritual self. Since  you are not  me, then I’m a little freer to screw around with you. And I can hate you because, after all, you are not me.  It’s  very convenient, but it’s literally not so. I can’t understand philosophers spending   a lot of time on that, because it’s so obvious to me now; there is no separation.

Back to the dreams–you were talking earlier about the two-spirited self.

H: And the search for the sacred feathers.

M: You were saying you saw the condor, and you knew with certainty he was talking directly to you.

H: And he dropped two feathers from the sky for me to hold. I picked them up. It’s  like what we were talking about last week: My question was answered by the knowledge of the unconscious. The search for the sacred feathers that I spoke with you about last week was answered by my dream….

Getting back to the symbolic message of the feathers, the  condor, you know, is  not a  bird of prey; it’s a scavenger, a carrion bird, but it’s one of the closest-looking living birds to a prehistoric feathered person of the sky I’ve seen. There’s something archaic about it. Think of it, the drive for spiritual democracy and the vision of it, finding its voice in a California condor—at the farthest reaches of the continent, high above civilization. There’s nowhere farther to push. Jeffers was writing on the  promontory in Carmel, from the  farthest migration westward, from that tremendous Vista.

[Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) has been recognized for his powerful evocation in his poetry of the divine in nature and reviving modern religious sensibilities.]

Everson too wrote from such far shores in his various locales, in Oakland, Stinson Beach, and Santa Cruz. We are living near the same spot here, overlooking the Dominican priory in Oakland, where he wrote “The Mate-Flight of Eagles.” Looking westward, from this place in the Montclair hills, with a vista on the Golden Gate, I feel close to the elements.

M: OK. History is trying to tell you something, but it’s something here now, too. The condor says I have something to tell you.

Pure Animal Intelligence

H: That was pure animal intelligence. It felt great getting that message from that source. The condor and the seven eagles wanted something from me, and  we  communicated  back and forth, through our eyes. I think that’s the way it is with the psyche, the two hemispheres; one where the sea of intelligence is, that’s the cosmic intelligence; Whitman was  talking about that in his theory of language.

M: It’s remarkable, this intelligence welling up, but at the same time it’s this blood force.

H: Yes, the overlap. You said this morning you stopped at Woodminster for coffee before coming here.

You know, Woodminster is in Joaquin Miller Park. And Woodmister was dedicated to the writers of California, and …

Coincidence, that extra condiment that makes routine vivid.

M: [Laughs.] Oh, my! Well, that’s certainly a fine coincidence!  Our dialogues have made such little tangents, coincidences, not coincidental at all, but completely enmeshed in what we talk about, that extra condiment that makes routine vivid.

H: You were talking earlier about people not going the extra step. The Unexplored Territory Within

M: Yes. In fact, most of the people I know deliberately stop short of that extra step. I think that’s pretty much the story of all human beings. The rest, far fewer, realize that their spirits need recognition and are willing to do what it takes for that emergence into the physical world. But we can indeed take it much further, and we can do that any time we want.

We can put all that in the context of what you have said, about the New World taking Europe and Asia into a new frontier, into a fresh environment, unimagined on the old continents.

H: That idea of course was present in everybody’s consciousness, the unexplored territory; the vast expanse of the West. Emily Dickinson has a poem about that; she says:

Soto! Explore thyself!
Therein thyself shalt find
The “Undiscovered Continent” —
No Settler had the Mind.

Again, the settlers coming with their logical minds, exploring the physical continent, couldn’t find their proper relation to their soul-animals, the  two-spirits. They did not have this inner Undiscovered Continent in mind, nor was it in their awareness in a conventional religious sense. It was all projected outward in the quest for gold, the California rush for the yellow metal in 1849, and it is still continuing today. It was a physical quest, you know, not the alchemical quest for the symbolic gold, the treasure of the body and psyche.

The question I have is, How does one discover it? How does one find the  Realms  of Gold, the Spiritual Democracy of the cosmos that the poet-shamans discovered? How did Melville discover it in Moby-Dick, or Whitman in Leaves of Grass? You know, the logical mind does not have this other kind of experience of the symbolic gold  that the  alchemists had  found, and that Jung wrote about as the aim of individuation: the  philosopher’s stone, as  a life’s goal, the Spirit in the stone.

The mind of a greedy man thinks of metaphors as material facts rather than as visionary symbols charged with energy and meaning. The soul-animals, the birds of the soul—raven, condor, and eagle—bring this energy to us. D. H. Lawrence, who was reading Melville and Whitman and Emerson and Thoreau while writing his  Studies in Classic American Literature, writes, “I am here risen / and setting my foot on another world / risen, accomplishing a resurrection / risen.…  I am the  first comer! / Cortes, Pisaro, Columbus, Cabot, they are nothing, nothing! / I am the  first comer! / I am the discoverer! / I have found the other world!” It is a discovery of the New World that is pre-European. For the poet, in this sense it is Native American, indigenous, and archaic. That’s what’s spiritual democracy essentially is: a linking up of the old and the new. If such an experience hasn’t happened to a person, one might not know what it is, what it feels like, and what its meaning is. It’s not like anything that the famous explorers were looking at; it’s a continent not visible to the exploring mind; it’s an Undiscovered Continent no settler had in mind as Dickinson says so aptly.

