Dialogue # 8: The Beating Heart of Matter — The Thinking of Teilhard de Chardin

April 3, 2012

The body of Christ, the vine and its branches— organic imagery as distinct from monarchical and political imagery. The center of gravity of the whole thing has changed.  With that center of gravity will go a change in our own inner feeling, namely (whether we get it from our study of science, or whether we get it from Oriental religions, or all of them together) Western man will begin to feel at home in the world.

He will begin to feel that he belongs, that he is not a stranger, and that his heart is not simply something inside his chest, but it is the entire universe living and changing forever.

                                                       —Alan Watts, from “The Crisis in Religion”

[In this dialogue Steven and I explore the idea that Love, or what I would call the manifestation of the spirit, is indeed a physical force, and we re-visit Chardin’s definition of that force as an essential aspect of the cosmos.  We are talking about Love in a deep, poetical sense of that much abused word. As you follow this dialogue along, I think you will be reminded that there is indeed some sort of glue holding everything, everything, together. not some dictionary word, but an involuntary uniting force.]

The Heart of Matter / The Heart of the Matter

M: Let’s see where we are now. We could continue to talk about that metaphor by Graham Greene quoted by Teilhard de Chardin.  Greene, as you’ll recall, called his novel The Heart of the Matter.  I reread it last week, and it isn’t quite as I recall Greene’s way of looking at human nature.  His central character breaks the rules he lives by, rules of his Catholic faith, and the entire structure of his life falls apart.  In many of Greene’s novels his characters break rules and live more organic lives, I’d say. Anyway, this novel does explore the role of the heart in human matters.  You can’t do the math without that factor, for sure!

[Philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) had trained as a paleontologist and geologist and taken part in the discovery of Peking Man.  His way of describing the future of the Earth and the human community and of a Cosmic Christ were not fully in line with the thinking of Church authorities of his time, and his major works were not published till after his death. Steven and I had read his The Heart of Matter (1976) and The Future of Man (1959).]

Love: This glow of oneness that people call enlightenment that is the heart of matter.

That said, here’s Chardin taking up the heart of matter head on. You wanted to discuss: “At the heart of Matter, /A World -heart, / The Heart of God” in his book The Heart of Matter. Everything you’ve been saying about spiritual democracy, the field–all that–leads to the same thing. If what we might call God is in the atom–another word Chardin uses is Love–there is this glow of oneness that people call enlightenment that is the heart of matter.  Matter at its heart is precisely that.  That’s what he’s getting at, I think, and that fits in with Whitman and everything you’ve been saying.  By the way, I’ve always admired Chardin as a clear philosophical thinker.  I think anyone who’s really interested in figuring out how things work would do well to read him.

H: Well, you’re right the glow of oneness does fit nicely with Whitman.  I think the idea of the shamanic archetype helps us understand how this “Golden Glow” at the heart of matter emerged in human awareness, its evolution.  When you look at those portraits of divinity on the walls of Lascaux, what you see are animal forms.  That’s a kind of love for those animals, and a kind of equality with the animals.

M: Think of what it entailed to go deep into those caves and draw images on the walls.  It’s a lot of work! When you think about the physical effort involved, that’s quite a challenge.

H: Yes.  They had to bring torches down there.  And what you find there are portraits of gods in animal forms, animal shapes, and at the center of these characters is a shaman figure, and he is lying prostrate on his back, apparently entranced, with a bird mask.  So he’s identified with an animal form in some way.  Consciousness itself assumes equality with animal life. What emerges from that is the explosion of art from the central figure: the creator of all this magnificence. It is cosmic.

M: Your focus in all this art is in this place of light, and then you explode. Well, not everybody, but that’s the difference between an intense witnessing of those drawings and a superficial scanning. Where I start in thinking about them is the sheer effort involved and the accomplishment.  This is not doodling, not graffiti.  It rewards our attention.

Love at the Center

H: Yes, there is love at the center, because Love is for the animal and light–and for the darkness within the cave.

M: Yes, I don’t think you could undertake this work without Love. But that word love is one we always have to fiddle with when we’re in a dialogue so that people don’t misunderstand what we mean by it.  Some people don’t see the universality of it but limit it to something among their families or maybe just between two people, but the way we’re talking about love, it’s a profound experience for the whole universe.

H: I think the love is for the thought that evolves from this cosmic experience.

M: It’s something that won’t stay inside yourself, and yes, that is the way it is when two people connect in that profound way.  It transcends the immediate experience.  There’s no, “Let me think about this.” And yet it’s the result of thinking.

Bringing Consciousness to Animals

H: Sexuality is right there too.  The shaman figure has an erection in the cave portrait.  The animals in a sense are the mistress of the cave.  There’s a kind of copulation symbolism, where the shaman is fertilizing those animal forms and bringing consciousness to the animals, the generation of thought itself, and the magnificence of thought.  You know, we’ve talked a bit about your book Realms of Gold and how it was first conceived.  It came from thinking about the implications of your earlier emphasis on animal intelligence.  Well, there it is.  Shamanic intelligence is a certain kind of cosmic intelligence. This is what Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers bring in; this strong realization that the hawk, for example in Jeffers poetry, represents fierce consciousness joined with final disinterestedness.  That’s very Buddhist, very Zen.  To be disinterested in the future.

The Spirit’s Spaceship

M: I wrote a note to a friend up in Oregon the other day, and I’ve been thinking about this.  All the things we talk about are things we’ve always known.  But one thing that’s interesting to me lately is this realization that I’m sort of wearing my body. It’s my outfit. [Laughs.] Or you could call it my spaceship.  I’m wearing it, but it’s not really me.  You could cut it all up and I’d still be me–till you finally turn off the light.  It’s a real sense that I’m borrowing that body of mine so I can travel around the universe.

On the Soul’s Voyage

Little kids in their celestial spaceships

H: I like that metaphor.  I think Whitman anticipated you by a hundred and fifty years! [Both Laugh.] He does talk about himself as a spaceship.  He does go out into the cosmos, sailing in a ship.  That’s his metaphor.  He’s out exploring the universe of thought.  In “An Old Man’s Thought of School,” Whitman praised the “fair auroral skies” and “morning dew upon the grass!” and then turned to the “sparkling eyes” of the boys and girls in the public school, as if speaking to children, parents and teachers across all America.  In Leaves of Grass he spoke of children of the future possessing “stores of mystic meaning” and equips their young lives “like a fleet of ships, immortal ships, / Soon to sail out over the measureless seas, / On the soul’s voyage” out into the cosmos.

M: Think of all these little kids in their celestial spaceships, on their souls’ journeys, with their “stores of mystic meaning” sailing toward mysterious shores.  Well, that is the salvation for cosmic awareness, for the awareness of our cosmic participation. Wouldn’t it be lovely if that were the central theme of all education, the very heart of it all? Really, I think those shamans felt that back in Lascaux.

H: I think so, and that’s what my intuition tells me.  I don’t think it’s original to Whitman, though it took a certain evolution of science to launch him, as he says, into the Unknown . . .

To Bring the Metaphor Alive Again

M: In order to turn it into the language of our day, this day, I think that’s what our jobs always are.  We keep having to translate what we already know into the language of the moment in order to bring the metaphor alive again.  You have to tell it just right, or it’s just going to be confusing.

H: The poet doesn’t select his or her metaphors randomly.  You find this in Yeats.  In “Sailing to Byzantium” he says that he shall never take his bodily form from any natural thing but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enameling.  Think about that metaphor for a moment and think about what we’ve been talking about with regards to equality with all matter.

M: That’s good.

The Transformation of Nature Through Art

H: If there is a distinction being made by the poet between the natural world and something supernatural–I don’t like the word supernatural, because it creates a separation.  Nevertheless, there’s a subtle distinction being drawn by Yeats about the transformation of nature through art; that there’s some kind of transformation, as the philosopher and art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) wrote.

M: You could call it supernatural, but that’s just a word for what he’s talking about.

A membrane of thought, closing in on itself, eventually encircling the Earth

H: It’s what Teilhard de Chardin called the “Noosphere” in The Phenomenon of Man, a membrane of thought that gradually evolved and, closing in on itself, eventually encircled the Earth, or what Jung called the collective unconscious.

M: In a literal sense . . .

H: Byzantium is the city of gold.

M: It’s super-natural–the way they use that word.

H: A place of enlightenment.

M: Again, if you were to throw “supernatural” into an essay without conveying the sense of it we’re describing, people would probably misunderstand entirely.

H: Well, it is the realm of gold Keats named for us, the place where the Yeats arrives by creating monuments of his own magnificence–in the moment.  The poet has that capacity to do that, as do other vocations.

The Intensification of Daily Life

M: I think what my work in teaching was and still is today to take something like “Sailing to Byzantium” and mess around with it till it comes alive–which is what we’re doing right now. That was constantly what we were doing, bringing these things alive in various ways, trying to work toward the intensification of daily life.

H: That’s a good way to put it.

M: The intensification of daily life.  When I’m looking at things around this room, I’ve got my nervous system, my organism, so tuned that those things are now part of the golden glow that we’re talking about.

H: And that relates to energy.  Energy intensifies.  There’s an intensification of energy at the heart of matter made possible through thought.

M: Yeah.

H: Thought itself can create a higher vibration . . .

M: I think it’s exactly what Christ did when he went out in the desert.  Those who are truly artists somehow or other grope their way up to that, and then for the rest of their lives, as Yeats put it, “One has a vision.  One would like another.  That is all.”

H: Well, I think that’s right here in the quote I sent you from Chardin from The Phenomenon of Man, “But let us emphasize the point: union increases [There’s the intensification] only through an increase in consciousness, that is to say in vision.” So seeing is only unified through vision.  Vision is therefore the apex of creation.

Through a Subjective Lens

M: Vision is the key word here.  I would say that, too, but again we have make sure people understand how we’re using that word. It isn’t the image that’s perceived but what lies behind that image. And these words are simply tools for getting at what’s going on.

H: The only way an objective view of the world can emerge is through a subjective lens of what lies in the Noosphere.

[Chardin coined the word “noosphere” to describe what he saw as a sphere of thought encircling the Earth every bit as “physical” as our quantum makeup or our Earth’s atmosphere.  He postulated a “noosphere” of interconnected thinking of the great minds, past and current, that envelope the human community.]

M:  That’s a good phrase.  Is that a new way of putting it for you?

H: Well, yes.  It’s very much a part of what we’re talking about with regards to reflection.  If you remember how you start off Image, that Shakespearean dialogue between Casius and Brutus: “Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?” “No, Casius, for the eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other thing.”  Reflection can only happen through as subjective lens.  And the cosmos is unique to each person and needs to be seen anew.  Chardin wants to call it Christ, and there’s Christ in everything in the cosmos.  And that’s his subjective universe, and that’s beautiful, and it’s true.

Our information is always incomplete and incorrect — but close enough!

H: The idea is to gather more and more information about all these views.  For example, you could take an historical view of world religions and decide to look at them in the moment through an act of unitary seeing that embraces each as equal.  They are ways to envision what reality is at a spiritual level. The economic level of democracy is not working.  We’re about to see a seventeen trillion-dollar deficit, April 3, 2012) mostly owing to China.  What about the political strata of democracy?  Well, not much going on there, no seeding of the Earth with new potentials, for our becoming a one-world species.  It’s got to happen on a spiritual level.  Whitman was right about this third level, I think, spiritual democracy.  What did you call it earlier?  We were talking about Chardin’s “Omega Point, in The Phenomenon of Man” where the universe is personalized and converges in each of us. And you were relating it to the idea of critical mass, I think you said.

M: Right.

H: There’s something about that critical mass, the tipping point.  What’s the tipping point, some big spark happening?

Critical Mass and the Interconnectedness of the Strands of Thought

M: Someone back, oh, thirty years ago, talked about a critical mass of thinkers, and the plus side was that of, say, a billion people, five percent are part of that critical mass.  But now we have over seven billion people, (April 3, 2012) so even if only five percent of that is of the critical mass, it looms much, much larger and has a logarithmic potential.  A much more powerful force.  So I think that’s quite a compelling argument. The other thing that I’m seeing here, and talking with you about–which I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to–is the interconnectedness of all these strands of thought.  You know, you picked out Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism as a link.  I bet he read a lot of the people you’re talking about.  They are all so intertwined.

The Unification of the Spirit of Humanitiy

H: Well, I think we’re linking up East and West now.  That’s basically what Whitman was trying to do as well in “Passage to India”:  to create this new society that never existed before, where there is equality between thinkers of the East and West with regards to the unification of the whole spirit of humanity, a new religious or spiritual phenomenon.  At some point it would be great to talk to you further about this emergence of thought that Chardin talks about in The Phenomenon of Man.  I think you’d be interested in this.  His ideas are really brilliant –the birth of thought, in particular because of your interest in thinking about thinking.

M: Oh, where was it?  Oh, yes, we began this talk by speaking of Chardin’s review involving Graham Greene.  Greene wrote The Heart of the Matter” forty some years ago.

Synchronicities and the Noosphere

H: We’re back to the zero-sum field.  That’s the place where synchronicities emerge.  Jung called it the psychoid realm.  Eckhart called it the Godhead.  It could be that place Chardin calls the Noosphere, an atmosphere or membrane.  Whitman also talks about that atmospheric zone as a place where miracles are happening all the time.

A noiseless patient spider, 
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 
And you O my soul where you stand, 
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

-- Walt Whitman

M: Let’s take a moment to talk a little about how you disabuse people of a narrow understanding of their own religions and faiths?

H: Well, I think through new metaphors.  They can help people get outside of their box.

M: How would you do that, though?   How would you deal with some fundamentalists’ refusal to step outside the box? How do you get them to do that?

H: I think that’s what’s happening in Egypt.  Hillary Clinton nailed it.  It’s about protecting the rights of minorities.  We can’t have what we did to the Native Americans ever again.  Or what the Spanish and the Portuguese did to the Central and South American peoples.

M: Sarajevo in our time, Rwanda. (April 3, 2012)

A Global Species

H: The time of imperialism is over.  We have to move forward as a global species or we might destroy ourselves.

M: Well, what we have is ethnic cleansing all over the globe right now.  It seems like we’re regressing, don’t you think?

H: But at the same time we’re emerging, progressing . . .

M: Well, you’re right.  There is that Hillary Clinton demand that we do advance toward spiritual democracy.

H: And democracy is playing a part in this–American democracy and the movement toward equality and religious freedom.

M: Yes, that fits what we know already: the equality of all things.

H: The movement toward universal equality.  And that means equality for women; their rights, all rights.

M: I don’t see how a human being can achieve equality if her freedom is curtailed in any way from the freedoms others enjoy.

H: There are a lot of Middle-Eastern women who are throwing off the veil today.  Some are fed up with patriarchy and Muslim fundamentalism and want real democracy.

M: Catholic women are getting like that, too.  The nuns are getting ticked off with this masculine view of things.

H: It would be helpful to get that quote from Alan Watts’ talk “The Crisis in Religion” that you transcribed for your book Image as a kind of introduction to our talk here.  I’m very interested in getting in a key metaphor from that talk.  Did you bring him to Diablo Valley College yourself?

M: No, I didn’t bring him.  In those days, we had a series of guest lecturers and he was one of them.  I had read him and seen him on TV, and I was delighted.  Here was this whole college being offered his view of how things are.  Anyway it’s in Image, and maybe you can find the quote and we can talk about it.

H: Did you transcribe it yourself?

M: Yes.  The college taped it, and I got a copy and painstakingly typed it up.

H: It’s good you preserved that.

M: Yeah, I think so too.

H: When was that?  I’m wondering if my father was there teaching foreign languages at DVC at that time.

M: I’m sure he was there for that speech.  It must have been around 1967 or so.  Image came out in 1973.  We were in temporary trailers back then, and your dad’s office was in my building, so we knew each other.  He was a linguist, and that was the connection for me with him.

H: You know, Alexander von Humboldt got some of his insights from the linguistic research of his older brother, William von Humboldt. Alexander gave him two hundred samples of different native tongues from Ecuador to analyze and he said that language more than any other function of the human mind can bind together the whole human race, transcendent of class, religion, and ethnicity.  We’re talking about the time when Schiller and Goethe were alive.  The four men were friends in Germany. This was a long time ago.  You mentioned Goethe earlier. Well, the Humboldt’s brothers influenced Goethe directly.

M: Oh, my!

Deliberately Liberated Thought, Still Warm on the Walls of Caves

H: And so this whole idea of cosmos was very much connected with Humboldt’s explorations in South America and the opening of his mind to the constellations of stars in the Southern hemisphere. Language was at the root for Whitman’s experiments with poetry, you know, “Salut Au Monde!”  But before language, there was art. And that’s where those symbolic forms created thoughts that eventually found their way into language in Lascaux.  Those early shamans must have had their own language, which we’ve lost, of course. As Chardin says in The Phenomenon of Man, “With homo sapiens, it is a deliberately liberated thought which explodes, still warm, on the walls of the caves. With them these new-comers brought art.”. This connects up nicely with the dream of the shaman as a light being I reported during the beginning of our chats.