An Undiscovered Continent traversed by judgmental expeditions

M: I think what you’re saying here is really falling together beautifully. We’ve been talking about poetry and that you have to pay attention to what  those  words mean in the  deepest sense, or you won’t see this New World they point to. Words aren’t place-holders. They mean their fullness. They are very carefully put down. That’s one key. Susan Browne and I used to immerse the  kids in poetry, without analyzing it; just reading poems, lots of poems. They began to absorb the stance in which you must place yourself to get the juice out of a poem.

That reminds me  of people looking at an abstract painting and  saying, “Oh, this  is  ugly.” And I think, “No, no, no. This is not how you approach something like that—well, anything, really. You don’t just say, “Oh, that’s ugly.” This is an Undiscovered Continent being traversed by judgmental expeditions.

And that’s what happened with the poems Susan read. You weren’t asked to judge whether it’s a good poem or not. It changed the perspective from which they looked at art and by extension, how to get to it.

Suspension of the Critical Faculty

H: So they had a technique, how to get to it through a non-judgmental suspending of the critical faculty.

M: I probably will never do drumming, but I do know it’s one way to get to that non- judgmental state of mind.

H: A direct way. Scientifically, they’ve shown that you can go right into the alpha state.

M: Yes. But people do have other ways of getting there, perhaps not consciously. People go to a dance, some place where music is playing, and they typically end up entering into this spirit and having a hell of a good time. But here’s the problem: When they’re all done, they think, “Well, that’s that.” And then they go  right  back  to a rather drab  world. Carrying the  music over into the day-to-day world, that’s the trick. I do think anybody can get to that state, that alpha state, that non-judgmental state, anytime. It would be wonderful if they were conscious  of the implications that you and I discuss so that they could do that on purpose, deliberately.


H: The question is: Can an ordinary person get into it? That’s where we get to the question about whether the idea of spiritual democracy can be fully realized.

M: Yes, that’s indeed the question.

H: Whitman’s hope was that it could. He thought it was for those who  had been able to do that, to live their life out of their own primitive ground, to lead others into it, too; to lead anyone to beat the serpent-skin drum in Leaves of Grass The question is whether we can pull it off as a species—before it’s too late. Can we learn to harmonize ourselves as a human tribe to the sound of the drum? I suppose that’s the question Robinson Jeffers was asking in “New Mexican Mountain,” when he listened to the sound of the Taos drum and then exclaimed “Civilization is a transient sickness.”

Jeffers said that civilization needs healers. And we’re back to what the condor was directly saying to me, something about spiritual democracy—we don’t really believe in spiritual democracy when we do that to the grizzly bear and the condor.

There’s nothing to worry about.

M: I do think, with just what we know scientifically, that all the problems we’re concerned about, like energy, can be solved. There are sources available that don’t depend on dead organisms. There’s thermal energy, solar energy of a kind that doesn’t require panels on your roof, quantum energy, and infinite resources, and so on; even using fusion instead of fission. Beyond that there’s a realization among many that what you and I are talking about is indeed a fact. You can call it subatomic quantum particles, but you could also call it the Ground of Being, or simply intelligence. These are all metaphors for the same thing. It could be that we’re going to destroy the  world as we know it. That doesn’t mean that the universe won’t go right on. When you look at the night sky, this planet is not even a speck. But I think that awareness should relieve us of any worry. Frost has a poem about it:

Well, really, there’s nothing to worry about. Yes, up close it seems pretty horrible.

H: We are all watchers by the water. We watch and we wait. You know the Frost lines in “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”: “They cannot see out far / They cannot see in deep.” We are all distracted by the noise of civilization. Yet at times, visions of spiritual democracy do come to us and we remember. Poets are the  ones who  do look out far into the  sea and in deep. This is what Emily Dickinson was referring to, and  Whitman,  and  Melville. In  Moby-Dick Melville saw the great White Whale and he listened; he spoke from the primitive idea.

M: I think what you do in your therapy and what I was consciously doing in my classes is to open this other world for everybody. Not me opening it up, but allowing them to discover that  it is available to them. In one way or another they were closer to it by the  time  the semester was finished, glimpsing Frost’s “something more of the depths.”

Seeing the Interconnectedness of It All

lava beds nat pk

H: Those who really get it are gifted, really. Not everybody is gifted in that way. To see the interconnectedness of it all is a rare thing. What we’re really talking about is something that’s very old, not necessarily New Age. It’s part of the basic experience of the primal peoples of Siberia, Europe, South America, Central and North America: the quest of the cosmic seer.

That reminds me of something I saw up in Modoc country, very dry and desolate land in the lava pits up North on the Oregon border by Tulle Lake. Native peoples from 10,000 years ago would go out in their boats and they would inscribe on a rock an image, often to do with the hunt. I’ll never forget Lori and me going up there and looking at those old petroglyphs; lots of animals, lots of birds, and snakes.

ptroglyphs at lava beds

In the  center of all of these animal  images  is featured a figure of a human, a stick figure, with bird legs, a human body but with head of a water-bird, a heron. At the center of the paintings at Lascaux is a picture of a bird man, the same image.