Toward a Zen Synthesis

M: There’s a little book by Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth.

H: Oh, yes and he wrote The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.  I love it.

M: This book is quite short.  It’s more like an extended essay.  It cleared up for me a lot about how language works.

H: He was a linguistic philosopher.  That’s always how I thought of you, with a Zen component, of course.  If there’s a metaphor for a particular religious attitude throughout Image, it would probably be Zen.  Eno keeps popping up throughout the book with little thought bubbles coming out of his head, and he’s tracing that path toward a Zen synthesis, an experience.

M: That’s right!

H: Explosions. Chardin writes in Hymn of the Universe : “All these activities of the inner life [exact computation of space and time, the dreams and anxieties of love] are simply the bubbling up of the newly-formed life-center as it explodes upon itself.”

Writing the Novel of Our Lives

M: Ha, well, thanks for pointing that out.  Oh, so that’s what I was doing!  William Saroyan has a play–My Heart’s in the Highlands, I think it is–and there’s a character in it who is writing something all the time, and someone says, “You’re writing a novel.”  Oh, is that what I’m doing?! I suppose we human beings could be writing a novel of our lives as we go from day to day, but someone else would have to notice that for us.  We’re just tooling along mowing the lawn, eating a peach.

Transforming Intuition into Thought

H: You know a thought just came back to me.  Back in my journal I was reflecting on a lot of this in advance.  Intuition has that way of being in advance of thinking.

M: That’s an important idea, Steven.  When we go into a classroom, we need to be well aware that students may not have transferred intuition into thought, but that can come later, maybe years later.  Yet classrooms need to be places where intuition can play its important role.  In that sense, I felt successful in that seeds were planted with virtually everyone.  Just about everyone participated in that intuitive experience.  I think they did indeed have experiences of the type we’re talking about.  Eliot’s line puts it this way: “Oh, do not ask What is it.  Let us go and make our visit.”

The other day I discovered that a woman who had been a student at Salem State when they had adopted a book of mine, Montage, in all their freshman English classes.  Well, I looked her up and found she’d gone on and gotten her Ph.D.  Now she’s teaching.  Well, there’s a lot of fertilizing going on there, a lot of seeds planted.  I rather like that.  What possibly could not be good in experiencing and then later, through language, realizing?

Thought Images and the Inner Voice, Calling

H: I was looking recently through my dissertation, which is on vocational development in childhood, particularly the research I did and put down in a survey of literature on vocational education in the elementary and middle schools.  Based on what I had read, it struck me that American education lagged behind Germany, which had at its center vocational education at a very young age.  And I think what we need in education in the United States and across the world is a focus on this very thing that we’re calling the emergence of thought.  And by that I mean through images.  It comes at a very early age.

You could say even children have a vision and need to find a way to manifest it through action.

M: Oh, yes.

H: It’s important to work with these kids and help them shape their vision at a very young age so that they don’t get off track at the university system, misled by current trends.

M: This is the first time I’ve heard the German educational system described this way.  I hadn’t considered that what the Germans may have indeed been trying to do was to tap into a person’s penchant toward a vocation–defined as you define it.

H: The inner voice, the calling . . .

The University, a Universe of Thought

M: If Germans were doing that, then my hat’s off to them.  I just read something the other day where someone asks “What’s the purpose of a university?” And he says, “It’s to make university professors.”  It’s all academic, the academy, not about vocation.  It’s about making university professors.  That’s pretty much what happens if you go through the system–you become a professor.

H: I was reading just the other day, in Chardin, about the meaning of the word university.  Of course, it comes from the word universe, which was originally meant to create a cosmology and search for our personal vision of spiritual evolution in the cosmos. More recently I’ve learned that the word comes from Islamic scholars, who imported the notion to Spain.

M: And that would be to discover or nourish one’s vocation.  If the Germans were up to that, that’s exactly what’s needed.

H: Van Gogh in his Starry Night got his idea for the portrait from Whitman.  Whitman had a cosmology.  So he taught Van Gogh.  And Van Gogh put it on canvas beautifully, I think.  So there’s the cosmology right there for you: a universe of thought.

M: Um.  Let’s see where that’s leading us.

H: Why don’t you round it off for us?

M: OK.  I was surprised. Why did you bring up Chardin?  You were working on something.  How does Chardin figure into it?

The Coming of the Cosmic Christ

H: My friend Matthew Fox wrote a book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, which I just reviewed, and I wanted to trace the origins of the phrase Cosmic Christ to its foremost thinker.  So Chardin really should get a lot of credit for the birth of the idea.  Matthew Fox has a late chapter where he talks about that and he of course takes Chardin much further.

M: So writing that review refreshed you on Chardin.

H: I’m bringing it up here with you because I think it’s very important in our talks on the unity of the cosmos and to get back to the idea of the Field, and the role of thinking in helping to move towards the future of humankind. I know you don’t like to look into the future, futurity.

In the Pregnant Moment

M: I guess that’s right. I tend to think the future will take care of itself.  What we do now is in the now and must be given full attention.  If we do it well, then whatever future there may be is best served.

H: In the moment, yes, but I do think there is futurity in the pregnant moment, that there’s a pregnancy of ideas.  Chardin is so very optimistic about the future, you know. He is a breath of fresh air! In Hymn of the Universe he says: “Let us forget for a moment the details of the economic crisis, the political tensions, the class-struggles which block out our horizon, and let us climb high enough to gain an inclusive and impartial view of the whole process of hominization”. That’s beautiful!

M: Yes, that’s well put.  Like a fertilized egg.  There’s a futurity in that!  In fact, I brought along a couple of pithy quotes from Chardin.  They’re sort of like koans that one can ponder.  He says, if you want to influence the future, help the kids who are coming along right now.

H: That’s the whole vocation of your work in Critical Thinking and in first-and second-semester English.  You were influencing these kids . . .

The Golden Glow at the Heart

H: So he’s looking to the Pacific.  He’s looking west.  And in another poem I sent to you,,“Dialogues with a Master,” when I was writing to you back in the 90s when we got started with these dialogues, right around the time you were retiring, that metaphor was already there for me as the Golden Gate.  I think there is something about the parallels we see that amaze me.  If you look at the Buddha, the magnificent art with Buddha with the golden halo, it’s the same as the halo of Christ–the golden glow.  It’s really from the heart, connecting the fourth chakra to the seventh, this connectivity between thought and feeling is really what the golden glow at the heart of matter is all about.

M: Yes, marvelously integrated, isn’t it?

Dialogue # 7, Part 2 Nature Headon, Fleshed Out Moments, Randomness

Dialogue # 7, Part 2  Nature Headon,, Fleshed Out Moments, Randomness

The morning wind forever blows,
the poem of creation is 
uninterrupted, but few are
the ears to hear it.

[Steven and I continue discussing poetry that penetrates the barrier of the ordinary, Jeffers being one who confronted nature headon, stripping his images to the bone so that there is no way for a reader to take them as pretty words.  We both are familiar with the choice of paying attention to random occurrences and allowing them to help flesh out our moments.]

Random Occurrences

Nature in the Raw

M: As I was saying, we do have the choice of fleshed out moments, and I think possibility would fit in well with your Jeffers work.  As I read him, he wants for himself, and he’d like to make it available to others, what we’re talking about here, that nature is so raw.

H: I think that’s the main reason that he writes, to convey to the reader the sense of what he calls the beauty of things.  He even says to the reader, “Can’t you feel it?” “Look . . .”

M: (Laughing) Yes, look, for Christ’s sake!

H: Look at how beautiful it is.  And, I think, not just the nature that we see but the transparency behind nature, that sheen of gold behind the external object.

M: I think I mentioned earlier that Lawrence Durrell called it the cloth of gold beneath the sackcloth of ordinary reality. 

H: Something internal that shines forward–which comes from the great explosion.  For example, this golden orchid that’s come into bloom, here on the table.

The Difference Between Pretty and Beautiful

M: Ah, yes.  I think for most of us, living on that first level, this is pretty.  If you allow this orchid to express itself, it’s beautiful.  That’s the difference.  There’s a great difference between something pretty and something beautiful.  What’s beautiful is non-verbal, speechless.  Pretty, you can describe.  You have to experience beauty.  And beauty is what it’s all about. I know everybody wants to live in beauty.  They may not know it, but they do everything they can think of to get there.…

Well, let’s get back to what you’ve been working on.  Where are you now?

H: Oh, let me tell you about a dream I had last night.  I’ve been planting redwood trees you know, and in my dream I was planting trees.  So there’s something about tree planting that for me right now is an expression of what we’ve been talking about here, an expression of the poetic.  Planting a tree is poetry. 

M: Yes.

Reverence for the tree


H: When it’s done right and with the right attitude, reverence for the tree, it is poetic.  And that tree will possibly live for two-thousand years.  That gives me peace of mind, gives me pleasure, and it helps me see longevity.  Another reason redwood trees are so important to me is because of the fact that we are writers on the West Coast.  And poets, both of us as well, and as appreciators of good poetry, know this.  In his “Song of the Redwood Tree” Whitman sees the tree is alive and gives it a voice.  It speaks in the poem, and he becomes the voice of the tree.


It’s a beautiful poem.  In many respects it reflects Whitman’s feelings for spiritual democracy, for the unity of all life.  The other side of the poem is the sacrifice.  He celebrates the sacrifice of the tree; it’s a symbolic offering.  There’s a certain lack of awareness in it about the ecological dimension, a consciousness that should have been in the teamsters’ minds, the loggers, who cut down those great first growth forests in Mendocino County, where the poem takes place.  Of course, they were doing it for money and because was their jobs. Nevertheless, there’s a certain sense in which humanity must be elevated to the point in which it fully realizes the tree is sacrificing its life for this new society, which Whitman says is proportionate to nature.  So “Song of the Redwood Tree” is really an anticipation of what Whitman calls poets to come, the future bards of the West.

Jeffers, you could say, is one of the great voices of the West Coast, in regards to the interconnected relationship between the poet and nature, that cosmic unity that is there in so many of his great poems.  So I think planting redwood trees in this park area [Joaquin Miller Park just back of Steven’s home] where we had, not one, but two tragic deforestations for the building of San Francisco and Oakland, with the redwood trees that were cut down here. Planting redwood trees is also an expression of ecological awareness that as writers we have some kind of role in giving something of our own spirit back to nature.  Lori and I found a plaque back in Roberts Park where two massive trees had been cut down, believed to be amongst the largest redwood trees in California.  They were so large ships used them as navigation points to go through the Golden Gate so they wouldn’t crash on the rocks at Alcatraz.  They were so high they towered above everything else.  You can go and see the rings, thirty feet in diameter, today.  These may have been three-thousand-year-old trees. And the largest living things in the world!  And the fact that the forest was cut down for profit says something sad about the need we have right now for a shift from political and economic levels of democracy, to the religious strata–which is what spiritual democracy is, according to Whitman.

They Would Eat a Forest for Profit.

Just to finish this off, there’s a great little poem that Jeffers wrote, right before he went to Taos, probably around 1927, called “A Redeemer.”  Speaking of the Americans who came West, he writes, “Oh, as a rich man eats a forest for profit and a field for vanity, so you came west and raped / The continent and brushed its people to death.”.  The Indians, the Native Americans.  Jeffers writes, “They would eat a forest for profit.”  So here a focus, an ecological focus, on the shadow of economic democracy, and there’s this criticism of manifest destiny.  It’s a serious critique of the economic side of our democratic system–that doesn’t have enough of an ecological awareness in its religious outlook. We’re speaking of coincidences.  Here’s one more.  Lori and I were coming home yesterday after a nice long hike up into the Redwood park, about two miles down to the creek area and on our way back I looked up and I said, “Lori, look!” And four of the redwood trees, right here in back of our house, had been butchered.  Somebody had cut the tops off four of the trees so that they can have a view from their house, looking out toward the South Bay.  I can understand someone wanting to appreciate the beauty of the Bay, but it was sad to see those    trees cut like that.  They’ll grow back, they’ll survive, because Redwood trees are resilient.  They’ll outlast all of us.  It was sad to see because it reminded me this whole hill where we are right now was once filled with Redwood growth–because of the fog belt. So that’s it.  That’s what I wanted to say.  So let’s get back to what you were talking about.

M: Well, the first thing is, I would say in American politics today there are those who speak only of economics and cut down Redwoods for profit and vanity.  Their opponents only counter in those same terms.  They are very reluctant to bring in the spiritual aspect of what we’re doing.  I think we should be strong and clear that democracy is a spiritual thing. We don’t have to say that.  But there is a moral aspect to all these arguments about the environment, gay rights, equal pay for women, the right to an education for every human being, the right to health care, a dignified old age.  These are all spiritual things.  They don’t have anything to do with economics.  You can’t argue there’s profit in any of these.  There’s not enough profit in the arts, and so forth.  Well, democracy isn’t about profit.  These things must be done because of our souls.  You don’t have to use this kind of language, but you have to be willing to stand and say, “We are a spiritual democracy.”  There is no such thing as democracy without the spirit underlying it.  And that brings us right back to the deep layers of meaning. Now there’s the poet coming back in again.  The other thing I was thinking about when you were talking about Jeffers is his style.  I’d say he’s kind of a successor to Whitman.  Whitman was much more flowing and melodic.  I’d bet a few dollars that Jeffers was very familiar with Whitman.

H: Oh, I am sure he was although he says in a letter that Whitman never interested him.

Jeffers’ style versus the safety zone of closed thinking

M: He took it to the next step.  He must have intentionally decided to make his poems less poetic than Whitman.  It must sound almost like a dialogue.  It couldn’t sound like what people were used to in poetry.  It seems, in reading his poems that he jettisoned the conventions of poetry so that he could somehow penetrate the thick skulls, including those of the intellectual establishment, to get past their barrier, that glass partition.  Looking out at the world through glass prevents the world from touching us.  It’s a lot cooler or hotter out there but our mind-sets insulate us.  I’d say that our politicians and establishment thinkers are looking at the world through glass.  I think Jeffers is trying to smash that partition, to get us out of our safety zone of closed thinking. 

H: Yes.  That’s a good way to put it. He is forcefully trying to do that. 

M: His very life, as you know, was lived in that location on the cliff above the Pacific in Carmel. If he lived there, and if he built his house from stones he dragged up from the shore, then he would almost be forced to live the life he was talking about.  Drag one of those rocks up the hill and you’re not looking at life through the window.  You’re not having someone else bring life up for you. I think just the few poems I’ve been reading would suggest that to me.

H: Um hum.

Jeffers and the ecological movement

M: So today, just putting things together from our dialogue, I’d venture to say Jeffers is a successor to Whitman.

H: That’s the way I see it, too.  He is in many ways an answer to Whitman’s call for a future literatus order, which would fulfill his dream of a future society that would be proportionate to nature.  He’s probably the strongest spokesperson in America for the ecological movement.

M: I could see that, yes. 

H: He’s highly regarded by ecological thinkers.  The Sierra Club quotes him quite a bit.

M: Do you have any audios of Jeffers reading his poems?  I was wondering how he would deliver those lines, his emphasis.

H: That’s a good question.  I know there’s at least one recording and probably others. I was saying earlier regarding the Apollo of Keats’ poem that of course Apollo is the sun god but also the god of poets.  Regarding the classical reverence for the poet as the voice of the deeper and wider world, Whitman writes, “Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? Have you reckon’d the Earth much? / Have you practis’d so long as to learn to read? / Have you felt so proud as to get at the meaning of poems? / Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems, / You shall possess the good of the Earth and the sun, (there are millions of suns left,)” (Leaves of Grass).  Millions of suns! You see how cosmic he is? He wants to give the reader a sense of the unity of the cosmos in these lines, the origin of all poems.  The shift from the classical period where Keats uses the metaphor of looking up and discovering the new planet, to countless suns, comes in because Whitman was reading Alexander von Humboldt’s book Kosmos.  There are millions of suns.  We are merely one.  Apollo is only one inspiration. 

M: Yes.

Millions of suns yet to discover

H: So he’s saying there are millions of suns left for you to discover.  That’s one thing I wanted to say.  The other thing is that Keats says, “Then felt I . . .”  He feels.  He has a feeling for something that is transcendent.   It swims into his mind; it swims into his ken. This is really the significant aspect of the experience.  The planet swims into his mind and into his understanding, “Ken” being of course the word for understanding.  He goes on, “Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eye . . .”

M: That’s a good image, too.  He had a less powerful image in an earlier version of the poem.

H: I think it’s a great metaphor because it shows the ability to see things from outside of the human realm, from the point of view of the eagle, the animal intelligence within all of us.  More than just animal intelligence, it’s the intelligence of the bird of prey that has this kind of vision that looks down at the Earth and at humanity. That’s what Jeffers brings in through his hawk symbol, and Whitman brings forward in the dalliance of the eagles.  And, yes, it was Balboa, not Cortez, who was the first European to see the Pacific on a peak in Darien, which is in Panama.  Panama was also the place where Alexander von Humboldt went to explore.  This is interesting because what Keats is into, as a British poet, is a vision of the Pacific, the West Coast, which is where Jeffers put his roots down.  Darien is also significant in terms of locale because of the Inca culture. The Incas, of course, were killed off by the Spanish and Portuguese.

M: Yes, yes.

H: Killed off because of their quest for gold.  The Incas had all that gold.

Spanish gold

M: Oh, yes.  The Spaniards took back tons to Spain.

H: Tons, to build their churches.

M: Yes, they really did.  What irony!

H: So that’s how the metaphor plays on the actual place where some of the greatest gold was found.

M: Well, as we talk and in this context, you can see why people valued the metal.  It was probably something that was touching their spirits, a physical version of what they experienced, knowingly or not.  They misunderstood, as you were saying earlier, about the economic use of trees, converting redwoods into gold coins.

At play in the realms of gold

I want add here that Karl Staubach a year or two ago gave me a book called The Tree by Colin Tudge.  A central ideal of that book is that human beings and the tree go back a long way together.  Trees pretty much made civilization possible, if you really think about it.  This was how human beings were able to survive, with fire, housing, and all that sort of thing. There is a great reverence of trees in that book.  And Karl isn’t kidding around when he regards a tree as he would a person.  They are people to him, and he pays a lot of attention to them.  I think he’s one of those who live in the realms of gold all the time.  He told me, back when kids were telling him about their psychedelic experiences, “That’s what I see all the time.”  Nothing special about that!  What’s annoying about geniuses is that they take those realms of gold for granted. They probably wonder why everybody doesn’t see it that way.  But if you’re not wired that way, you can’t.  You have to come at it from a different angle.  And maybe you have to mess around a little bit.  That’s how I came at it in my teaching: We have to mess around a little—play–to get things going, to invite the soul, as Whitman put it.  So, back to the poem, as we’ve been demonstrating, the more you play with it the more it comes alive, doesn’t it?

H: Yes.

The key to the poetic mode

M: After a while, you start to say, “Wow!”  I think everything you and I’ve been talking about is what Keats was fully aware of when he crafted the poem.  Or, let’s say he wasn’t consciously aware, and he wrote these words that resulted in this sonnet.  It doesn’t mean what we’ve seen is not there.  What you, the reader, bring to the poem—always–is what brings it alive.  It’s not alive till you do something yourself to that poem, which is to bring your intensity of vision, your openness. Your flood gates of sensitivity are open so that that poem can penetrate.  It would be the same thing with this pair of glasses here, or anything else.  I can imagine going into a class one day and saying, “Well, let’s look at these glasses today.”  We would spend an hour on that. You can’t believe how poetic that would become within an hour or so.  The option, the opportunity, to participate in the world with that kind of intensity is available, and it would be nice for every educated person to know that much about it.  Not that you have to go around doing that all the time, but you at least ought to know that if you mess around with the world, that that’s what’s there, available to you at any time.

H: That’s good, and I think that Keats was aware of something very profound and that there’s something about the Pacific in that poem that spoke to him.  Keats was looking West, he was looking, as Whitman was looking, to the West Coast.  There’s something about the Golden West, too.

M: Yeah!  There’s so much!

The golden gold of gold

H: Right here, the Golden Gate.  The bridge just had its 75th anniversary. But getting back to what you said about trees and gold. The Gold Rush, of course, the Forty-Niners.  Right after that, the redwoods were cut down in the 1850s. The Gold Rush, and they were still using gold coins back then.  So, profit, cutting a tree, a forest, for profit was equivalent to getting gold.  You could get gold by cutting down redwood trees.  We’re at a point now where we have to shift the focus back to the spiritual level. 

M: Well, yes. 

The petal of the rose and a million suns

H:  That gold is really in the trees. The poet, Dylan Thomas, writes, “. . . that blasts the roots of trees, is my destroyer.”  You remember, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”?  It drives the redwood tree. That is the secret force of the universe.

M: Yes.

H: “Drives my green age, , . Blasts the roots of trees . . .”  So there you see Thomas is actually on to something that Whitman foresaw when he wrote there are millions of suns left and that Jeffers would later explore.  Jeffers showed what blasts the roots of trees is that universal force and it is not just soft petals and warm beds.  It is something much larger than science had ever conceived–until we discovered the idea of the giant atom. That was a real breakthrough in science, and it changed the shape of poetry forever.  Jeffers was very aware of this, and it’s interesting what you’re saying about his lines.  When he wrote “The Women at Point Sur,” he said that metaphors would serve.  He would tell stories again, but there was something that had changed in the shape and structure of poetry.  It’s no longer the kind of poetry that Keats wrote.

M: No.

H: The kind we find in modern verse.

Keats’s spaceship docks in the Oakland hills

M: But I want to say–this occurred to me while you were talking–that Keats’ poem is like a little space ship that came sailing across two centuries.

H: It’s a beautiful poem.

M: And here it is.  It arrived in your living room this morning!  It set sail and arrived here, and we started looking at the space ship and what he embedded in it is now available to us again. So that’s a good lesson for you in your writing.  You want to make sure that 200 years from now somebody’s going to open up your Jeffers book and say, “Oh, Boy!  This is great stuff.” H: There it is.  Keats uses the metaphor of discovering a new planet.

M: Yes.

Silent on a peak in Darien

H: So the science is there, too.

M: Ha!  He poem swims into our ken!  Also, you can’t falsify anything.  It has to ring true at all these levels we’re talking about.  In this poem the surface features produce a picture.  Then we go deeper into the allusions and see what Keats’ inspirations are and then deeper into the source of all those allusions, the very atomic nature of nature and our experience of it. Not a bad little space ship!

Dialogue # 7: Coincidence, Robinson Jeffers’ and John Keats’s Space Ships

November 22, 2011

If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness When everything
is as it was in my childhood Violent, vivid, and of infinite possibility: That the sun and the moon broke over my head.   Then I cast time out of the trees and fields, Then I stood immaculate in the Ego; Then I eyed the world with all delight, Reality was the perfection of my sight.   And
time has big handles on the hands, Fields and trees a way of being themselves. I saw battalions of the race of mankind Standing stolid, demanding a moral answer.   I gave the moral answer and I died And into a
realm of complexity came Where nothing is possible but necessity And
the truth waiting there like a red babe.          —Richard Eberhart (1904—2005)    

[From time to time, Steven and I explore what are commonly called coincidences here in West and how much such phenomena influence the way we experience reality.  A Robinson Jeffers book that fell off my kitchen shelf the morning of this dialogue brought the question to the fore, since this dialogue was to be centered on Jeffers and Whitman, both of whom could see the fiery cosmos in a blade of grass or a hurt hawk on a California promontory.  The dialogue evolves into ways of allowing that awareness to inform an afternoon of clearing out the garage.]

 H: You remember our chat about why Jeffers’ reputation changed after 1932?  I won’t go deeper into all that . . .

M: Why after 1932, though?

H: He was on the front cover of Time magazine.

M: Oh.

H: He was considered America’s foremost poet. 

M: Let me interrupt a moment: Here’s an interesting coincidence.  We have a bookcase in our kitchen jammed with books.  One morning a couple of days ago I reached for an envelope lying on top of the books and one fell out.  It was a book of selected Jeffers poems.  You’ve been focused on Jeffers lately and talking with me about him, and here’s Robinson Jeffers Selected Poems.  So I started reading a few of the poems.

H: What did you read?

M: Oh, I don’t remember the titles.  One, of course, is “Hurt Hawks.”  I remembered that one from some time ago.  And a couple of other ones.  And I think his style of writing is almost like prose.  That could possibly be one reason the general public isn’t familiar with him. Reading him now seems easier than when I was younger.

H: That book falling out onto your kitchen floor, isn’t that a remarkable coincidence?  It wanted you to pay attention.

M: Apparently, because it just popped out and fell onto the floor!

Looking around in awareness

H: It wanted you to pay attention.

M: So, coincidences:  Jeffers book, a coincidence. 

Let me bring in “Hurt Hawks” here so readers who aren’t familiar with Jeffers’ poetic style”

The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat, 

No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the 
week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.

He stands under the oak-bush and waits 
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it. 

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head, 

The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes. 
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant. 

You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him; 
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; 
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved. 

We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. 

I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality. 

M: I think these chance happenings are fun  and fascinating.  I could give you a couple more that I noticed recently, but we both know there are tens of thousands of such incidents that people have described.

The fiery furnace of ordinary realitiy

Using what’s there

The thing about it, though, is that for me there was no sense of shock or surprise.  Only in pondering it does it seem like quite a thing to have happen.  But let me shift slightly and come back again to the contrast of the way our culture treats what we call coincidence and the way most other cultures incorporate whatever pops into their awareness.  The Spanish—I think the whole Spanish culture —when they talk of ghosts and visits from dead people, they don’t speak of them as remarkable, mysterious.  They take it as part of the warp and woof of daily life. They really do.  When you read a story, the narrator will say, “Grandfather came and sat by my bed and talked to me.”  And that’s perfectly normal, and they go about their lives as though that’s how it is, nothing to get excited about.

I do see it cropping up more in our own culture.  in Ann Tyler’s book The Beginner’s Goodbye the narrator is telling his own story and starts out by saying something to the effect, “You know, the funny thing is the way people react to Dorothy when we’re out someplace.” Well, it turns out that Dorothy, his wife, has died and she shows up every now and then, maybe sees him in the market or maybe she’s walking beside him.  For him, it’s perfectly natural, though he’s aware that other people might not see it that way.   And there are four or five ways people will try to make that fit, because they see her, too.  Someone might have thought she died but then maybe he hadn’t been paying that much attention, so maybe she hadn’t died after all, so he’d try to act natural and hurry off.  So there she is.

Put that in your story

So Tyler takes up the issue of people coming back into their lives after they’ve died.  And I think she seriously means this story.  The reason I think so is that her husband, Taghi Modarressi, a psychiatrist, died in 1997.  I don’t recall the particulars, but I do know that.  She never refers to that at all.  But I’d bet she had experiences of him coming back, and she thought, “I’m going to put that in a story.”

The trick is not to ignore anything.

Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander has the dead visiting the living, and no one acting as if that’s anything but normal and natural.  The dead continue participating in the shaping of physical reality, just as any other thing we encounter affects us, be it a spilt glass of milk or a glimpse of something out of the corner of the eye.  The trick is not to ignore anything, to realize that everything is of equal importance.  There is no such thing as generic snow to an Eskimo.

What I’m leading up to is that I think there’s a point of view in which these phenomena fit in quite well with some of the things you and I have been talking about, the fiery furnace that we all come from, the sun, and the little atomic furnaces that make up our bodies, the blood flowing through our veins.

The deeper sense is alwaiys

H: Say some more about that.

M: Well, I’ve been thinking about that. You were saying my book title, Realms of Gold, is a pleasant metaphor, yes, and Wordsworth’s host of golden daffodils, and so on.  These pretty images–but you were saying they grow out of this fierce atomic furnace, the sun and that we have to take that into account when we look at a daisy.  You were talking about Jeffers’ poem “The Great Explosion.”  You were saying, if you really want to know where the gold is, it comes from that.  I was saying, yes, I had thought that was implicit in my remarks.  Because these levels of experience, coincidences, for example, are going on right underneath ordinary reality, and supplement or complement ordinary reality, and there are layers and layers of that. Possibly the blood coursing through your veins can be a constant reminder that you come from a fiery furnace, that you are such a furnace yourself.  In this little atom in the tip of my fingernail, so small it can’t even be seen, there’s a fantastic fire contained in there.

The deeper sense is always available to us.

My point is, sure, go ahead, go to the store and buy the grapes, but if you would really like to enjoy your life, you could let all those various levels inform your life. And wouldn’t that be nice, to be able to experience all those levels while you’re buying grapes?  So you have, yes, what you call ordinary reality, but you know, you always know, you could easily click into what I would call the poetic mode and also experience it in this deeper sense.  The deeper sense is always available to us, if we care to engage it.  I’d guess things like rites of passage are supposed to introduce you to that mode in a sharp, clear way, so that you have that awareness as the background of your journey through life.

My God, all that talk.  Well, Steven, you’re a very good listener!

H: I can see you’ve given some more thought to what I said about Jeffers poem about the Big Bang.

M: I’ll tell you one more thing about these thoughts.  I thought I should tell where the title of my website came from: Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”  So I said, OK, here’s the poem.  Then I realized there were so many allusions in it that people wouldn’t know, and it would be hard for them to get at it.  Then I thought, what if he means his words literally, and not in some kind of poetic exaggeration, but really means realms of gold, what if he means literally this intensity of experience that is so deep?  What if Jacob Boehme wasn’t kidding around when he looked at light reflected off a pewter bowl and said, “I saw all heaven.”  What if he really means that?

 So I print the poem and post it on my Website, and I thought people will not get this.  And that’s because these surface features, these words, are one level.  If you untangle that level, that allows you access to another level that is indeed there.  It begins to be richer, more exciting.  If you allow yourself to go to another level, you’re back to what you were talking about, Steven, “The Great Explosion.”  That’s all there in this poem.  If a person were willing to wake up every day, and tune in to these levels of the cosmos all at once, then something like that poem can be absolutely fantastically meaningful.  And eating these scones that we’ve been having this morning could be the same way.  It’s all there.  It depends on my bringing my sensitivity, my concentration, to that world, for it to come alive.  You see poets running around loose, the real ones, and everything is intense like that.  It’s almost enough to burn them up.  Sometimes it does.  Richard Eberhardt wrote, I remember, “If I could only live at that pitch that is near madness. . .”  I guess it’s no wonder so many of us choose to stand a bit farther from the flame.

So that’s what I’m working on, and that’s why I’m thinking about this so much, ways to get into the several layers of meaning that are available in any aspect of any moment.


Dialogue # 6: The Breathing Heart of Matter — The Sky-Drum of Hafiz

September 20, 2011

Excuse the expression, but I want to fall in life. I want to stay in the park
the singer’s voice sweetening the afternoon. So I write afternoon. Not the
word, the thing.  —from “The Alphabet in the Park,” Adelia Prado

[Steven and I are sitting in Steven’s  living room.  The sun is hitting a piece of stained glass that’s moving gently in the circulating air. The dialogue that ensues delves deeper into the process of seeing more intensely, and with greater and greater awareness what lies all about us.  It leads as well to a deepening understanding of what can be called cosmic morality.

Herrmann: I’m noticing this beautiful movement of the prism of light reflecting from the sun, these spherical colors moving about the room.

McKowen: Look at that!

H: You don’t get that very often where the sun hits it just right.

M: It’s like magic almost.  Look at it going over the ceiling.

Light and Darkness in the Human Psyche

H: They do represent something of that refracted light that is at the core, the center, of the human psyche that wants to emit its own radiance.  The forces of darkness do want to interfere with that illumination in the world and are actually envious.  Envy, I think, is a big part of the human shadow, and whenever a great light does appear in the world, you are going to find a Judas Iscariot.  You’re going to find a regime that wants to squash a Hafiz or a Rumi, poets who are all about light and about love and bringing that source of universal energy to the world. H: I think our discussions are hitting the nail on the head with regard to our nervous systems, which is to evolve toward greater and greater awareness, and part of that is becoming aware of the human shadow.  It’s a moral task.  Nietzsche said that Zarathustra had committed the greatest error in human history with the invention of morality, the postulation of the duality between good and evil, the powers of light and the powers of darkness.  As you know, the history of the Middle-East and the West emerges out of that foundation–which is the history of the world.  Whether or not morality belongs, nature is what we’ve got to live with.  And it’s certainly here for a reason.  I don’t think it’s an error, as Nietzsche said. I think it’s also part of human beauty that gives light to the cosmos.

M: Well, maybe he was thinking of it in the way that I object to, a kind of code of behavior, an abstract set of rules.  Knee jerk morality, as I see it, is about as poisonous as you can get.  Natural morality is another thing altogether.  As I experience myself, I have to take into account how I feel about my behavior.  As I said in our last dialogue, that behavior has to fit with the rest of me.  The whole package has to be unified.  A unified personality, I think, is a moral one.  That’s how I would define morality.  That allows for Gauguin going off to the South Seas and leaving his dependents to fend for themselves.  I thought he was being moral, as I define the word.  He had to do that. You’re setting the agenda today.  Do you have something in mind?

  I want to read you a poem by Hafiz and then read you a dream I had. The poem addresses the theme of spiritual democracy that we’ve been talking about.  It’s at the center, too, of my new book and at the center of my research on Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, and Jung.  It’s called, “I have learned so much.”

  I have learned so much from God
That I can no longer call Myself
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of Itself with me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel, or even pure Soul. 
Love has befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash and freed me
Of every concept and image
 My mind has ever known.
                      Ladinsky’s translation

The Beating Heart of the Universe

M: Perfect. That’s just perfect.

Like nobody’s watching

It speaks directly the the theme of my book Spiritual Democracy. Here’s another one that’s very beatiful, a shamanic poem for you”
Now the sky-drum plays
All by itself in my head
Singing all day long
“Allah, Allah, Allah.”
   –“The Gift, ”Ladinsky’s translation

So there’s the cosmic drum of the Universe playing by itself in the head of the poet-shaman, beating its eternal rhythm in three beats: “Allah, Allah, Allah.” The sky-drum is a metaphor for spiritual democracy: the unity of the human soul with the universal God that beats like heart everywhere. Whether one sings all day Krishna, Christ, Buddha, Shiva, or Allah, it is the same universal drum that intones in the sky. 