Those rock art carvings are about ten thousand years old; Lascaux is about seventeen thousand or so. There’s some kind of correspondence here: the bird-shaman, spiritual democracy, Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle” singing his musical shuttle out of the mockingbird’s throat. In the dreams that I had before we began to speak about these things  today  the  birds  were looking at me and I was looking up at them; there  was  a mirror-symmetry of vision-seeing going on there; my consciousness and their consciousness were one.

lascaux cave painting

M: I do think it’s rare, but don’t you think we could pick any human at random and  find that spirit there simmering and with the right opportunity it could flare up? They may not know how to do it on their own, but I think that the spirit is there–well, of course it’s there.

H: I think we saw that during the seventies and sixties, the mind-altering drugs.

M: Those decades could have a major influence on how people behave now, because after all, the people running the world came out of that era. They’re not ignorant of this other level. In fact, it crops up in the jargon on TV. They all know the lingo. Except, they really aren’t doing it. It’s window dressing. They can talk about it glibly. So the framework is there. And I’m thinking, if I wanted to start teaching a class now, the kids would all know that. “Yeah, yeah, I know all that stuff.”


H: What we’re talking about is something very old, not New Age. As I’ve said, it’s part of the basic experience of the primal peoples of Siberia, Europe, South America. The dream I had is about the quest for the cosmic seer.

M: Yes, When I came in today, you started to tell me about your Shasta experience. So there was a huge amount of snow there?

H: Yes, it was quite an experience. It was exhilarating. This time, we just did a lot of hiking around.

M: Just you and Lori?

H: Yes. We didn’t bring food or camping stuff. We ate out all the time. It was a great trip. We haven’t done that before.

M: Sounds like a good idea.

H: It was. There’s something about being up there on the mountain, a new elevation, a new vista for me: seeing things in a different way. I came back refreshed.

M: If you remember, you wrote a couple of years ago about when you and your son Manny were up there, “Up on top of Shasta everything is clear.”

H:  Everything is clear.

A Cloak of Awareness

M: It seems to me that we need to have that kind of awareness wrapped around us as we go about our daily interactions–which are quite complex sometimes.

H: Right.

M: But to come to those complexities with the assuredness of that clarity, it seems to me, would be nice for people to be able to do. I think most people could do that.

H: Yes, we were talking earlier about how important that is. And you were up at Crater Lake a couple of weeks ago. I read just the other day that that lake is the result of a volcanic mountain blowing its top 7700 years ago. You know there were people living around there when that happened. People saw that happen and passed information on down to our present time through oral history. So that’s historic.


M: Yes, there is anecdotal information, and no doubt some archeological information, that allows a fairly accurate description. It was a fantastic explosion.

Cave Paintings

H: Speaking of thousands and thousands of years, you and Ruth should see Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the caves in Chauvet, France, the oldest art ever discovered. Werner Herzog directed it.


M: Oh, yes, I did read a review about it.

 H: This is amazing. 32,000 years old! 

M: That’s partly what attracts me to this art. You stimulated my thinking on cave paintings when you talked with me about Lascaux a while back. Some people, and not just a few, think they went to all that trouble just to draw some graffiti! But, you know, what they did, the abstractness of it, the certainty of their strokes . . .

H: Like Picasso. Wait till you see those horses!

M: I’ve seen pictures.

H: You must see the Chauvet! These are almost twice as old as Lascaux. Thirty-two thousand years old.

Our Place in the Scheme of Things

M: Thirty-two thousand! I’ve been thinking that one thing all of our talks have been about, really, is the collective memory of human beings. I think going up on the mountain ties into all that. There you are standing in the presence of this vast stretch of history, the ancient Earth.

The mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation – I don’t think they would have to if they understood that, the clarity that places us in the scheme of things. If people saw how rooted we are in all that surrounds us and all that preceded us – we’re center stage – I don’t think they would be quite so concerned about these little upheavals in their daily interactions with the planet. It wouldn’t be so upsetting.

The question is, how do people get access to that awareness? I think you were suggesting last time, and my friend Sasan certainly does, that one needs a mentor. I resist that idea. It may be true, but I don’t want  to believe it. For one  thing, there  aren’t that many mentors around. It would be hard for an ordinary person to encounter someone like that. In my entire youth, there was not one such person.

I know in your work, and I guess in my teaching, it underlies what we’re doing:

providing that contact with this other side of our selves. But I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to become enlightened. I do not call myself enlightened, but I can see how I could go there if I felt like it. I don’t know how I came to see that. Certainly my childhood didn’t have any such glimmers of what you and I talk about. I was a dreamy kid, I guess.

Experience as Mentor

H: You didn’t need a mentor. Your experience was your mentor.

M: Well, OK. Now, whether I proceed is a conscious decision. I know what could be done if I felt like it.

H: What do you mean by that?

M: Well, you know, today I could walk out your door and follow that path. The only thing holding me back are the hostages of fortune, as Shakespeare put it, family. I hold back, for one reason, because I don’t care to cause discomfort to people who depend on me.