A Non-Verbal Illumination

M: People like Hafiz and Rumi and others get past conceptual experience and a non-verbal illumination takes its place.  The person is wholly there without any kind of description of how it works. Did you just discover Hafiz?  You hadn’t mentioned him before.

H:  I read the book The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, all the poems, and I liked them.  I had known about Hafiz, but I’d never picked up a book of his poems before.  As I believe I mentioned earlier, in 1844 Emerson was reading Goethe’s translations of Hafiz into German and translated them into English. In his journals he translated over two hundred poems by Hafiz! He was the most highly regarded poet by Emerson.

M: My god, to think that was going on in America in the 1840s, and America was privy to that information.

H: Well, as you know, Melville was reading Emerson and so was Whitman.

M: Think what an influence that Eastern poet had in our culture–that probably not one in a million knows about.

H: Actually, I’ve heard that Hafiz is the most popular poet today in what was once Persia.  In Iran he is the most famous Sufi poet.  More copies of his collected poems sell in Iran than the Koran.

M: Wow.

H: That’s how popular Hafiz is there.

I later emailed my Iranian friend, Sasan Eyhaie, about this 14th century poet:

Sasan: He is considered the king of poets in Iran. He literally perfected Persian poetry to its utmost beauty and love. He is the only poet I know of who repeatedly speaks of the elder of Mogh, a Magi elder, perhaps one of his teachers?! He is nicknamed Hafiz since it means the rememberer. They say that’s because he knew Quran by heart! They say the last 10+ years of his life he did not go anywhere and was in prayer the whole time.

M: What’s the matter with their people and our people that there’s this powerful force of love right next to the murderous tendency?

H: That’s what you were saying before we started to record.

M: Yes, this yin yang is working almost too dramatically on our country and Iran.  [A reminder: This transcription was recorded in September 2011. A lot has happened since then. Use Google for updates!]

H: Can you imagine if Walt Whitman sold better in the United States than the King James Bible?

Reading Poets in Their Deepest Sense

M: Well, when I was growing up, Whitman was in all the sixth-grade readers.  But I don’t think the people who put him in there knew what he meant.  It sounded good to them, but they didn’t get the deep meanings.  And that’s possibly the problem.  The problem is we need to read these people in the deepest sense instead of superficially.  I suppose that’s the common thread that runs through these dialogues you and have been having, tuning ourselves up so that we’re more awake during the whole day and pay more attentions to ordinary conversation, instead of being half asleep, so to speak.

H: That is the problem. I am hopeful, though, given that fact that Sufism is more popular for Iranians than fundamentalist Islamic interpretations of the Koran; the Middle-East appears to be on the verge of a miraculous transformation.  Poets like Hafiz appear to be leading the way out of the morass of morally-laden and worn out Koranic laws.

M: That’s what we’ve been saying, talking about this urge of the spirit to come forth in every creature, the urge to realize itself, to real-ize itself.  There’s this demand, whether people know it or not, including fundamentalists who don’t understand that what they really want to do is actualize their own spirits.  It’s confusing to them, so they think they have to punch things and break them.  Maybe there’s some way to get past that. 

Beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing

H: I think that’s absolutely correct.  Every human being wants to actualize his or her own inner light.  And these poems are all about that, realizing one’s inner light, one’s own truth.  That includes coming into relationship with the Beloved, with a capital B.  For Shams and Rumi, that was something between them.  Just like Hafiz and Attar.  Attar was Hafiz’s teacher for forty years.  Between them, there was this breakthrough of a universal force that he describes in his poems, which like Rumi’s, was a profound opening of the heart and of love emerging, accompanied by light, tremendous light. That’s something that Whitman speaks about in Section Five of “A Song of Myself,” when he’s lying on the grass and realizes that light.  The lover comes and opens his shirt, exposing his heart at the bosom bone.  He said he had an experience then that transcended all the art and argument of the Earth.  In other words, it was an experience of cosmic unity, the beating heart of the universe or what Hafiz calls the sky-drum. That is a pure shamanistic experience, an ecstasy. Hafiz says: “I know the ecstasy of the falcon’s wings / When they make love against the sky” (Ladinsky, 57). That is a surpassing kind of love.

All the art and argument of the Earth

M: “All the art and argument of the Earth.”  Perfect. 

H: It’s beyond image.  It’s beyond form.  It’s beyond thought.

The problem for most people is that they stop at the image

M: I think the problem for most people is that they stop at the image.  They think they’ve found it when they have the image in their hands.

H: The image is the direct channel to the light.

M: Yes, but if you stop there, then you may become a fundamentalist. 

H: Well, exactly.

The Image as a Gate not an End Point

M: They use the image as the end point, but it’s only the gate. 

H: Take that poem of Hafiz, “Now the sky-drum plays / All by itself in my head.”  The great Sufi master puts himself in accord with the Universal force of the drum, the beat. He does not play the drum; the sky-drum plays in his head! It does not matter so much what the poet shaman sings. It could be OM. For Hafiz it is Allah. Sufism is the mystical sect of Islam. The point is the sky-drum can beat in any person’s head if one attunes to the unitary force in the cosmos. The problem is that if the fundamentalist’s thumping of the Koran becomes the drum, then what’s lost is the sky.  Then what’s lost is the transcendence.

M: That’s well put. 

H: The drum, the drum of the universe, which is the drum of Shiva.  Shiva beats the drum of time.  It’s the same drum of the shaman.

M: So our problem is our settling for the little world rather than the great world. 

H: It’s exactly what the problem is. If the Book becomes everything, then one never writes one’s own book.

M: That’s good.

H: It’s basically what poets teach, and it’s what Whitman taught.  It’s what Emerson taught.

M: I mentioned this drive within the human being for the spirit to actualize itself.  It’s that Dylan Thomas poem:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
 Drives my green age.

It’s the same force.  I’m thinking how grass will come up through concrete, thick concrete. Amazing.  Well, it’s that force in the universe that just demands to find its way to the light.

M: It’s a great metaphor, Clark.

Dialogue # 5: On Objective Morality


April 19, 201

The Amoral Field
  Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

[For years I’ve been thinking there’s got to be  some sort of bedrock natural morality, a cosmic morality wedded to the intelligent cosmos.  There is  lots to consider, not the least being a couple of hundred cultures on this planet, each with its own arbitrary set of rules.  How can such diverse ideas of morality and ethics fit into something so all-encompassing as the cosmos?  Can there be a moral universe, an ethical cosmos? Can such words even apply on such a vast canvas?  I invited Steven to explore the question in this dialogue.]

M: I’d like to talk about whether there’s some kind of objective morality. I don’t know if I would call what I’m thinking about ‘morality’, but it might be what Camus called the benign indifference of the universe–benign indifference! The idea that the universe isn’t mad at anybody. Some grains of corn don’t get nourished and don’t grow. People in Rwanda are getting their hands chopped off by their neighbors. Kids are starving to death all over the planet. Huge masses of people are destroyed in tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. But you have to see all that in the context of the whole  thing.   The  universe isn’t really mad at us, I think is a reasonable view.  This is simply the way it works. To participate in all this, you have  to  recognize  yourself as part of the  warp and woof, not separate but integral.  If  you can’t do that, you’re not seeing clearly.  You wouldn’t be any good at helping the universe along.

H: I’ve been very interested in the question of moral and ethical development. I’ve been writing about it. So I find it interesting that you sent me that paper to read right before our meeting. It’s the one part of my book Spiritual Democracy that hasn’t been emphasized as much as I now see it needs to be. It will need a chapter at least. Maybe a couple, because there can’t be any real discussion of spiritual democracy without a discussion of ethics.

A Moral Cosmos?

M: That ties in beautifully. I think we’d have to re-define ‘moral’ and re-define ‘ethics’. We’d have to define them in terms of this cosmos, much broader than the narrow view of those two words. As Parfit says, by the time you sorted it all out, if you had to make a moral decision based on logic and reason, somebody might have died.

[I had read Larissa MacFarquhar’s article in The New Yorker, “How to Be Good,” September 5, 2011, about the British philosopher Derek Parfit’s work on morality and on the nature of the Self and had recommended it to Steven because of its relevance to their dialogues.]

You need to have something that’s a little more spontaneous that kicks in immediately. You don’t even have to think about it. It would probably be the result of having gone through the process of re-examining these things until they’ve become part of your nature–or return you to your nature would be more like it.

Another part of this morality would be  that you don’t cling to your life with your fist so clenched that you can’t enjoy yourself.

So I would say there is a morality to the universe though  I’ve  hated that word  for years. It just feels good not to go around hurting people and destroying things. It feels much better. And from your point of view, from a psychotherapist’s point of view, when someone is intent on doing awful stuff, his or her stomach gets upset; one gets ulcers and so forth. When your hand is open, usually you’re in better health. Almost universally, you don’t get so many ailments. That’s the kind of morality that possibly would work. You don’t need to have any rationale for it. It’s just like a tree growing. The morality of trees is  that if they get sun and food, they will do their thing.  If not, then that’s  the  way it is. No big deal.  I don’t suppose they would mourn. They might die, but I don’t imagine they would be all upset about it. So another part of this morality would be  that you don’t cling to your life with your fist so clenched that you can’t enjoy yourself.  The tree doesn’t have to curl up in a ball.  It  goes  ahead and dies–and gets itself reprocessed. Being part of the warp and woof of the universe, it’s its nature to go through that process.

H: That’s an interesting point, what you said earlier about clinging. The only problem I have with Parfit is the idea of the insignificance of the ego, that idea that clinging is something bad. That’s a moral judgment there. I like to hold to both and not get stuck on one point of view.

Here’s my thought about a lot of the problems  I find in religion today that Jung found first, but  I find myself going in my  own direction as I learn more  about the  history of religions.  It begins to fascinate me more. Take for example the  idea of compassion.  The Dalai Lama  says his religion is the religion of compassion.  Christ  said  his  religion is  the  religion of love.  If you have a religion based on compassion, it’s very hard to allow for a vision of evil and of the shadow in human history.

When you speak of objective morality I am reminded of a poem by Robinson Jeffers, where he says that the one thing the universe lacks and that humans have is moral beauty. The stars do not share in this moral beauty, nor do tsunamis and  earthquakes.  Human consciousness brings something unique into evolution and that is morality, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark, and so forth.

God’s Eyes

We are the  universe peering at itself

M: So it would seem, but I think there are other ways to explain our apparent capacity to apprehend moral beauty. I guess we’re going to have to re-define ‘beauty’ while we’re at it.  I guess, then, that Jeffers thought humans invented beauty.  It brings up the question of whether any other creatures can do this– or apprehend beauty of any sort, for that matter. I’d prefer not to  give ourselves  too  big a pat on the back. Twain mused on the idea of his era that “Man is the noblest work of God.” “Well, now,” he asked and after a pause, “Who thought that up?” It may indeed be that we are God’s eyes in the physical world. It may be through our agency that the cosmos gets to see an appreciate its magnificence. That might be  our job, but  even so, we  are  the  universe peering at itself.  We are  not isolated from it, we are it.   So there’s no  hierarchy.  You might  say God is God’s noblest work. Oh my, oh my! Sorry to have interrupted.  Why  don’t you complete your idea?

H: Well, whether there is an objective morality has been on my mind  for many  years and I wrote a long essay on this question that I have not published yet, called “Unitary Conscience.” Jeffers, of course, said some of the most radical things one can imagine  during World War Two, in his political poetry. As Everson said of Jeffers, who was his master, during WWII his poetry reached a pitch of complete hysteria. Seventy million lives were lost. Civilization is sick, he said. True. Wars are a collective illness. Well, from an objective viewpoint in history that statement is right. From another standpoint, however, it is wrong.  It all depends where one stands in one’s moral view regarding what actions during the war we are speaking about. Did the Native Americans have a right to defend their lands in the  Black  Hills  during the Battle of the Little Big Horn? I would argue yes. Some  might  disagree  with me, but that  is how I feel. Do I believe in War, as a solution to international conflicts? I say no. The problem is that we can sit here and discuss morality from our comfortable armchairs, outside of the tragedy and agony and violence of human bloodshed, for we do  not know what we  would do if bullets or missiles were being shot our way.

M: If I may interrupt again for a minute, let me insert some thoughts popping up in mind as we talk. I’ll probably forget them if I don’t. It does occur to me that to get a good feel of what cosmic morality is, I’d have to choose something like a star, as Frost put it, as my place for viewing, a place far away from the sturm und drang.  I’d guess most of us here in the West would think it’s obvious that it was immoral  to destroy those huge ancient sculptures in Afghanistan. But on the Cosmic scale, and in the Zen way of seeing, it would be similar to those wonderful sand paintings the Buddhists do, or ice or butter sculptures, a recognition of the impermanence of things. So even there, there’s more than one way to view it.  Does this tie in with where your thoughts were going?

 Doctrine into Deeds

H: A friend of mine taught with the Dalai Lama  and spent some  time  with him. When you look closely, these things are not so clear cut. The Lamas were not always so compassionate. There’s a new book about the Mongolian shamans  that tells how the  Dalai Lama  of the Tibetan Buddhists of the Himalayas, some hundreds of years back in history, gave an order to slaughter the Mongolian shamans. When I heard that, it was almost a relief for me because I, we, have this misconception about Buddhism based on more  recent  history with regards  to the Chinese in Tibet and the terrible tragedy that happened to the monks there.  It saddens me    to think about their suffering. When you hear that in the context of history, some of the Buddhists think it’s their karma for what the former Dalai Lama actually did. Well, we know  the history of the Crusades, we know the history of Mogul rulers, the Puritans in America and the history  of the Conquistadores in South and Central America.  If  you look at how Christians or Buddhists or Muslims have behaved, you see something very different than the moral philosophy of peoples’ religious beliefs.

The Unity of Opposites

What it does, by reflecting on it more objectively, is you create a more critical view of God in history, not just on theological discourse and beliefs–which is where I think our world gets into trouble–but based on reality, what’s the actual translation of the doctrine into action, into deeds. There hasn’t  been, as far as I can tell, any  kind  of teaching that bases its philosophy or theology on a principle of a unity of opposites. This is really Jung’s great contribution to modern thought. Jung was very much a moral philosopher. He studied history and philosophy. In fact, for a period of time he wanted  to become  a philosopher and  for a while he felt called to it, but then turned to natural science and  finally  psychiatry.  He  did study Nietzsche, Kant, Schopenhauer, and spent five years analyzing Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Zarathrusta and Absolute Good and Evil

Since 9/11/01 I’ve been going through Jung’s seminars and  reading  about what  he says about Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche was the first  to say that  Zarathustra  committed  the worst error in human history–which was morality–because he posited the cosmic dualism between good and evil, that there is an absolute good and an absolute evil, and Ahura Mazda, the god of the Zoroastrians, descended to incarnate those opposites in the first prophet of Iran.

[Zarathustra, believed to have lived around 600 B. C., was a religious teacher and prophet of ancient Persia.]

But since the basic dualism begins in ancient Iran in the Middle-East, the significance of Zoroaster and of Nietzsche and of Jung really rises to a level of awareness for me as a Jungian writer, and as a psychotherapist because we see moral problems every day in our psychotherapeutic practices. For example, patients who are having affairs.  How do you handle an affair? How do you handle others issues–where a crime has been committed? Moral problems are part of what we deal with in our practices every day. Oftentimes, a neurosis arises as a result of the inability to solve moral problems, or what Jung called conflicts of conscience.

M: So clarifying what morality is in a cosmic sense might free people from the rule books to look at each situation in its context.  (Oh, when you said Jung brought together good and evil into one sphere, so to speak, I thought of William Blake , who saw that clearly, and the yin yang concept. But certainly the split is profound in the thinking of Western cultures, as you said.)

H: Here in the West the split between good and evil is a foundation of our religious evolution from Zorastrianism–and let’s not forget Gilgamesh–because Babylon, Iraq, is  at the center of our attention right now.  So we have those two basic myths  that are pre-Biblical, before Judaism. Judaism is an attempt to create a more evolved moral foundation. So you’ve got the Decalogue, the Mosaic Law–Thou shalt not.  From there,  we’ve got  Christianity  where you’ve got a further evolution of the moral opposites. Christ represents, of course, the good attitude, the light and love, and extrusion from the evil element and the dark element from the God concept. And then you find in the Moslem religion and Islamic revelation of the Prophet, you find this very different evolution with Allah, who is really a god of terror and compassion, but this whole idea of Jihad arises out of the Koran. There are passages there that are quite shocking, when taken literally, and that of course is the problem with Holy Wars.

M: OK. I’m not clear on where you’re going with this.

H: The basic idea is that we can no longer have a religious vision that’s based exclusively on the good or on light or on compassion or on love. What  you said earlier about destruction, that needs to be part of our religious vision.

M: Yes, if we’re ever going to get a cosmic understanding, which is the only way we can fit together all these divergent views.

H: We need to be able to see the cosmos for what it is and humanity for what it is. What human consciousness can provide to the idea of the unity of the universe is an ethical view based on conscience where the moral opposites are held together, side by side. This is, of course, one of the most difficult things, but that is where beauty is, that is where love and compassion are, that is where light is.

Homeless Jesus

M: To boil it down, you could say that this being here (pointing to himself) is a microcosm of the universe, and within this being are the Yin and the Yang simultaneously. And for me to function in this universe, I have to recognize that I’m part of the destroyer. In the growing I’m also destroying as I go along. There’s no  way to escape this  reality. You can’t talk your way out of it.  If I were a Christian, I’d have to recognize that. And I think  that’s  provided for in Christ’s teachings but not in the interpretations so much.  In the  original Christianity, in everything I read about what they say He said, there are included whores, and wicked people, and so on. They are all God’s children, He would say. So when you look at some bum in the park, sitting there all strung out and you spontaneously say to yourself, “That’s  me,”  then you’re ready to be a Christian. That’s the  level of awareness I do think  is  needed.  And  that  would  be a kind of non-verbal, non-linguistic morality that goes beyond some sort of rational interpretation of the  universe, a falling into the  world and being a part of it, of being  It.  So as  I walk around, I’m a microcosm of everything we’ve been talking about. To see something over there as “other” is a major mistake. It’s a confusion of how things work. It’s  also very dangerous because it puts me at odds with the  rest of the  universe.  That’s stupid, because that isn’t the way it works. Oh, and I want to get back to the ego a little bit later, too. Do you think what  I just said is accurate?

H: For the most part I would agree  with you.  I have  a little hesitancy in going that last step and say it’s a mistake to not see identity everywhere. This  is  where  I think  even Whitman goes too far in his idealism. That’s why he ends up being so criticized and perhaps justly so, because to see one’s self as everything means that one sacrifices moral development, in other words, the ability to judge. Of course, Whitman was one of the greatest War poets. He was an abolitionist through and through and from an historical standpoint, he was on the right side of moral history. So from a moral standpoint  his  “Drum Taps” is objectively moral, in the love for what is beautiful about American democracy: racial, cultural, and  religious equality.

Instinct and Judgment

M: I didn’t mean it that way. The part I just described is the field out of which you work. In this  shared vision we call reality, we  absolutely must judge every second.  I judge every time I take a breath. So, yes, I go around making these decisions, but the  more  I ground them in the whole universe, the more those decisions are likely to produce serendipitous results. So, yes, the  individual is extremely important but only with the  awareness that the  other individual is extremely important, too. Co-equal in importance.  I am absolutely  important, and you are absolutely important. And you need to be Steven Herrmann to the nth degree, or why are you here at all? I do make these judgments, though it should not include smugness! When I see you over there making judgments that are not the same  as mine,  I might think, well, he doesn’t understand. That’s a kind of smugness that needs to be examined. Remember the last time we talked, you said that however bizarre someone’s idea may seem, you could say, “You’re right!” I thought, yes, you have to be able to say, “You’re right,” and mean it.

You’re right.

H: You know, when I say that, I want to include a bit of the origins of that attitude. There’s a bit of the trickster in that.

M: Yeah.

H: Because I mean it and I don’t. I don’t really believe that Osama Bin Laden is right. He’s a fundamentalist who has no sense of objective morality.

M: I understand.  I’d stop him for sure. Without doubt. But have I really bothered to know him inside and out, as well as I know me? In my classes I’d  probably treat Bin Laden as a Zen koan, maybe, “Find me half a dozen points  of view from which Bin Laden was  right.” You could do it the other way, too, of course. I’d be trying to divorce us from our biases long enough to get a good look at the issue in its fullness.

H: I think that, as Americans, we want to have tolerance towards everybody’s religion. It’s very American to want to see equality rather than to entertain a superiority in one’s religious beliefs. But when it comes down to it, certain madmen in history had to be stopped. Hitler’s one of them, as was Bin Laden. Whether or not it was right for us to blow up the white mountains of Afghanistan, I do have problems with that; that was in great excess. There we were wrong.

M: Well, yes, I think all madmen have to be stopped. They should be stopped in their tracks. And I think they would be stopped if one had a grounding in the universe.  In some compassionate institutions, they wrap crazy violent patients in a warm blanket and hold them in their arms.  So there are ways to deal with nut cases that are not also violent and crazy. The common solution, which doesn’t advance us at all, is to return such behavior in kind.  Humph!

H: This is the problem, Clark. So you agree that there needs to be an objective moral principle guiding spiritual growth . . .

The Morality of Spirit

M: It is tricky, though. It’s not something arrived at intellectually. When you get it all figured out that way, you can move very quickly into being a smug, self-assured prig. But when you see someone beating up somebody else, I think the universe would spontaneously stop that–through me somehow. It would be an involuntary response. A Taoist might see these madmen and the wave of horror they unleashed as similar to Dutch elm disease or the blight that destroyed the chestnut forests that once blanketed the southwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up. The Amish take that point of view.

The Heart of Matter

And it has just this minute occurred to me that ugliness is  part of nature.   How we respond to  it is the key. I’ve never seen this so clearly before. Events are not the problem.  How we respond to them is the antidote, and that is compassion and love. That’s what human morality is, an outpouring of shared feeling with our fellow beings.   And that is not a code of ethics, and it is not a rule book of moral dos and don’ts. It’s the soul’s spontaneous response to the world of physical reality.

Human morality is the soul’s spontaneous response to the world of physical reality.

H: What if your life was in jeopardy?

M: Usually you don’t think about that.  Did you see that news  clip of a guy on a motorcycle that crashed into a car and got pinned under it? The car was  in flames, and these people came.  I don’t know what prompted that many to come, but they were able to lift that car up by hand, and somebody dragged him out from under it. A minute or two later the whole  car went up in an explosion of fire. Well, in a situation like that, you can’t ponder your action. There isn’t time to wonder if you should help the guy. That kind of action has to bubble up from you ground of being. I’d say the universe went over there and lifted up the car. The universe also lets people die. We have to realize that, too.

Universal morality has to be spontaneous.

So universal morality has to be spontaneous. It  can’t be an intellectual thing.  It would have to be coming out of your right hemisphere, out of your soul, your spirit, from deep down in the ground of being. I can’t imagine anybody who’s growing healthily would manifest the kind of meanness that goes around whacking things. There’s no  desire  to do it… I suppose we could say sadistic pleasure is the black side of the Yin and Yang.

Religion and Morality

H: We were talking a little bit about religion in light of this whole big moral issue. It seems that the two are interconnected: moral philosophy comes out of religion.

M: I think it’s OK for churches to talk about these things and to examine them, but anyone who’s been in those groups has to realize that that is not where it is. That it’s just a path to where it is. What’s pointed to cannot be an intellectual construct. Intellectually you can figure it out, but you still have to take the trip.

H: You have to live it.

M: To live it.   Yeah. This is  the confusion people have about liturgy or meditation. They are a means toward something beyond.

I’ve been working on a Melville chapter for my book Spiritual Democracy and I went back to some writing I did eleven years ago. I have to say I do like the voice I used then.  It has a Melvillean, Biblical, feel to it, going back to the Old Testament. You know, Melville starts with the Old Testament characters in Moby-Dick, starting right out with, “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael: the son of Hagar and Abraham; Ishmael, the father of Islam. You know, many Westerners may not be aware of the fact that the first great mosque  of the  Muslim world was constructed on the sacred rock in Jerusalem where Abraham is said to have been called to sacrifice his second son, Isaac. In Jewish tradition the sacrificial son of Abraham is Isaac, whereas in the Koran, it is his first son, Ishmael. Well, the  Dome of the  Rock is situated on exactly that spot and you can say that there is a source of Israeli-Palestinian tension, Muslim and Christian tension, conflict in international politics. Melville, with his keen intuition zeroed in on a problem therefore that he foresaw a century and a half ago and that is now at the forefront of world-wide attention. How can the three great monotheisms— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—co-exist in a sense of unity that reflects the unity of the cosmos, moral beauty, and objective morality we have been speaking about?

M: You have a good point there.

H: Melville starts with the Old Testament and in so doing he takes us back to our origins.

M: And as you well know, it’s not accidental. It’s all calculated. One thing that might be touched on is how much can a writer of that level expect someone who’s not well schooled in the Bible and associated works, someone who may be a good reader but not a well-rounded reader, get to that? I have a view about that, but what do you think?

H: Well, I think that’s why a commentary is needed—to really get the  metaphors  that he’s using to create an allegory through symbolism, and provide a specific meaning not only for America, but for the world. It  takes a certain kind  of background of understanding of the myths that underlie American culture. It is not widely known, for instance, that Emerson was reading Hafiz, the great Sufi poet, when he penned his  great  essay “The  Poet,”  which Whitman read.

The Islamic scholars were great mathematicians, architects, scientists, astronomers, and Western culture and especially the Renaissance was largely built up on the libraries of Islamic scholars in Spain, Baghdad, and many parts of the Middle East, that were plundered by Crusaders.

M: Can we shift back to our exploration of morality for a while and then come back to Melville?

Getting Past Our Emotions

H: Sure. It will come together I’m sure, as we get into this at a little deeper level. Clark, you were talking with me earlier about someone who seems unable to get past her emotions.

M: Yes, her emotions seem to prevent her from thinking her way calmly through a situation. She almost seems imprisoned by her feelings.

H: That’s exactly how a complex works! When someone is in a complex, you can’t reason with them. You wanted to explore ethics and morality. Well, when someone is in a complex, they can’t reason, they simply can’t reflect on their own morality, or on the  relativity of  values. Values are relative. Nietzsche and Jung . . .

M: What do you mean by that?

H: I mean what’s right for you is wrong for me. And what’s right for me is wrong for you. It goes around, you know. You disagree with someone, say, on the illegal immigrant issue and that’s it. It’s polarized. It’s  that simple.  When a person is  in a complex, they represent the good, and the other person represents the bad, and that’s that. The split in conscience happens. The moral judgment kicks in, and there can be no dialogue about it. Discussion closed. [Both laugh.] How can two people possibly have a dialogue when emotions heat up around religion?

M: They can’t.

H: This is why we have freedom of religion. It goes back to the Constitution, the First Amendment. If we had a Christian nation, what about the rest of the world, the rest of the world’s religions? And who’s right?

M: Yes, many Christians are sure they are right, and that’s it.

H: No dialogue. That’s the point. And that’s why we’ve got a world like we  do. Fortunately, we have the United Nations.

M: Yes, and a lot of Americans would like to destroy it. John Bolton was sent there to try to destroy it. [Reader: These are the original dialogues.  I’ve left the time they were recorded intact.  But the world keeps updating itself, so you will have to take that into account.] He made no bones about it. Bush made this war mongerer our secretary to the UN. He unabashedly said the UN shouldn’t exist, and the US should not subject itself to international law. But to get back to your point, if you  have a very clear, solid picture of how the world works and you have your value system, you really think you’ve got it figured out; as far as I’m concerned, you are a tremendously dangerous person. Because you are going to trample over anybody else who doesn’t look at it that way. As you just pointed out, it is a matter of values, and values are relative. Any thinking person needs to come to at least that  point or else there can never be a dialogue.

 Morality and Immigration Laws

H: You could go that far in talking about illegal immigration. You could agree that they are illegal, no doubt about that, they do not belong here. That’s ridiculous of course, as we are all immigrants here, human beings with an instinct for travel, migrants.

M: Yes, I have done that. I agree that their being here illegally is a violation of our system of laws. But I have to point out that there is a lot of culpability on our part. We  ourselves have set up a system that fosters people coming here illegally. If there  were a level playing field with Latin American countries—wages, employment—if that were level, there would be no immigration problem. Secondly, we encourage people to come here because  we turn a blind eye to their illegal status so that we can have wage slaves working for us. We even have a euphemistic phrase for it, ‘guest worker’, I think it is. Bring them in, let them do all this work, make them live in hovels, don’t give them any benefits.

The thing is, all the Guatemalans I have direct contact with have a deep nostalgia for Guatemala. They would much prefer to be back home. But they can’t live there.

H: What’s going on in Guatemala that prevents their return?

M: Poverty’s the main thing. And Guatemala, like most third world countries, has two governments. One’s the one you vote for, and the  other is  the criminal element that actually runs things. There’s a shadow government. It’s all about bribery. There’s a great connection between the official government and those behind the scenes. Drugs are a major problem.

Guatemala is a very poor country. This family I was telling you about earlier live in what’s called a studio, but it’s little more than a closed-in garage.  They don’t even have a stove, just a hot plate. It’s pretty awful, but it’s much, much better than back home. OK, relativeness of values?

H: It’s a very important concept in religion, in philosophy, in psychology and therefore, in politics too.

Morality and Ethics in College Curricula

M: Do you think you could take a class of college freshmen and get them to play around with this concept? That would be one of the most valuable things you could do.

H: Sure. We’ll co-teach it together! [Laughter]

M: That would be lovely.

H: We’d have a good time. We’d read a little bit of Nietzsche, a bit of Jung.

M: One of the strategies  I used to use, speaking of taking a little bit of Nietzsche or Jung,  I can remember some books that were full of wonderful little passages, maybe a paragraph or just a line, and then maybe a whole chapter explaining the paragraph. Well, I found those explanations that were the bulk of the book to be tedious, boring. But the quotes  were great. So what I’d do would be to take the quote and forget the rest. We’d take the quote and fiddle around with that. That would gradually bring out all the  nuances, but that would be supplied by the people in the class. That was tremendously engaging.

H: Well, I can tell you that when I was a student in your freshman English class and we were using your book Image: Reflections on Language, that that sort of environment can make a major difference in a life.

M: That’s gratifying.

H: Here’s an example. This is something I learned from Image. I memorized one passage, among many others, that I can still rattle off, a passage from Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It is about morality and was something at that time I had never read before: “I was taking the long road to school from Klein- Hüningen, where we lived, to Basel, when suddenly for a single moment, I had  the  overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once: Now I am myself!” Jung talks  about coming out of a fog and realizing: “Now I exist.” So  just take that as an idea to center this discussion on morality. The relativity of values has to do with the discovery of the “I,” the “real me,” or “myself.” Whitman says in the opening line of “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate Myself and sing Myself.”

M: Yes. I think you last sentence need repeating. “That is where objective morality comes from: the unity of the self with the oneness of the whole cosmos” That’s it!

H: So it’s the idea that morals come out of a moral foundation in the collective  unconscious, and these are your original morals. These are your morals, your values, the values in this instance of identity complex: the “I.” The ego that has become aligned with the self. Take the illegal immigrant issue. You have a specific moral judgment about that.  It’s  yours.  Nobody can take that away from you. That’s  original  to you, and  it’s grouped around  a set of ideas and values and judgments. And it is  relative because sooner or later you’re going to have a split in the nation about it, and you are going to have to take a moral stand. There are going to be people who disagree and say you are wrong, and it’s because of people like you that we’ve got this problem. On the other hand, history will prove what position was right, what position was wrong, and that is where it becomes objective.

M:  That’s right.

H: And you’re going to be questioned by someone. So I think the idea of coming out of a fog–Jung was an adolescent–is an experience of discovering one has a voice, and that matters. When one knows ‘now I am myself’ one can take moral action, one has a vocation.

M: Right. He was on his way to school.

H: Around that time, that awareness of being one’s Self, being conscious, like in your book, Thinking about Thinking. This idea that there is something else observing our thoughts and if we can align ourselves with whatever that is that’s observing our thoughts, what Jung calls the Self or objective cognition, we’ve got it.  And maybe  then we  are  following a path that was laid down from the beginning.

The Deep Self and Its Conscious Outer Reality

M: I think you couldn’t have said it much better than that. It seems to me it’s the job of any being, any human being anyhow, to bring those two aspects into alignment, ego and self. You know you’re there when that happens. Your conscious reasoning will always be flawed unless it’s aligned with that path.  For example, great artists like Picasso, I would say, have it in  perfect alignment. He can draw a simple line and it will be perfect. There’s no effort whatsoever to think clearly. It comes  because  that deep self and  its conscious outer shell are in harmony.

 It comes  because  that deep self and  its conscious outer shell are in harmony.

H: That’s really well put. It is about being in alignment, and once in alignment and knowing what one needs to do is some kind of vocation–and then speaking up for that. I can’t imagine that someone who’s blind with the value judgment that illegal immigrants  need to get out of  our country now doesn’t feel compassion, guilt, or shame, or any kind of responsibility, particularly if they meet with one of them, translating as you are doing, could not have a feeling for them as human beings.

All Education Is Personal

M: Absolutely. And I would have to say also that anyone who  wants  to teach English to people from other worlds is really confused if he or she thinks you can do that impersonally. They will not let you be impersonal. It becomes personal almost from the first word. In my judgment, you have to be willing to go there or you’re not going to be a very good teacher. I find that insistence quite charming. What an enrichment that is for these people to bring their world to you and offer it to you, like a gift. Just think  how your world would open up.  It’s just really fun. Then, if you get thirty people in a classroom and every single one of them is doing that, just look at how rich the teacher’s life becomes.  I knew teachers  who  had different views  of how you teach, and  one said  “I like  a wall  between us.” Well, that can’t be much fun. The teacher who told me that quit teaching not long after that.