H: What would you do if you did follow that path?

M: I would do whatever I felt like today and then tomorrow I would again do whatever I felt like, and so on. That sounds rather reckless, but I mean that I would take charge of the day, create it, day by day. But nothing out of a sense of duty. I don’t actually do things out of a sense of duty now. I see ways to live as I do and still create the day. Remember Gauguin? He just walked out on his family and went to the South Seas. I can’t really fault him, but something keeps me from knowingly doing harm to others. For one thing, I do know that the person I harm is myself in another guise.

H: Where are you with your book right now? You were looking for a publisher.

M: Yes. Well, I did talk with an editor, and  she asked me to send her a prospectus and  so forth, and that forced me to think about just who might be an audience for my book and where the market might be.

I’m pretty sure now that my book presupposes a reader who might in the past have read

The Crack in the Cosmic Egg or maybe The Dancing Wu Li Masters, maybe some Joseph Campbell or Alan Watts or Krishnamurti or Jung, someone perhaps interested in his or her place in this universe.

I ran across an old acquaintance recently and I told her about my book. She’s a mature woman who has just broken off from a long relationship with someone I used to work with. Well, I think she’s re-assessing what her life is all about and what she wants to do going forward. I think my book could not help but be something that would absorb her.

All world views are metaphors.

The book isn’t just one view of how this all works. It’s a net to catch myriad views and show how they are all looking at the same thing. They’re all metaphors for what these people have seen. Would you agree that whatever one sees has to end up translated into one’s own language – which is not the thing itself but a description of it?

H: It’s a little vague.

Words as Venues to That-Which-Is

M: I would say that anybody who has taken a look at the universe is going to come back and describe it in the language he  or she has available. Then you go  to somebody else who happens to have been working in alchemy and he’s going to describe it in terms  of turning base metal into gold. There’s “gold” again. Go to Homer and now you get the universe in his great epic. Or John Keats, the Romantic poets, and you come to language designed to convey that world.

What I’m saying is that human beings have no other way than language – symbol systems, music, painting, the arts – no other way to convey the world they have discovered.  So if you accept what they say or sing or put in mathematical symbols – if you accept what they convey to you as metaphor and let it steep in your brain – then that will inform you about what they have seen. The words themselves are only venues to that-which-is.

So I think people who would like to get a sense of that, people who would like  to lead a fulfilling spiritual life – these people would be possible readers of my book. I hadn’t been sure who my readers might be, but now I know they would have to have some background of reading or thinking along these lines. It’s not for someone who  has  never thought  about his life in a broader sense.

H: So what is it about your view that’s unique to Clark McKowen?

The Tyranny of One’s Metaphor

M: What I’m saying is that you can get at this question in innumerable ways and that it’s not good to get caught up in one metaphor. Don’t put all your eggs in that basket. You have to realize that it’s a metaphor. I have a friend who’s a fundamentalist Christian who did finally catch on to the fact that her religion was a metaphor. She didn’t stop being religious, but she was freed from its tyranny. I read the phrase “the prison of belief” in movie review the other day, and that pretty much captures what’s wrong with any capitulation to a belief system. If you let a metaphor tyrannize you, you become a cult figure.

H: It sounds like you have a problem with religion. How would you define it?

M: I think it’s buying into some canned philosophy, something codified for you and presented as the way things are.

H: Do you have some other definition that would be more acceptable?

Spiritual Democracy and Religious Belief

M: Oh, sure. I know some religious people, very few, who use it as a vehicle to enter that other world. The liturgy, for example. For some, the structure of the service can shift their focus into that other world. But it seems to me most people think, “Oh, that sounds pretty good, all canned and ready to go. I’ll just eat it.” That keeps them under the thumb of whatever that viewpoint is. There’s no role for their own spirits to play.

One thing I despise about religious institutions is the rules. These institutions always come with a whole set of rules. Twelve steps, nine steps, ten commandments, fox trot, curriculum – whatever it is, some kind of hoops to jump through.

So I don’t like religion. Spiritual Democracy I like a lot. You’ve been developing that idea, and I think it’s dead on. The Spirit in every human being is lobbying for a chance to walk around in the physical world. I think that could be argued on any level you choose. There is a dynamism throughout the universe. That’s what keeps it going. It’s in all living matter, and it’s in the so-called inanimate world most definitely. There’s no break. It’s a continuum. So, yes, spiritual democracy is another way of phrasing that-which-is.

Any religion is a metaphor and has to be treated as such. Don’t take the metaphor for what it points to. The fundamentalist Christian woman I told you about was in several of my classes. And interestingly she is also a visionary. She has visions. She is very familiar with metaphor, the powerful imagery she has access to when she has an epileptic seizure.  I’d  say that’s the same realm that liturgy gives access to for some people. Well, she caught on to how language works and had no trouble with the things we explored. She was having a fine time, but

she sensed there was one area we were skirting: her faith. One day she finally blurted out that I wasn’t commenting on her religious beliefs. Why not?