Academic Elitism Versus Dialogue

H: You always had a personal approach to teaching, and that’s what mattered to me the most, and the contrast between taking your course and your colleague’s Shakespeare course, which I dropped, is that there was absolutely nothing personal about that class. He was behind the podium. There was a kind of elitism about his Shakespeare.

M: Oh, yes, that’s a common attitude. If you went through the  process, you might  be allowed to join the group.

H: Right, and I did not want to join the group. I had a budding intellectual side that needed to be invited out.

M: Yes.

H: And so, the impersonal setting didn’t work.

M: I don’t think it works for anybody.

The Decalogue and No-fault Divorce

H: I don’t know. It didn’t work for me. That’s where we  get back to objective morality. Take for example Moses. He had a revelation from God. He brought the Ten Commandments to a group of people. The problem with morals is that once they become written in stone . . .

M: Literally, in this case!

H: Then they become absolute, and then God becomes absolute, and then you can’t disagree with that kind of absolutism.

M: Or have a dialogue.

H: Or have a dialogue. Take for example, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

M: Oh, my god!

Unexamined Values

H: You know, the courts threw out fault divorces in California years and years ago. I, as a Marriage and Family Therapist, come out of that decision, the no-fault divorce decree. It used to be that someone had to be at fault. You could get more alimony. The judges threw all that out.

They said, “You know what?   We’ve got no-fault divorce in California.  We don’t want to know anything about who  is in bed with whom.   We want know what are the finances? What’s the property look like, and who’s  going to visit the children and  when? That’s it.” Why? Because they had to throw out the injunction of the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not.” Even George VIII had to work his way around that.

M: Oh, yes. Think of it, something like 1900 years of that injunction. Well, that makes me think about just how long blind obedience can shackle a culture.

H: Oh, but that’s where morality comes it. It’s about like and dislike, making judgments based on one’s own value system. That’s what you’re talking about.

M: George Bernard Shaw wasn’t fond of the idea of morality. Here’s one of his famous comments: “Confusing monogamy with morality has done more to destroy the conscience of the human race than any other error.”

H: Nietzsche wasn’t fond of morality either.

Unthinking Morality

M: Yes, it’s because morality is usually unthinking, as you said. It’s an emotional reaction. Which I think would be all right if it’s coming out of your deep self. I don’t think I’d worry about you, because, frankly, I don’t think you could be cruel to me if your morality were coming out of your deep self.

H: Did you see the pictures on the news that showed the killing of Gaddafi? The brutality? [Reader: These are the original dialogues.  I’ve left the time they were recorded intact.  But the world keeps updating itself, so you will have to take that into account.]

M: Oh, yes. It was horrible.

H: Horrible. It made me feel a little sick.

M: Yes, I don’t think morality calls for us to be such brutal executioners.

H: He asked for mercy.

M: And they gave him none.

H: A trial would have found him guilty and they would have hanged him anyway, but nevertheless. . .

M: Yes, I guess there’s no place in pure morality for cruelty, even to the worst enemy.

H: They really tortured him.

M: I think that’s  the  kind of fundamental morality out of which we  must act, that you cannot be cruel to anybody. I’d say in natural morality it would be impossible.  It  would be repulsive to one’s self to exercise cruelty. On the other hand, the few times I’ve come close to it, I see how much fun it is.  You can see it’s a delicious thing to be cruel.   And the  more you get into  it the worse it gets.

H: Do you realize that the German youth movement in World War I put into the hands of every German youth Thus Spake Zarathustra?

M: You’re kidding.

. . ..

M: You have this issue being played out on a grand scale in our country, it’s different issues, but it’s the same sort of difference. You can take the same text and adapt it to your own purposes or values and come to unbelievable conclusions. If you put us on national radio talking about morality like this, I imagine half the audience would have  turned the radio off  by the time we got this far. They’d no doubt think  those two people are crazy.  We’ve got to do something about this.

H: Who’s crazy, us or the religious right?. , . I have some thoughts about all of this. This is from a paper Jung sent to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Jung was asked “What are some techniques for changing the mental attitudes among nations and their leaders? How does a famous psychiatrist educate the UN?” He addressed the mental and moral conflicts in normal people.  It  consists chiefly in the integration of unconscious contents into consciousness.

M:     So     what      are      some      techniques?

Using Dream Content to Restore Balance with Nature

H: Jung says one method is individual analysis reading dreams properly, dream interpretation, trying to get back into balance with nature. He says the attitude of our method  is concerned with not only a mental but a moral phenomenon. An attitude is governed and sustained by a dominant conscious idea accompanied by a feeling tone, which might be hate or anger . . .

M: OK. So the concept is accompanied by a feeling.

H: A feeling, an emotional value, which accounts for the efficacy of the  idea.  And  then he says the mere idea will  have no  practical or moral effect whatsoever if it is not  supported by an emotional quality having as a rule an ethical value. In other words, the value is, It’s wrong. There’s no discussion. It’s a value judgment. So how do you change a mental attitude when you’ve got Palestinians and Israelis in conflict about territory? How do you have a dialogue? Jung says there has to be a dialectal procedure and human relationship. You have a feeling for them. You can then be a mediator.

M: Jimmy Carter did that in the Middle-East… He tried to do just what Jung is saying. And it worked to a certain extent.

Change Begins from Within

H: Let me lay out Jung’s thought a bit further and then let’s see what you have to say about it. He says change cannot happen through a method with a group. A change of attitude  never starts with a group but only with an individual. What’s  the solution?  Change  of attitude from a group when there is a leading minority, not a majority, a minority which might become the nucleus of a larger body of people. Martin Luther King Jr. and his group became a leading minority with ideas. It’s changed  the  nation and the  world, in South Africa, for instance.  It has to come from a few good thought leaders, people  with a heart. These people have to be  in a position of authority and leadership. And the first thing needed would have to be–what do you think–teachers, educators, leaders who have made their own evil conscious?

It needs more than mere idealism. The teacher has to be absolutely convinced that his personal attitude is in need of revision, even an actual change.  We’re always looking to change something or somebody out there, but it starts in here. That’s Jung’s brilliance. It’s about the shadow. Then he asks, “What is the sine qua non of a true leader?” Jung says “The world is wrong, and therefore I’m wrong, too.”

M: [Chuckles]

 Whose Heart Is Not Changed Will Not Change Others.

H: That’s the sine qua non of a true leader, because the collective psyche is in here [points to his heart]. He says a man whose heart is not changed will not change any others. So if the person who is against illegal immigrants cannot change in her heart, then no change  is possible.

M: But here I am sitting in judgment on her. Then, if the world, if she is wrong, then as Jung says, I am wrong.

An Increase of Consciousness

H: Yes. This is what we need, to get out of our own polarized positions and say, I love you, you’re right. We’re both wrong.  The change  starts with our selves and the  acknowledgment of the human shadow is key.

[“Shadow”, in Jungian terms, is a moral problem, either good or bad, of which the conscious mind is unaware, either because it is suppressed or never thought of.]

Jung says the main danger in all this is direct and indirect egotism, that is, unconsciousness of the ultimate equality of our fellow human beings. But there  is a problem in implementing change because real intelligence is very  rare and  forms  statistically an infinitesimally  small part of the average mind. Viewed from the level of a more highly qualified mind, the average intelligence is very low. A nation consists of the sum of its individuals and its character corresponds to the moral average. Nobody is immune to a nationwide evil unless he or she is unshakably convinced of the danger of his own character being tainted by the same evil.

So the key is immunity. Jung concludes a change of attitude involves a change that is felt as such. Change is never neutral. It is essentially an increase of consciousness. And it depends entirely upon the individual’s character what form change will take. It is a challenge to the whole person and it must be considered a risk, the risk involved in the further development of human consciousness in its attempts to promote inner and outer peace.

M: That’s so relevant to what we’ve been discussing. You ought  to put that on your blog,  that whole quote. It is tremendously relevant. I think you’re absolutely right, and this was a concern of mine, too.

H:  A leading minority of teachers, Jung says.  But they have to be convinced that if the  world is wrong, then I’m wrong. So, to change the world, like Martin Luther King Jr. did, to realize that violence is within me, if I can change that and practice non-violence as King learned from Gandhi, then I’m a potential leader. Then I can convince others; then I can convince the garbage workers to strike peacefully so that the  privileged  people see that  when the  refuse piles up on their doorstep, it’s their mess, and they’ve got to clean it up themselves. They’ve  got to stop treating us like slaves and give  us due respect.  Just like  the illegal immigrants,  we’re tired of being treated like slaves, we want to organize, we want a union, we want

someone to represent us. We have a leading minority. There is a leadership; someone’s got a leading idea.

Let’s give these people status. Let’s give them green cards and find a solution for them. They have every right to be here, just like you and I.

M: Yes, how could we argue that we have more of a right to be here?  How could anyone argue for that? How could you possibly argue for that? … Nobody has the right to be here.  But we’re lucky to be here. Now let’s see how we can all live here. Nobody has the right be here.

H: Say that to a Native American! … Now what about Jung’s point that one has to be absolutely convinced… Put it this way: If one is a center, one knows within one’s self that there is an inner voice of morality. And it goes back to cosmic intelligence. It knows things like instinct. How does the goose know how to migrate? How do we  know how to think, if not through instinct?

Obi wan Kenobi says to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, “Now let go thy rational self, Luke, and act on instinct.” That’s cosmic intelligence. And that’s moral beauty.  It  doesn’t come out of someplace up here [points to his head]. We’re talking about body-wisdom, some kind of intelligence in our bones that goes beyond the rational mind, that is actually intuitive knowledge.

M: Yes, and there’s no argument whatsoever.

H: How did Mahatma Gandhi know that the salt march would be effective? M: Maybe he thought that people would follow, maybe  they wouldn’t. How did he know that fasting would lead to rioting and protests?

M: I don’t know that he knew that that would happen. Obviously it was tremendously effective.

H: Do we have the leading ideas and ethical values? The ethical values are here . . .

M: Do you think Gandhi knew or was pretty sure these things would happen? I haven’t thought about it that much, but maybe he just thought that he needed to do this.

H: I think that in some cases people with prophetical intelligence, the prophetical mind, do know certain things that the rest of us don’t know. Remember that idea that the average statistical intelligence is very low?

M: Yes. That the average statistical intelligence is very low troubles me. It depends on how  we define intelligence, I think. And perhaps prophetical intelligence is simply being deeply grounded. You might call it clarity of vision, clairvoyance. It could give you a pretty good view of “out far and in deep”! It  would be  lovely to think humankind could awake collectively.

[Reader: These are the original dialogues.  I’ve left the time they were recorded intact.  But the world keeps updating itself, so you will have to take that into account.]  

H: Jung’s view of the state of affairs in post-World War II was very pessimistic about the possibility of change coming from the collectivity. He did not think change was  going to happen through the collective. What we’re seeing in the world right now is the  possibility on the other hand that there  is something amazing happening in the  Arab  Spring and  Occupy Wall Street,[] which gives me hope. It does reflect a certain common intelligence that makes us rethink what Jung said. If the average intelligence  is what  we’re  seeing, then that’s  pretty good.

M: There you go!

H: On the other hand, what is happening in Egypt is cause for some worry. We see the Muslim Brotherhood assuming power in a way that can make the Middle East conform to Islamic law, rather than constitutional law, based on a real spiritual democracy.

M: I would say that in every being, every human being, if not all beings, there is this drive for what you call individuation. [“Individuation’” in Jungian terms, is “the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the  general collective  psychology”] No matter what your conscious constructs are or how stupid they are, that urge to be you is what’s driving the Arab Spring and all the other democratic tendencies. It gets translated almost immediately into religious doctrine, but the urge to be free, that urge to be free of dogma, is what’s driving all of us, I think.

H: To get back to what you were just saying about Jung’s notion of individuation, I think it is exactly right. Foundational intelligence is really cosmic intelligence.

M: I do think that’s what we see now. I don’t think the problem is so much a low level of intelligence as it is ignorance, not so much stupidity as ignorance that allows that drive to be translated in the conscious mind into stupid stuff. Because you have lost track of what was

driving you. “There’s something driving me; I have got to do something.” That’s where it gets stupid, and that’s probably where Jung’s idea of a liberated or open leading minority comes in.

 Leadership, Shadow Work, and Teachers

H: Leadership, shadow work, and teachers

M: But again we can’t take the position that a bunch of us will get together and do this. I’ve made this point again and again over the past thirty  years or so.  One can’t operate like that. It’s I who must act on my ground of being. If other’s join me, that’s one thing and very invigorating. But it is true, too, that when I’ve had a perspective and expressed it clearly and openly, I have seen people come to it, too, as if they were waiting to see some light somewhere. Oh, yeah, that’s right.

H: In writing your book Teaching Human Beings you were trying to get across what you were teaching in your classes. How, in this  later stage  of your life, are you proceeding now?  In your new book, are you going to teach educators how to teach?

M: Sure, they could pick up a lot of insights, but it isn’t just for educators. I guess it has to be for anybody who’s come far enough that they’re willing to entertain the possibility of integration of all the variations around us, this seeming chaotic mess, like paranormal phenomena, telepathy, and all the other seemingly disparate phenomena. The book is saying that all that can be very easily pulled together. And you can become individuated. I don’t use that expression in the book–if you just play around with these ideas, you will see that there’s a way to get rooted again. I think my  behavior is  pretty  much hesitant, because I’m not  willing to go the next step, one that King or Gandhi would take. I pull back when I could go forward.

One’s Own Inexorable Self

H: Let me ask you this, because we started our dialogue about this specific situation where morals and values come into play with regard to immigration. What do you do, if you take Jung’s line that if the world is wrong, then I’m wrong, to help make it right, with regards to immigration? How can you create a change of attitude?  How might you help illegal immigrants? … Let me give  you another example  to round this  discussion on objective morality out. I’m working on a chapter in my book right now, which I think is the most powerful chapter in Moby-Dick, Chapter 9, “The Sermon,” which is all about teaching individuals their right to follow their own conscience. I think it’s a disguised prelude to the chapter that comes right after it, where Queequeg and  Ishmael  become  married, as  husband and wife. There’s a certain irony in the story  that has to do with a moral  teaching.  Basically the instruction is to follow your own “inexorable self.” Woe to  him who  does not do that, Father Mapple says. What happens  is we  end up  in the situation of Jonah if we do not take right action. After a call from the Lord to speak to the people of Nineveh, Jonah refused the call, and sailing on a boat to Tarshish was thrown overboard and was swallowed by the  big fish. It was only down in the fish’s belly that he remembered his mission, and he was vomited back onto dry land. Then he spoke his true words from the ground of his being. But we all get into these conflicts where we are in situations where we  have a specific duty based on some kind of deep instinctive knowledge, where we end up in turmoil and where we  get swallowed up, usually by emotions. This is the problem we all face every day, this problem of whether we’re going to be true to ourselves. Gandhi said somewhere that whatever we do in this vast universe is insignificant but it is very important that we do it.  Imagine  that coming from a man of objective morality like that! Well, I think this  pretty much sums  up what I have to say today.

M: And nicely so. Sometime or other I’d like to revisit this dialogue. I think we can distill these thoughts into some compelling, more poetic, metaphors. Let’s tease out some right- brain insights.

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.”

Doalogue #3: Gilgamesh, The Quest for and the Meaning of “immortality”

January 11, 2011


[I decided to include this dialogue in the blogs I’m adding to this website, over twenty in all, even though many, perhaps most, visitors  have not heard of the 4700-year-old epic poem Steven Herrmann and I talk about here. But the dialogue is really about how to live in the world (and for some whether there’s a way to outwit Death and attain some sort of immortality).  These are questions all of us have to deal with one way or another.  I think this dialogue is a good investigation of the pitfalls and insights involved in finding one’s place.  Follow along; you will find yourself adding your own thoughts.

We are all familiar with heroes’ journeys, in comic books, the movies, fiction, poetry, Native American myths, and so on — all brought together in Joseph Campbell’s marvelous, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This dialogue centers on “the oldest story in the world,” the hero’s journey of Gilgamesh, a mythic-historic Mesopotamian king of Uruk.   Gilgamesh is the basis of Stephen Mitchell’s 2004 critically acclaimed version. As Mitchell describes it, “In this epic [Gilgamesh] has an intimate friend, Enkidu, a naked wild man who has been civilized through the erotic arts of a temple priestess. With him, Gilgamesh battles monsters, and when Enkidu dies, he is inconsolable. He sets out on a desperate journey to find the one man who can tell him how to escape death.” The poem, through the story of Gilgamesh’s trials, explores fundamental themes of human existence, “grief and the fear of death, . . . love and vulnerability and the quest for wisdom.”  Steven and I discuss the timeliness/timelessness of this ancient epic and its myriad connections with their ongoing discussion of cosmic unity and our place among the stars.]

Herrmann: I had the copy of Gilgamesh on my shelf but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Now I am writing a paper where I look at the figure of Gilgamesh in C. G. Jung’s Red Book.

McKowen: I didn’t know Jung did that.

H: Oh, yes. I am looking at Jung’s dialogue with a figure he calls Izdubar. It is a fascinating story, beautiful really. The prototype is found in the epic of Gilgamesh. To understand Jung’s dialogue with this visionary figure, I needed to read the Babylonian myth. So I thought it would be a good thing for us to talk a bit about the book.

M: I’m glad you suggested that. I remember just reading through it quickly initially and must have scanned what Mitchell had to say about it in his introduction. But this time I read it carefully, and it was much more meaningful to me. And I began to pick up key elements of the view of life that the poet who wrote this story was presenting. Mitchell talks  about that, and as you know, there are differences from the hero myths that came along later. They have a little bit different picture of what a hero does. Maybe we’ll get into that later. Anyhow, go back to what you were saying about Jung. I didn’t know he had examined it.

H: That’s what moved me to suggest we read it together. I see Jung’s dialogue with Izdubar as being central to his entire work. It is pivotal! It will change the way we  understand Jung,  now that we have the whole text. I’ll have more to say about my paper later. I’m interested in what kind of parallels you see in Gilgamesh and the book you’re writing?

You cannot get the drop on life.


M: There’s one that really stands out, and that’s that you cannot get the drop on life. You can’t figure out in your head how to pull a fast one on life, get all the goods and get away with it. You just plain can’t do that. It doesn’t matter who you are or how powerful you are, your strength or anything else. Until you get that, you’re going to be lame. In order to find  the path, the path with a heart– or your bliss as Joseph Campbell says– it requires total surrender, a giving up. Those aren’t even good words because it’s more like a falling into life. That’s what this  book really says. Gilgamesh goes through all these journeys, and he finally finds a guy who knows  how to  be immortal, and where to find the herb of immortality.  He  goes and gets it, then carelessly lays it down while he bathes, and a snake carries it off. It’s almost like he’s supposed to be careless, because there isn’t any way to pull that off. He had to be careless for this to happen. Now that I think about it, if it had been some kind of powerful force that took it away from him, that wouldn’t have been any good. So finally, there’s nothing left, no more chances, his last chance comes to nothing. Finally, it’s like the song that goes, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” You know that one?

H: Yes.

M: Well, that’s the basic idea of it. Nothing was more powerful than that conclusion, that you don’t want to happen, really. You want Gilgamesh to prevail. Well, in a sense he does prevail. The other thing Mitchell talks about;  you know the poet repeats himself all over the place, but he describes the city of Uruk several times, how beautiful it is, in luscious language, two or three times. But in the end Gilgamesh has lost his final quest. He comes to his own home again, to his beautiful city, and the poet describes it once again.  But I think  the poet does that deliberately,  for his readers and for himself. Gilgamesh comes back to the same place, but it’s a place illuminated by his journey, his enlightenment in a sense. OK, now how about your take on it?

The Role of Animal Intelligence

H: I look at it from a psychological angle. My ideas  are shaped somewhat  by  Jung,  his thoughts on it. He didn’t write a whole lot about it, but there are some references  to Gilgamesh in his writings. One of his students, Joseph Henderson, has written quite a bit about the Gilgamesh epic. I won’t dwell too much on those ideas, but I’ll name one that I think is pertinent to your book, and that’s the idea of animal intelligence that we’ve been talking about. Gilgamesh, according to Jung, is a representative of the hero and the Spiritual ideal. Mitchell says, accurately, I think, that Enkidu is two-thirds animal and one-third god. Gilgamesh is one-third animal and two-thirds god.

M: Yes, those are good images . . .

H: So you have a mirror symmetry going on, in the friendship motif.

M: But that’s not the animus/anima idea.

H: No, it’s not. According to Henderson, the myth represents what he calls an initiation-failure. He loses the herb of immortality through carelessness on his return journey when the snake carries it away. It sheds its skin and disappears. It’s  a very interesting part of the story. Let’s  put it in context. I think Stephen Mitchell was very timely in his publication of this book. In the Introduction, he speaks about the myth in light of the conflict in Iraq. It’s in 2004 when he’s writing the introductory essay. He’s reflecting on what happened there and he’s looking back 4,700 years and looking at what went wrong across all those years of history and where we are today. I think that kind of reflection is pertinent to our initial talks about The Field and McTaggart’s book. It’s timely in regard to our work, your book, my Whitman book, and  my essay “Melville’s Vision of Evil.”

The Hero’s Quest

M: They do blend together amazingly. This is really relevant to what we’ve been saying in our dialogues. A little side issue: What significance do you see in the shed skin? Do you have any thoughts on that?

H: Well, the snake represents transformation. The shedding of the skin is considered a synonym for the waxing and waning of the moon, the metamorphosis that did not happen in Gilgamesh’s life I agree with you that he was changed, but I think Henderson has a point about the failure of his initiation in his hero’s quest. He didn’t attain immortality.

M: No, he didn’t.

H: He lost the most precious thing that he was searching for. Let’s get back for a minute to this train of thought I was following in regards to the sea of intelligence, because according to Jung, whom Henderson was influenced by; of course, Enkidu would represent animal intelligence. That’s what Gilgamesh loses, and that’s where the failure occurs: the loss of his connection to instinct.

The joy of actually coming home

M: I think what happens in the end, whether it’s called a failure or not, depends on how you view that event, because from my perspective, while it seems like a failure, I would say he finally gave up a pursuit that was incorrect, that was wrong. I think he was still trying to battle life when he went on his journey. There is the element you’re talking about. He feels bad about it: “I will not be immortal. I have to live here. I have to live in this beautiful city that I have never seen so clearly before.” As I think about it, if there’s anything missing, it would be the joy of actually coming home, to your true home. Our true home here, in this room, in this instant–with our eyes open. And you don’t get that if you’re after something. I would say most people in this universe are really trying to be immortal in a direction that’s hopeless. And the immortality is  right  in front of us, in front of our very eyes. There’s all kind of imagery throughout our literature. You must become as a little child. I was blind, but now I see. That kind of stuff. I think he came home to be a good king, and to live in his city, and to live in it every day. He probably doesn’t need to go on any more hero journeys.

H: You know, that’s the whole point. The point Henderson makes is that the need for hero journeys clearly was over for him, his calling as a hero, by that point. His mourning and his grief over the loss of his friend is the really profound thing. He lost his friend.

M: Yes.

H: And the loss of the most precious thing he could have.

M: Yes

Immortal Longings

H: Immortality. The loss of both of those; the grief and mourning, I think you would agree, is profound, really leads him back to his modesty and humility that you didn’t see in the earlier parts of the story.

M: I don’t know how Buddha put it, but they talk of the still, sad voice of humanity. Some see it as a poignant thing. There is a great deal of com-passion, a sharing of the  feelings  of all of us, that we’re not going to be immortal. Maybe Buddha wasn’t happy enough [Laughs]. It seems to me there should be a tremendous amount of joy to recognize what we really are. That it’s not out there, not an aromatic plant under the sea. It’s somewhere else. Our immortality exists right now, right here.

H: That’s absolutely right. I think Whitman would agree with that. He says that in one of his notebooks. You know, that’s something that we should  talk about a little bit more  with regards to loss, because what he did lose– and I think it’s significant – is the loss of a friend, a loss that was poignant, not only for Gilgamesh, but for Enkidu. Enkidu is initiated by the temple priestess Shamhat and he loses his connection with the animals.

M: That’s very clear in the poem.

H: He no longer can run as fast as a gazelle. He no longer has that connection with the natural world.

M: And they won’t hang out with him! [Laughs.]

H: They take off. There’s something lost through the civilizing process.

 Gains and Losses of Civilizing

M: Yes. And I was thinking that, that there’s  something lost when you civilize something.  In the book The Man Who Listens to Horses Monty Roberts watches a mare mustang, who is the boss of the  herd, disciplining a nasty little colt, a young stallion.  He’s old enough to be a pain in the neck. He goes around biting other colts, takes a nip out of one of the mares. So the head mare forces him out of the group, makes him go 300 yards away. She forces him out of the group. That’s the equivalent of a death sentence. You have to stay with the herd or you’re easy prey to predators. She makes him stay out there. She lets him come back. He misbehaves. She sends him back. That goes on for about four different occasions over several days. Finally, he says, “Ah, I’m not going to do this anymore.” He becomes civilized. Now he’s part of the herd. He had to give up that nastiness. Well, this is what Gilgamesh was doing. He  was so powerful that he did whatever he felt like doing, carelessly trampling the rights of his  people, sleeping with each new bride before the groom, and so on. His  people admired him but his  power was out of control. You can’t go around biting mares, you can’t  go  around kicking people. You can’t go around kicking the universe. You’ve got to participate in it as part of it. To become civilized is not to fight  against  your environment  but to live in it. Thoreau said, “I came  into the  world not chiefly to make it better but to live in it.” So your first task is to live in it as part  of it. And you do lose those connections with the natural world, but I think there’s a way to get back our integration with the whole. The way to do that is to pay attention, which is what Jane Goodall did with the chimpanzees. She did as Exupery’s Little Prince did; she sat a little closer each day. Here she is with these wild chimpanzees, who allow her to come and sit with them, the way wild animals allowed Enkidu to come and sit with them. She’s able to do that because she  erases all the pushiness; she’s just another animal in the forest. The chimps  get along fine with the other animals who share their habitat, and they all live side by side. Here’s this human being, and she has to be quiet and participate  without  pressure. So when  I see Enkidu and Gilgamesh having to give up certain things, apparently those are things that are excesses that have to be brought into line.  OK. Take it from there. What do you think  about that?

H: I think giving up excesses is exactly why Enkidu was sent to Gilgamesh as a double, as a companion, a figure who was not mostly divine like Gilgamesh, but as large, his equal almost.

Sacred Forests

H: I like what Stephen Mitchell said about the Humbaba episode. It was a preemptive strike.

M: Yes. Yes.

H: I must say, that’s one of the parts of Mitchell’s essay that I liked the best because he relates  it to what we did to the forests. . ..

M: Right. We’re doing that right now, denuding the forests. We’re supposed to protect the forests. Humbaba was put there to protect the Cedar Forest.

H: And these two guys go and chop it down. And Gilgamesh chops down the tallest cedar in the whole Cedar Forest. It reminds me a little bit of Whitman’s “Song of the Redwood Tree.” The oldest living thing in the world is the redwood. And Whitman’s really writing about a different kind of tree – this is the real giant: Coastal redwood.

M: Whitman never heard of the Gilgamesh poem probably, but it’s the same myth.

H: We were talking earlier about The Field, and the meaningful coincidences in our lives, and look at how these stories overlap. One thing that’s very interesting to me is that these clay tablets, written in Acadian, which they figured out, is a Semitic language. There’s a similar root with  Hebrew – there are influences among them. Clearly, the discovery of those tablets in 1857 is very significant in light of what Whitman was doing.

M: Oh, yes. That’s very good.

H: It’s right at the time when Whitman’s writing his “New Bible.”

M: Hmm. I don’t know if that information got spread around very well back then.

H: I don’t know, but they were in the British museum, and they were being translated.

M: Well, you could take it back to The Field idea.

H: That’s what I’m doing. It’s an interesting coincidence because right at that time Whitman starts writing the New Bible, and in the center of it is the balancing of the love poems to women and to men, the Children of Adam and Calamus. So what I’m saying is that the timing of that discovery is really interesting in light of what Whitman’s project was, which was to bring a new myth to America, which would speak both to men and to women and to heterosexuals and to gay people and lesbians. So the discovery of this myth which, as Mitchell points out, has homoerotic and even homosexual content to it., , .

M: Very significant.

H: Here is a friendship story that doesn’t leave anybody out in terms of sexual orientation. It’s right there in the story, the homoerotic  love relationship, which is very intimate. Gilgamesh has an intimate friend, a relationship that’s very important in his journey and his transformation. So, go ahead – there are parallels that are very interesting here.

The Role of Sexuality

It is nice to be with people who are never shocked or psychologically insecure.

M: Well, the more we talk about the so-called coincidences they turn out to be not so much coincidences as the Force Field manifesting itself. Just to take the general idea  of sexuality, which is dominant in the beginning of the poem, here are these people almost five thousand years ago in that particular society; they consider sexuality to be acceptable however it’s expressed. They don’t sit around judging sexual behavior…. So that part of his transformation is done. Then the wrestling match. When it’s over, Gilgamesh is victorious, and he kisses Enkidu. I think, as you say, that’s truly homoerotic in the very sense that Whitman was expressing it. So this range of sexuality is perfectly integrated in that culture. I don’t know how it got separated out over the years.

[On the Italian island of Ischia in the summer of 1948, W. H. Auden,  staying in Forio for the summer, wrote to a friend, “The sex situation is from my point of view exactly what it ought to be.   . . . It is nice to be with people who are never shocked or psychologically insecure, though half of them don’t get enough to eat.]

But to get back to the poem. There aren’t any evil people in it or evil gods. They are all a mix. Who was it that guarded the cedar forest?

H: Humbaba.

The Role of Violence

M: Well, in this myth, Humbaba is not evil. He’s appointed by the gods. Mitchell points  out that every time you think you’ve figured out who’s the bad guy, you find it’s not that simple. It’s much more integrated and complex. I think we do need to see here, again, that we’re all part of this integrated Force Field – or that society is not disparate parts but a unified whole. We try to avoid violence, but it is a big part of history.

H: There is a lot of violence in Gilgamesh, too. Enkidu does some things that are over the edge. He takes the thigh bone of the Bull of Heaven and throws it into Ishtar’s face.

M: Right.

H: You’re playing with fire when you do that.

M: Oh, yes.

H: Ishtar was also the most powerful deity in the Sumerian culture. So there’s a certain kind of arrogance, hubris, as the Greeks called it, in these masculine figures that are going against nature. When they go into the Cedar Forest, there’s this premeditated attack against this very important deity who guards the forest from the civilizing effects of humanity. Those trees are there for a very important reason, as we know, because of what we’re doing to the environment now. That’s going against nature, that’s going against animal intelligence. I think this is where there’s some overlap with what we’ve been talking about regarding what the poets are trying to do, which is  to put us back in harmony with nature so that we don’t continue on this mad hero’s quest that is destroying other civilizations, other cultures, and nature.


M: Hubris is an excess of what I would say is  a natural thing – which is your own entity having  a place on the planet. Hubris is saying they’re trying to take that away from me, and I need to prove that I have this power. Having to prove it is where we get into trouble and make a big mess of things.

H: As Mitchell points out, the motivation for going into these quests is that he’s doing it for fame. In other words, he wants physical immortality; he’s trying to get it through excessive use of social or political or economic power, instead of spiritual power, which is a very different thing. I would say this story is about the quest for physical immortality. That’s an example of how fame, leaving a name for oneself in the world, can be seen as an excess of one’s power drive. That’s what gets away from the wisdom of the serpent, of the snake. What Enkidu brings to Gilgamesh originally is a connection to nature. What Gilgamesh loses – and what Enkidu loses– is that connection to the animal psyche, what Jung calls the intelligence of the two- million-year-old man, the collective unconscious. Both these figures have dreams that come to them, and the dreams are very prophetic.

They both rely on these dreams.

M: Right.  Dreams can be powerfully revealing.  But we have to listen and not force  our own wishes onto to them; If the myth shows anything, it’s that!

Instinctive Intelligence

H: That’s another aspect of the story I find very interesting. The tragedy of the story and how it becomes a kind of teaching story for us is that it brings us back to the realization that if we don’t, as a civilization, recover the instinctive intelligence within the human psyche, we may destroy ourselves. I think this is what’s happening in the world today.

M: Let me think about that a minute. OK. Yes. The connection with the natural world and with our instincts – which I think are really our bed-rock selves  – is  kind of broken apart. So there’s a separation, and there are world figures who don’t realize that. That’s what’s driving this preemptive strike kind of stuff.

Let’s look at fame, seeking fame, some more. So you get your immortality so your name will live forever? I would say that’s a confused idea about how immortality works. I think the way you get immortality would be by what you are doing right now. That’s how you make your imprint.

H: Yes, I agree with that. Emily Dickinson said Fame is fickle food. Men eat of it and die!

M: Yes. Look what happened. [Laughs.]

H: And what did she do? She stayed true to her vocation, her calling. Death kindly stopped for her and she got her immortality. The horses’ heads were headed towards Eternity as she watched the children playing in the ring, the fields of grain, and setting sun.

The Poet’s Strength

M: The poet’s strength. That’s how she gained her immortality. And if you never even heard her name, she would have put this force field out there to interconnect with the rest of the universal Force Field. She was having her influence big time and will continue to.

H: The way she did it was by staying true to her art. She could have gotten distracted with her career, changed her poems to please a publisher.

M: Fix a little word here. . ..

H: And her poetry might have been forgotten, but the fact that she preserved the integrity of her lines….

M: That kind of purity is pretty hard to stamp out.