I said, Well, you are totally open to exploring all the things we do in class, but there  is one area of your thoughts that you seem to have built a box around. That’s the Christ figure. That’s sacrosanct. You don’t treat that as a metaphor. I don’t see why you can’t go in there with the same openness. If your Christ figure is accurate, how can your thinking openly about it be dangerous? Well, she went home and thought about it and realized she could do it. Then she became free to participate in her religion deeply in her own way but not subserviently. Anyway, that’s how I feel about religion.

H: Well, it sounds like you’re moving your book toward how to describe it. M: Yes. It’s clearer to me now just who could read it productively.

H: You mentioned poets earlier. Do you see them as having cracked the cosmic egg?

Meaning What You Say

M: Oh, yes. Emily Dickinson, for example. If you take her literally and not as someone who writes pretty words, yes, she has visited those realms most definitely. She means what she says. Ha, I wonder how she would have been at small talk! You can see it in Keats, Hopkins, any of the great poets. And the artists, those cave painters, they visited the realms of gold for sure. It’s available to anyone who looks. But you do have to look. A lot of my book is about that, about looking. Essentially it’s about having a look. Of course you would have had to have some intimation that  it would be worth having a look. How I came to realize that, I don’t  really know. I don’t think I did when I was in college.

The Art of Seeing

H: Seeing is very important for your vision.

M: Well, that’s a metaphor, too. I mean by that, realizing what’s here in front of our eyes. What’s in front of our eyes is all that there is but that’s the universe. Look around this room. It’s right here, the whole thing. As you know, we could use the right hemisphere to do the looking. That’s another metaphor. But look.

H: So there’s the idea that most people don’t look.

M: If they care to, there’s all that right before their eyes, including the third eye – another metaphor. If they don’t care to look, they shouldn’t pick up my book. I do think, though, the

most crass human being, like us all, has this spiritual drive. But sometimes, when I look at the least common denominator it seems hopeless!

One reason I like to meet with you and one or two others is that it keeps me in touch, sort of like liturgy or meditation or your visits to Mt. Shasta. Spend a little time  this  way and it informs the rest of the day.

Now, how about your work, how does what I’ve been saying fit in, if it does, with what you do?

The Mentoring of One’s Forebears

H: Oh, there are definite parallels. I’ve been working on Whitman’s influence. What you were saying about mentors. He had mentors, too. Emerson. In a letter he called  Emerson Master with a capital

M. I think his real mentors were poets.

M: Did he read the Romantic poets, like Keats?

H: He may have read some. He didn’t talk much about them. He did read Shakespeare. He talked a lot about Chinese and Hindu bards. He read the old Indian texts.

M: Yes. The New England thinkers of his time were reading a lot of those texts.

H: The whole Transcendentalist movement was a major force.

M: When you think about it, that whole body of knowledge was here in the United States during that time. So we do have a background of such thinking over 150 years ago and  I’m sure it’s been influencing us ever since. Then it popped up again after World War II when soldiers started returning from the Far East. So you get a connection going from that period to the present day.

H: And the King James Bible. That was Whitman’s first influence. His first real inspiration was the Bible.

M: I read an article recently by Christopher Hitchens about that very book. Hitchens loved the artistry of that book, the beauty of its poetry. He’s right. You can’t read the Bible as prose. It’s dreadful.

H: There’s a passage in the Book of Isaiah. Interestingly enough, that’s the section where you find the phrase “All flesh is grass.”

M: Oh, yes. That’s right!

H: There are sections in Isaiah that talk about spiritual democracy.

M: Think of the concept. There’s the Hebrew writer saying all flesh is grass and the subatomic field we’ve been talking about and about how all things are the same. That’s a pretty good insight, to realize that sitting here you comprise the Earth in this form.

H: I think Whitman knew that, and the grass symbolizes it.

M: So we’re talking again about how all things are connected. How all things are the same thing.

H: I wouldn’t say they are the same thing, but they are all connected.

M: Why not the same thing?

H: I’ve been thinking about the uniqueness of each thing. There is variety, diversity.

M: Yes, infinitely so. That’s the uniqueness of each particle, but each particle once again is the center, and that particle cannot exist without everything that goes with it. So it is everything while being one thing. That’s why I say everything is the same thing. The expression “all things” takes into account what you’re saying.  The concept Steven Herrmann can only have  its place when its connectedness is fully realized. That cell in your fingernail is  not  detritus. Its intelligence thinking about what it wants to do in relation to other cells within the construct Steven Herrmann. That’s a Hindu idea, too. There’s no way out of it.

I think you have to know about this connectedness. Anyway, to put these thoughts in context, your own metaphor seems to be Spiritual Democracy.

One Spiritual World

H: I never really thought about my own metaphor until a couple of years ago when I was working on the Whitman book. But, yes, I think that’s what we all are about, this one spiritual world and these interconnections.

M: OK. I think you’re right.  I think there’s  a way out for human beings, a single  culture, a single world of interconnected beings all over the globe now. I think that’s literally happening right now. You mentioned a couple of years ago  about a triad of religious  views, the  Islamic, the Judaic, the Christian, seemingly at odds with each other, but in your work, going back a bit, you see them coming from a single source. Now they need to converge again. So you are beginning to see your work as focusing on that spiritual democracy metaphor.  I think that’s right. That seems to be coming to the fore very clearly now. It makes sense to me.