H: It’s very important. Now, getting back to what Gilgamesh was seeking and did not attain. I think it’s one thing to look at the beauty of the great city upon returning,  and  it’s another  thing to achieve the kind transformation that that implies. We don’t know how much he was transformed by his journey to the West.

M: I think, to read the story, he will never return to his hero days. I think he is permanently finished with hero journeys.

H: The story doesn’t go on. We don’t know what happened after his return to Uruk. Maybe there are other myths about him that talk about his return. We don’t know what happens.

The Ambiguous Meaning of Defeat

M: You know what I think? I think that, like every other aspect of the story, is ambiguous. You could see it as a defeat or as a culmination, a completion. I tend to see it as a completion, although I don’t feel good about his sadness. It can almost be considered a tragedy. I would say what he achieved is the opposite of a tragedy. But then – this is what bothers me – he doesn’t seem to appreciate what he’s seen. Even though he feels wonderful about the city, he’s cleaned himself up, he’s beautiful, he appreciates it in one sense, but in another it seems like he feels defeated. And in my judgment he isn’t. It’s the opposite of defeated. So anyhow, that’s the ambiguity. Maybe you have to take them both together.

H: I think the sadness is what you’re reflecting on, and I agree with that. So it’s a tragic story, and in that sense, it’s instructive. It’s not the kind of return you see in other myths.

M: Maybe like in the Odyssey. Odysseus comes back and triumphs. He cleans everything up. It’s a positive ending.

H: There’s a certain sorrow in the Gilgamesh myth. And in that it’s a teaching story.

Sadness and Joy

M: Let’s see what it teaches. I think anyone set on going out and conquering the world, if he read that story thoughtfully, would say, “That ain’t the way to do it.” So that would be the instructive part of it. The other part is that when life gives you something to do you’d better do it. You can’t sit there cowering. And if you do do what life requires of you, you may be sent some more errands to attend to – until you “get” what it wants you to understand. That’s your job, your journey. Ah. I think it has to be your Bliss as well. Some people just can’t be happy, just can’t bear to enjoy life. Why is that?

Why can’t our loved ones say, “Oh, I’m going to quit cowering and start enjoying myself”?

H: What’s disturbing is that he doesn’t  learn the art of self-sacrifice. He never really sacrifices his hero quest; right up to the very end he’s still on the hero journey. He’s lost all these precious things in the process. I think he didn’t stay true to the self enough, which would be staying true to his animal instincts. I think this is why he loses the herb of immortality to the serpent. The serpent represents the wisdom of the animal psyche.

M: Oh. I think what you just said is right.

H: He loses that connection. Sure, he can admire the beauty of the city when he comes back. But the way he cut down the forest with his hubris, and the way he also treated the old man when he arrived on the boat. That was not right. The boatman took him there, and he  was  ready for a fight. He still had his axe. He thought he  had to fight  for immortality, yet he  had it in the  palm  of his hand.

M: So he was still kind of confused about how to go about it.

H: When he got there, he was still carrying some of that massive inflated view of himself. The loss of his friend could have helped him.

M: That anguish, I think, was useful in his journey.

H: It did have a humanizing effect on him.

M: It does have that effect. There was nothing he could do to stop that from happening.

H: Yes. I think that’s what’s really transformative, the grief, more than anything. The mourning scenes are what really performs some therapy on him.

Our Sister Grief

M: In my book I have a passage about grief. The people of Mount Elgon in Africa say, We have to invite our sister Grief to sit at the table. Every grief is a bead that you add to a necklace that you wear around your neck so as to keep in mind how it all fits together. So grief is useful. That has to be part of the whole package.

H: Whitman, in this period I’m talking about, right after the tablets were translated for the first time, right around 1859, two years after the tablets were re-discovered, writes in his Calamus cluster, “I loved a man ardently but my love was not returned, and out of that love I have written these songs.” All of the poetry from this period reflects a profound loss of a friend, and a deep grief, a tremendous grief. “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is filled with grief, tears for the loss of the primary object of his childhood, which was a little mocking bird that he saw flying back and forth, to and fro, from its nest. This sense of great loss of a connection with nature and its recovery – this is what’s at the center of his new myth. Yet what he achieves after the loss of his friend is an experience of a transformative vision that he calls the New City of Friends, a love that is eternal. He attains in other words the very thing Gilgamesh loses.H

Transformative Vision

M: Yes.

H: Why it’s so instructive for us today is that it shows us how to achieve the kind of immortality Yeats also achieves in “Sailing to Byzantium,” which is a poem about immortality. Immortality is in the work, in friendship and vocation, love and work.

M: You can tie that right into the story.

H: Yeats is really singing about the realms of gold in the Keats poem and in the realms of gold you’re talking about in your book. He’s there, singing to lords and ladies of Byzantium of what is past and passing and yet to come. He’s there – in the place of hammered gold and gold enameling. He’s there to keep a drowsy emperor awake, singing from a place of immortality. It’s a poem of joy.

M: Yes.

H: He’s not in the place where we’re left in the Gilgamesh tale. Whitman, in his old age, sings, “Joy, shipmate, Joy!”

M: There it is. That’s what I miss in the myth.

H: Dickinson says, “Take all away from me / But leave me Ecstasy.”

M: Right, and you don’t get that feeling in this myth.

H: It’s more of a sorrow of something having been lost.

 M: You’re right.

Profound Appreciation and Joy of Life

H: Which is the movement from the animal psyche into the profound appreciation and  joy of a life well lived. Celebrating that! Happiness is what he is after and he not only attains it, he bequeaths it to his sisters and brothers. That’s, I think, at the core of the title of your book, Realms of Gold.

M: That’s definitely correct.

H: That’s what we’re talking about with regard to the poets. It’s like alchemy, hammering sheaves of gold, hammered gold, gold enameling.

M: Yes, and it’s there in the city of Uruk. I think what you’ve said and the connections you see are really insightful. And it’s really true. It’s not a joyous poem. So I would say, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not complete. [Laughs.] But I think everything in the poem is accurate and true. So I think there’s just another step there.

H: Also I want to circle back to what  you originally  said, that there’s another way to look at the ending of the story, and that’s to appreciate the beauty of the city, and that’s what the poet does.

M: Yes.

H: He achieves a kind of immortality through the telling of the story.

You can see the poet’s eyes glowing.

You can see the poet’s eyes glowing!

M: Oh, my, he’s doing a Yeats there! You can see the poet’s eyes glowing.

H: Yes.

M: He’s really appreciating it.

H: I think that’s the key. The poet says, “Go to the cornerstone in the great city. There you will find the tablets of lapis lazuli.”

M: Very good! [Applauds.]

lapis lazuli

H: Lapis Lazuli, the realms of gold. He’s appreciating the realm of gold he has found.

M: Very nicely done, Steven! Very good.

H: That’s the enlightenment.

M: Absolutely! That was brilliant, brilliant!

H: The poet was able to do that. Don’t you think so?

M: I do, without doubt.

H: That’s what you’re trying to do in your book.

The Meaning of Dreams

M: Right, and that’s what was missing for me in the story. Your making that leap is just right, perfect. That’s the step that poor Gilgamesh hasn’t taken, and probably never will. But the poet does.

Now let’s go back to dreams, because dreams are important in your work especially. I want  to  get your views on the dreams in Gilgamesh. It seems to me that the figures in the poem are interpreting dreams to suit themselves. Well, this is what this means. They’re doing that throughout the story. If you’re doing that intellectually you can always say, “This is a good dream,” or “This is a bad dream.” But that’s just manipulating the imagery instead of letting it speak to you. Trying to lay your preference onto a dream is like trying to pull a fast one on nature. Mitchell talks about this, I think. Anyway, we have examples of thinking you’ve fooled nature. You know: “Give me three wishes.”

They get you on the third one. [Laughs.]

H: Right. [Laughter]

M: So I think the point there is that, yes, dreams can be really helpful, but don’t try to make them do what you want. Let them speak.

H: That’s the logical mind moving against nature. The dream says what the psyche perceives and knows. It is nature.

M: If you took any of those dreams and looked at it from, say, a Jungian point of view, you could make good use of them in your journey.

H: That’s the way to stay in touch with the animal in us.

M: In the story, someone will say, “What does this mean?” “Well, it means this.” “OK. We’ll go with that.”

H: Yes, they keep pumping themselves up. Gilgamesh is down and frightened and doubtful. Enkidu comes and reminds him of his courage. This is a hero story, and  they pump  each other  up in this way and bolster each other’s egos. What’s missing is the connection with the Self. These dreams are really warnings. Enkidu’s interpretations of Gilgamesh’s dreams prove to be correct for the most part. Enkidu’s interpretation of his own dream is also correct. He  foresees his doom. He knows he’s doomed. This is because he went against the Goddess.

The First Hero Story

The other thing about this epic poem, dating to about 2100 B, C, is that it’s the first written hero story in Western civilization. It shows what happened when there was a movement  away from the Goddess religion, the Goddess Ishtar, or Enanna. And then the rise of the patriarchal religions. This is a thousand years older than the Hebrew Bible and a thousand years older than the Homeric hymns. We talking about a myth that emerged out of the Mother religions. And the one Mitchell picks is interesting because it shows, for example, the scene where Gilgamesh confronts Ishtar – after she tries to seduce him – with the six earlier affairs that ended in the deaths of the men she seduced, all black widow episodes.

M: Yes, yes.

H: Here he is turning against nature. This is a time four thousand seven hundred years ago when civilization became sick. The Carmel poet Robinson Jeffers was writing prior to and during World War Two that civilization is sick, sick with hubris and pride. Jeffers planted a thousand trees on his property to keep people away. He wanted to be true to his calling as a poet and shield himself from the encroaching sickness of civilization, as he said. He wasn’t moving against nature; he was moving against civilization. He represents someone at the far end of this civilizing tendency that leads to the loss of the connection to the animal psyche; he looks back at human history and rebukes it from the point of view of the intelligence of nature, trees, hawks, and the sea, the violent Pacific. In the myth the central motif is the loss of the animal man, the wild man, and the loss of the herb of immortality, which is a part of nature. “Nature’s  God,”  you could say, is a medicine of immortality. Then, the snake ends up taking it back again. So the animal psyche ends up absorbing what the hero actually won, which was the boon. He had it in his hand.

M: You had it in your hand. . ..

H: And then you lost it. We all live within that risk, as Everson said in the conversations I had with him. We all could lose that precious thing.

M: I was thinking about the hero. When people say, “God wants you to do this,” that seems to me to damage my own Self. I would throw the thigh bone in their face. The truth is I will not have a God above me. Period. I won’t put up with that. But I would say with equal force that the entire universe is the godhead of which I am a part.  But I am not a lesser part, and nothing else is a lesser part. What do you think about that?

H: Well, I think that’s an enlightened perspective. In 1847 Whitman wrote shortly  after the ancient city of Nineveh was re-discovered by a British explorer, “If I walk with Jah in Heaven and he assume to be intrinsically greater than I, it offends me; and I shall  certainly  withdraw from Heaven, —for the soul prefers freedom in the prairie and the untrodden woods.” His pantheism is translucent there. He sees that the trees are a part of the Godhead, just like Jeffers did. This Christmastime I planted thirty redwood trees up the hill in Joaquin Miller Park.

After the gods proved to be incomplete, new myths are needed – that’s the beautiful thing about the story being published in this time. The gods of the Middle East emerged out of the confrontation between a clashing of civilizations. The Hebrew bible was written in relationship to the Babylonian culture in Nineveh. The ruined palaces of the ancient capital of Assyria were found by Layard in 1844 and the first excavations began then. Herman Melville was on his way home at that time from his whaling voyage and adventures in the South Seas. Emerson had just published his essay “The Poet.” Seven years later Jonah was called to preach to the people of Nineveh. Melville picks this new myth up in Moby Dick. It’s in Father Mapple’s Sermon in chapter nine of the novel.

M: It all ties together!

The Herb of Immortality Within

H: Let me just finish that thought, because where I was going with that is that you’re absolutely right. The most precious thing is the herb of immortality within you, that you have  it.  That is what Gilgamesh was seeking, to make him not greater than the gods but equal to, not lesser than. This is what we’re all working toward: equality as a one world people.

M: Yes, that’s right. That’s what that means, the word immortality. That’s what immortality is.

Immortality is finding a way to be harmony with nature and the gods and the entire globe and the entire universe of which we are all an infinitesimal part

H: Immortality is finding a way to be harmony with nature and the gods and the entire globe and the entire universe of which we are all an infinitesimal part.

M: Once you do enter into that Field, that is the only  definition there  is of immortality.  That’s the only one that works. The rest of them are kind of flawed. The other thing that’s interesting is the continuity of these myths through time. You have the flood myth throughout history. But the other thing is the myth gets altered a bit over time, and what a hero is gets altered a bit and maybe a bit too streamlined in the West, in Germany and their myths.

H:     The      Siegfried      story.

Stephen Mitchell, Alan Watts, and Zen

M: OK. I think we explored all the questions I have about the poem. I Googled Stephen Mitchell. He has written numerous books, poetry books, analyses. I think his prologue to this book is tremendously clear and insightful. Then I saw that he’s done a lot of reading in Zen. He even studied to be a roshi. So he’s tuned in to what we’ve been talking about. Alan Watts is one  of  the people who influenced him. Alan Watts is one of the first people who articulated for me this view of how things work. So that goes way, way back, several decades. In fact, he came and talked at the college [Diablo Valley College] one time.

H: He made a big impact on me, too. I’ve read many of his books.

M: I put his talk into Image. I got the cassette and transcribed it. It was a beautiful thing he did. For half an hour he talked without looking at a note. He just stood on the stage without a podium and started in. It was beautifully put together, nicely structured. When he had completed the thought, he stopped.

By the way, do you know of a movie called Good Will Hunting?

H: Oh, sure. I love it.

M: Well, I thought the script got a little heavy-handed, but there was one idea in the  movie I  think is tremendously important, and I did this in my teaching. The first time we see Sean Maguire, the psychologist, he’s asking his students what the role of trust is between a therapist and patient. I would say, and this was a key point in the movie, how you can’t really communicate unless the barrier is broken. There has to be a love relationship. In your work, is that so?

The Centrality of Love in Gilgamesh

H: I think you’re on to the central theme in Gilgamesh, which is love. And I think that’s what he feels for Enkidu and a certain degree of love for the temple goddess, for Ishtar as well. But then he doesn’t respect her and will not make love to her when she makes her advances. Later he goes to the old man in the West, Utnapishtim, and his wife makes seven loaves of bread for Gilgamesh.

M: [Laughs.]  I forgot that one.

H: This is what Henderson calls the incubation sleep. Every time they’re  about to do a major hero event – like when they going to confront Humbaba – Enkidu draws a magic circle and puts Gilgamesh in the center and does a kind of incubation sleep for him and prepares the ground for dreaming. That’s very important in the myth. Also when Gilgamesh gets  to the  West, he  finds the old couple, and they have a kind of eternal love. Gilgamesh is at first kind of disrespectful of the old couple, and he doesn’t follow through with the assignment they give  him,  which is  to stay awake. The idea of enlightenment is there, too, the awakened one. Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, and that’s when the serpent power rose in him with its seven cobras, Bliss. The serpent Ananda covered his head, and he achieved his enlightenment. Something’s missing there in Gilgamesh. He falls asleep when he’s  supposed to stay awake. This also contributes to the  loss of the herb of immortality.

This gets us back to Alan Watts, what he brought to the West, which was Zen and  Buddhism, and the philosophies of the East. That comes through in your classes. How do you bring that to students? How do you bring students from a state of being half asleep to waking them up in the classroom? I think you have to make love in a certain way. You  bring love into the  dialogue, by loving the Self in the student.

M: In Good Will Hunting there were two aspects of it. One, Will Hunting had to know that the therapist was not his enemy and know that he was not out to take advantage of him.

H: What happens is Will Hunting disrespects the memory of the therapist, Sean Maguire, of his deceased wife. The therapist had lost his wife, and Will said something disrespectful, and Sean threw him up against the wall.

M: He was going to choke him. (Hmm, that’s like the encounter of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.)

H: That’s the moment of the breakthrough. That’s what allowed for the breakthrough when he remembers his traumatic past with his father.

Love and Vulnerability

M: The point is, though, that Sean was willing to show his own vulnerability, and that later opened the way for Will to show his. He got to the point that he was not pretending to be something else.

H: That’s one thing I want to say about the two figures in the myth. These two men show a lot of vulnerability to each other.

M: They’re not holding back. This is what’s called love.

H: I think that’s a very transformative moment in the movie, when Will remembers his traumatic past. Then he cries, and Sean cradles him in his arms. This is an important metaphor.

M: He would never have been able to do that if Sean had not allowed himself to be vulnerable. That would never have happened.

H: He  modeled that for Will.

H: There’s something life-affirming about knowing you’re on the right path and that we’re all speaking a common language. That gets back to this love idea, that  this common language  is the language of human love. You and I don’t write books for fame, clearly.

M: No.

H: We’re not doing it like Gilgamesh, to leave a name.

M: People would die for their child. But one’s own journey is the place where Creation works on itself, as Tomas Tranströmer wrote in his poem that I mentioned earlier, each of us is that place.