Whitman and Spiritual Democracy

H: Whitman was the one who articulated it. Emerson talked about it, too. The idea was already there. Whitman created the language that made us able to understand it better.

M: Yes, Whitman translated it all into his own language. He had to do that. We all have to do that. If I simply repeat what others have said, what  I say is  not  true. If  it doesn’t come  from my own vision, it’s a lie. A woman I mentioned earlier who is interested in ideas like those in my book, sent me a link to a person who does workshops on spirituality. I took one look and knew he is a snake-oil salesman. He patched together some made-up words to describe what’s going on, made it seem based on the parts of the brain, diagrams and all, and  guaranteeing peace and serenity. A lot of money gets spent on people like him. But it does point up the fact that people are looking for some way to bridge their day-to-day lives with something they  sense to be more profound, maybe  to make working in a bank a profound experience. So maybe that’s good.

H: Oh, by the way, did you see that link I sent from The Red Room? M: Oh, yes, quite a nice surprise.

Jungian Therapy and Sexuality

H: They were giving a prize for the best blog about gay and lesbian issues that got the most positive response. My blog won. It’s a bit ironic, since there are a lot of gay and lesbian writers on The Red Room.

M: Well, you do have perspective that’s unusual. You’ve written extensively about sexuality of all kinds, but you have a distance from your subject. You’re not there to advocate for a particular position. You can throw some objective light on the subject.

H: I was  surprised and pleased.  We  can step out beyond and look at the question of marriage  as an issue of open or close-minded views of the cosmos. We’re all equal. That’s where Whitman comes in. There are these old laws he was abolishing back in the middle of the 19th century. And there’s Melville sailing to Polynesia and seeing cultures that treat sexuality quite differently from our conventions. Whitman comes along and puts out the first ideas about equality of marriage. Then he goes further and develops it more clearly in the idea of spiritual democracy. That, he said, was a religion. For him it was not something to do with liturgy, that sort of thing. He wanted people to read his book, yes, but what he really wanted was for people to experience spiritual democracy. It is the experience that matters, you know. He was so intuitive, so visionary; he was really speaking for the soul of America.

If it’s true that everything is the same, in the atoms and so on, then this idea is what America needs to hear, what the world needs to hear, around faith, because a big part of the problem in religious debates is in literal interpretations of religious texts. Some read them as literal truths rather than as metaphors. Proposition 8 in California was based mostly on that. But those Biblical writings were culturally specific and addressed to a certain time. We need new metaphors. To get back to what you were saying earlier, Whitman created new metaphors. He gave new ideas about religion and spirituality. Weddings, marriages – they always have their spiritual dimension.

Spiritual Democracy and Equal Rights

M: That’s the whole idea of the word marriage and the issue that’s being debated. A lot of people are not against civil unions  of almost any sort, but what’s angering them is the  inclusion of the spiritual dimension. I think the whole controversy centers on the idea of marriage as a spiritual union being different from a civil union. Why that would be upsetting I can’t follow, but they do take these words literally instead of metaphorically.

H: Where I was going with that: I do think it’s an idea that can really help with the political debate, because it creates an alternative. I was talking with a friend of Lori’s recently, a Methodist minister, about counter-narratives. I have in my book some thoughts on the myths about courtship and marriage. It’s always been a heterosexual thing in our culture. We need some counter-narratives, and Whitman provides them. He was our great American bard, and you can look at it that way.

M: I think it has to resonate with people who  are against these unions, marriages. The metaphor, the myth, must appeal to them. If they set their minds against what we’re talking about, then they don’t want to hear it. Do you see some way for this dialogue to go forth in an agreeable way for people who have dug in their heels?

H: Well, I think an idea everyone can buy into is spiritual democracy: We are all the same, really. Trace it out. We had a Civil War. We had women speaking out and getting the vote.

M: Right.

H: Equal rights for women, equal rights for blacks, all cultures. The same thing around religion. That’s where the world is right now. We’ve talked about the  three  monotheisms  in the Near-East and Middle-East. Religious wars have been fueling fratricide between cultures for millennia. I think what everybody can buy into now is the idea that no religion is superior to any other. They’re all good, and we can celebrate them all.

M: Probably by the time your patients get to you, they aren’t stuck in their beliefs. They know they need to do some re-assessment of the way they see things. They’d like to liberate themselves. That’s probably how they start with you: I need to do something about my life.

H: Fundamentalism can emerge in many ways. It doesn’t have to be a radical cult. It’s a risk any believing person encounters. They are going to get opinionated, and they are going to get upset and think that their truth is the right truth.  The nice thing about spiritual democracy is that it says, “You’re right!”

M: OK. That’s great!

H: I think that’s the thing. [Laughter] M: That’s good.

H: There’s nothing to argue about. [Laughter]

Debate and Dialogue

M: I think that’s the trap we get into is to get into debates. Debates are not good. Dialogue is. Dialogue starts with a respect for the other person. Of course, I must confess, when I hear some of the things people say, I don’t feel like its dialogue. I think it’s terrible, ignorant, irrational stuff. But I know better. I do know how people get that way. And I know if I were more compassionate with them, we’d do much better, if I were to explore their thinking in a genuinely interested and responsive way, the barriers would evaporate. The better I am at it, the more that’s likely to happen.

H: You know, the founding fathers–Washington, Franklin, Jefferson–they were all deists. When they were figuring out how to create a democracy, the first principle they came up with was the freedom of religion. First, constitutional and political democracy, and then: spiritual democracy.

You can’t have a complete democracy without spiritual democracy. They realized there had to be spiritual democracy right at the earliest structuring of the way this would all work.

Religious tolerance is the key.

M: I think we have to go a little bit further . . .

H: That’s where it begins. Then you come to Whitman, who answered the call. He provided the metaphors.

It seems a bit smug to tolerate someone.

M: But I think it has to go beyond tolerance. What you said is correct: “You’re right.” That’s not tolerance. That goes beyond tolerance. I’ve thought about that word a lot. It seems a bit smug to tolerate someone.

H: That’s where Whitman comes in.

The Universality of Spiritual Democracy

M: Because he saw, as you correctly said, that spirituality knows no bounds. It knows no particular sect. It goes beyond all of those constructs. We are all in it together. It’s one force bubbling up in each of us, the same force. That’s why “You’re right.” You’re expressing the Godhead. So when I get beyond tolerance–that’s my next level–I truly don’t see you as different from me.

H: In a dialogue . . .

M: You have to get beyond wanting to punch the other guy.

H: Where emotions are involved, where people are defensive . . .

M: As soon as you say, “What did you mean by that?” you make them defensive.

H: The defensiveness evokes that emotional turbulence . . . As psychotherapists, that’s where we start, where the patient is getting excitable. You know, I had a minor epiphany just now.

M: What do you mean?

H: Well, if we start with the beginning of democracy, those Deists sitting around talking about  it …

M: Isn’t that amazing?

H: Talking about a constitution . . .

M: Yeah.

The ability to tolerate emotional turbulence

H: What kind of a God are we going to put in this Constitution? Madison insisted that there could be no reference to the Bible. Jefferson thought the future religion of the United States would have to be Unitarianism. Madison would have no part in that. It can’t be a democracy, then. He was right. This cannot be a Christian country. They were Deists. They all believed in God, but their idea of God transcended any religion. Even though some were Puritans, even though some were Christians, they still had that kind of spiritual objectivity. So the first principle is that the Constitution must allow for any religious belief. If they could practice this relativity toward anybody’s religion, then they could begin to think clearly and carve out a Constitution.

So if we use the analogy of a bunch of people in a room and the question of how we’re going to get any breakthrough about the universe to where all the people in the  room are all one, you have to have an ability to tolerate emotional turbulence. That’s a term we use in psychology today. People discussing religion are going to get gripped by strong emotions, and they’re going to argue. So you’re going to be challenged to practice tolerance, and then transcend that. And that’s through spiritual democracy. Spiritual democracy is when you can say, “You’re right.” Once the person is calmed down, then they’re  open to new ideas. They can relax! [Laugher]

M: Sure.

H: Someone who is arguing is not going to be open. M: Clinched fist.

H: They are closed.

Suspending Judgment

M: What this boils down to is finding a way to talk with each other that is not argumentative. So what’s needed is responsiveness, openness, a willingness to hear the other person; to hear that person out, without judgment. Well, that’s a way: You could start seminars  in how to have religious dialogues.

H: Be a consultant. Yes. That’s a great idea.

M: That’s what we need if we’re going to clear this up. We can’t keep coming at each other with hatchets. I get furious at all these horrible Republicans.

H: I have a good friend who’s a Republican. You met him at our wedding. He’s really liberal.

Love as the Basis for Dialogue

M: Oh, yes. I liked him. It’s hard to believe. Well, I’ve thought about carrying on conversations, how different the atmosphere is when it’s argumentative. In my classes, it wasn’t like that. I tried to avoid argument as much as I could. If someone said something, anything really, the next question would be, Tell me more about it. What do other people in the class think about it?

Then, tell me more about that! We went for the fullness of the thought.

We might as well throw this in: It all comes back to the  word love. If you feel you’re in a loving atmosphere, then all things are possible. There has to be that sense of total acceptance. No barriers set up. It’s what people call love, but I think of it as a very general sense of being grounded in the universe, like a rock. Solid, strong, sure.

We seem to have rounded this topic out pretty well. There’s just one thing to tie up.

It’s the question of mentors.

H: I would argue that you had your mentors, Clark. I think Yeats was your mentor. Everson talks about this. Some have a personal mentor, some have an impersonal one, some have both.

Students as Mentors for Their Teachers

M: Oh, I agree. I was thinking about this when we were talking earlier. I said I didn’t know when I started thinking about how all this works. It might have been the first year I was teaching in a high school. The students liked me, but they did not like to do things the way I wanted to do them. My whole view of how to teach was tossed in the trash can. I had to re- build from the start. It may have forced my brain to start putting things together on its own.

But you’re quite right that some of the influences that maybe were stewing back there were really resources for me, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats, the American writers, maybe even back to sixth grade, William Cullen Bryant. Those were all stored in my mind. So you could call those mentors, certainly. I agree totally with that. I don’t agree, I guess, with this idea of having a master. “Oh, Master, show me the way.”

H: I think it can be important. Jung called Freud his Master. Whitman called Emerson Master. It’s a brief thing. It’s part of the transference of greatness onto another person.

M: I have no quarrel with that.

H: And then you withdraw and realize . . .

M: And then you re-do it yourself.

H: Whitman said in 1855: “I am the teacher of athletes, / He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own, / He most honors my style who  learns under it to destroy the teacher. / , , . I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me? 

 If you would understand me go to the heights or water-shore.

M: That’s fine.

H: You know, if you see the Buddha on the path . . .. It’s that idea in Buddhism, too.

M: Let’s see. Is it in Christianity? Sure. They say, too, that you have to re-build it yourself. In my case, thinking back to fourteen years of perfect attendance in my church, I think I accepted without doubt the ideas that were presented. It didn’t  even cross my  mind  to  doubt or question. That was how things were.

H: When you think about it, Christ was mentored, too. He was a rabbi, a good Jewish son.

M: Right. I’m not arguing against all that precedes us, all of it. You start there. You have to allow them to furnish your mind. They do, actually, whether you want them to or not. And certainly you might go to someone and ask them to tell you all that they know. (I do this with my computer pals.) But you can’t just say, “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

H: I’ve been discussing this with a friend who says there aren’t any new ideas. I said, “Oh, yes, in a sense that may be so, but new ideas do crop up.” Everson said that when one does jump out of the Master’s shadow, one steps into a field of absolute originality.

M: Sure.

H: The relativity theory. Einstein did develop that idea. It was an advance. Jung was the same way. Spiritual teachers do this.

M: Let me think about that. The idea Einstein had can be traced to Buddha.

H: Aren’t you stretching it a little?

M: I don’t think so. How about Hinduism, the multiplicities, the worlds within worlds, infinitude of every speck. It’s another metaphor.

H: That’s true.

M: Einstein did something that nobody else had ever done before, quite so. He put it into a new vessel, a new metaphor that turns out to have many applications. The earlier metaphors revealed the same world, but they didn’t build space ships and split atoms with those metaphors. Einstein took up the ideas the Buddhists were discussing thousands of years ago.

I don’t think there’s really any controversy between us on this. Once you step out of  the shadow of the Master, you can move in any direction as an original being. Every step will be original, every stroke of your pen, your brush, every Lascaux painting. You are creating that.

Once you step out of  the shadow of the Master, you can move in any direction as an original being. Every step will be original, every stroke of your pen, your brush, every Lascaux painting. You are creating that.

H: That’s pretty good, Clark.


M: [Laughs.] Yeah, I sort of like that, too.

This does freshen up my thoughts about mentoring. It seems to me when someone starts out with, say, Gurdjeiff, they have a package that they’re supposed to master. I never could understand that, subjecting oneself to a program of some sort. As soon as I hear the rules, I find myself resisting. I was re-reading a little book called The Tao of Pooh the other day. Benjamin Hoff, the author, says Pooh is really a Taoist, someone who can be happy and tranquil in any situation. I started thinking, hmm, I guess I’m a Taoist.

H: Jung was Taoist. One of his greatest breakthroughs came through his readings of the  Tao  Te Ching, Hui Ming Ching and the I Ching, synchronicity. His first use of that word synchronicity was in his memorial to Richard Wilhelm, the German translator of the I Ching

i-ching[An ancient Chinese book of divination also called The Book of Changes, dated by some estimates as early as a thousand years B.C., the I Ching is  consulted for insight by using seemingly randomly selected digits to identify one of a series of hexagrams composed of six stacked horizontal whole and broken lines of various configurations, that are allowed to inform one’s thoughts.]

but we can indeed take it much further, and we can do that any time we want.

M: Well, well. You have an avenue here. If you shaped it up, you could build a program that I think  would have  a lot to offer toward opening ordinary people to an awareness of their own spirituality and of course that would mean spiritual democracy, too. You can’t be spiritually fulfilled without bringing along everyone else. Otherness doesn’t compute. What you’re talking about, focused and described in compelling language, and with some way to alert people to what you are saying, that’s the trick.

H: I think this next book will plant some seeds towards that.

M: Quite possibly. But there is still the marketing issue  – which has  to be solved. There’s a clue, I think, in your getting your perspective into the dialogues in states considering same- sex marriage. That’s one way this could be done. I have to figure out marketing for my own book, too. I haven’t gotten there yet. But like a Taoist, I’m not pushing or pulling it. I’m just moving it along.

H: This thing on the Red Room just happened. Sort of a minor miracle

 M: Yes, it’s lovely when that happens. I think you could say that.

H: What did Whitman say about miracles?

M: “Why, who thinks much of a miracle? As for me, I know of nothing but miracles.”

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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