New Faces for Old Gods

•October 2, 2013 • 1 Comment

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of The Big Lebowski. I’ve been a fan since I first saw it back in high school and it seems like every viewing since ABIDE_Posterhas continued to delight me and reveal ever new aspects and layers of the film. And so, when on a viewing several months back, I found that a religion had been founded around the figure of the Dude and the narrative of the film, I took an amused interest in it. Billing itself as akin to Taosim in its philosophical view, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the declarations of Discordianism being “Zen for round-eyes”, and I approved.

Continue reading ‘New Faces for Old Gods’

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Kūmaré or “The Art of Faking-It-’til-You-Make-It”

•April 3, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Recently, I watched the documentary Kūmaré on Netflix (being that I’m in-between steady work at this point, the amount of movie-watching on Netflix has risen slightly from its norm) and my first impression, made about half-way through and re-affirmed by the end, was that director Vikram Gandhi was some strange form of Discordian chaote.Kumare_promotional_poster

    Gandhi starts the documentary talking about his childhood being raised as an Indian-American in New Jersey and how he never really felt comfortable with his community’s Hindu faith and practices; explaining that when he got to college, he studied religion in order to hopefully better understand faith and find some of his own, but came away even more skeptical. The genesis of Kūmaré came when Gandhi was making another film about yogis and their followers, looking both at self-styled yogis here in the United States and the more traditional type in India. Realizing that the yogis he was coming across – both in the U.S. and abroad – seemed exceedingly similar, that the ones he intuitively knew to…well, be full of shit looked and acted almost identically to the ones who had the weight and momentum of lineage and tradition to back them up, Gandhi asked himself if it would be possible for himself to become a yogi or guru and achieve a similar kind of following.

    Styling himself “Sri Kūmaré”, Gandhi grew out his hair and beard; practiced yoga and meditation daily; affected a voice that was akin to the one that his late, devoutly-Hindu grandmother had; and came up with a philosophy of teachings that implicitly announced the fact that he was a fraud. He traveled to Tucson, Arizona with two female friends (his first “followers” and co-conspirators) and began getting himself ingratiated into the community by teaching at various yoga schools until he began to develop some repeat students.

    I won’t go into the nitty-gritty (you’ll have to watch Kūmaré for that, and I highly recommend it), but at one point Gandhi comments that he realized that Kūmaré was, in fact, a manifestation of his own idealized self, and that he found that he connected more with other people and was a happier person himself when he was Kūmaré then he was before or after the experiment ended. At the core of Gandhi’s “fake” philosophy is communicating the teaching that his students don’t need a “guru” or a “master” to make them into better people, that they are already their own gurus, they just need to realize that. It seems that at some point during the “Kūmaré” experiment, Gandhi began to buy his own message – that one doesn’t need an external power, whether human or superhuman, to grow, change, and become a better person – and the experiment changed as he did.

    No longer was he trying to see if he could pull off the act of a “guru” and get others to believe that he was indeed some spiritual master from the exotic Orient.

    No, he became that guru (if only for himself) that he was pretending to be and opened his eyes to a new way of living, of being more fulfilled with life. In that way, whether Vikram Gandhi realizes it or not, I say he is some sort of kissing-cousin to a Discordian chaote:

    One of the oldest Chaos Magic maxims I know is “fake it ‘til you make it”, followed quickly by “if it works, it’s real.” Though Gandhi would probably argue otherwise, I look at Kūmaré and see a very long, slow Chaos Magic working playing out over the course of the documentary. Gandhi implies, if not admits, to having a love-hate relationship with spirituality and religion: wanting to understand religion/spirituality and find the fulfillment and peace that he witnessed his grandmother (to whom the film is dedicated) have when she would go about her morning devotionals, but also finding many of the purveyors of “enlightenment” and “salvation” (e.g. the yogis) to be more clay-footed than one hopes for in enlightened teachers. So, Gandhi makes himself into the kind of teacher he would hope to actually encounter, and in so doing, helps to actualize the spiritual change he seems to have so long desired.

    But the very fact that Kūmaré simultaneously lambastes some traditional aspects of organized religion/spirituality (showing that many of the big-name yogis are exceedingly human individuals, despite the image they and their followers might build up) while showing that there’s still something to all of it once you dig through the bullshit, smacks of an Erisian influence to me. Granted, it’s likely an unconscious influence, but an influence nonetheless. Showing that there is something to self-improvement and changing one’s life, to becoming a better person through philosophy and spirituality, all with a wink and a nod at the fact that one can be one’s own guru seems to sing of the creative strife and anarchy at the heart of Discordianism.

    In the end, some of Gandhi’s followers feel very betrayed by his “experiment.” Others seem to find a kind of satori when he reveals that Kūmaré was simply a mask and that he is, in the end, no different than his students. Others seem to find peace and wisdom in his teaching, even if they question the methods used to communicate it.

    I simply found Kūmaré to be a delightful and insightful piece about the journey of self-improvement and the search for enlightenment, and I highly recommend it.

Seeking Cosmic Awe

•February 20, 2013 • 1 Comment

It should be little surprise to anyone that I lurk on the futurology subreddit over at Reddit. Lurking there is how I came across the video above that adds some pretty visuals to a part of an interview with Dr. Neil DeGrasse-Tyson. If you haven’t watched it, yet, do so. I’ll wait.

Okay. Watched it? Good.

The sentiment expressed by Dr. DeGrasse-Tyson is one that I’ve recently realized typifies a form of nature mysticism that likely sits at the core of Science. Ken Wilber define nature mysticism as “experienc[ing] a oneness with all phenomena in the gross-waking state” (Wilber, 93); which typically describes the experiences of various spiritual and religious practitioners when they have spiritual experiences that give rise to such ideas as the Anima Mundi or that the World itself is alive in an animistic fashion. But it has occurred to me of late, that nature mysticism can be expanded to fit those approaches to science and the scientific worldview that cultivate the awe that figures such as DeGrasse-Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein have expressed and advocated throughout the years.

The realization that, in the words of Dr. DeGrasse-Tyson, “we are all connected – to each other, biologically; to the Earth, chemically; and to the rest of the universe, atomically” bears little difference to the insights of mystics and shamans of previous ages and other cultures who exhort us to remember our oneness with the World and its other inhabitants. Granted, the insightful view of those scientists like Dr. DeGrasse-Tyson comes from rigorous empirical observation of the Cosmos of which we are a part and not from intense meditation or vaunted mystical states of consciousness. But in the end, does the differing methods by which similar views are reached make a huge difference? The mystic engages in deep contemplation and experiences a flash of insight that makes them realize the oneness of reality; the empiricist engages in deep contemplation and intense observation, slowly building logical arguments and empirical evidence to back up a claim that all of reality is interconnected and, in some sense, one.

One appeals to intuition, the other appeals to logic.

Both are knowledge, though.

And when intuition and logic appear to back each other up, one should take a step back and think on that. It could very well be that, despite  the arguments of atheists, that science is a form of religious/spiritual philosophy (in the sense of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophies that sought to understand the individual’s place within the Cosmos and how they could go about living a “good life”): the physical sciences tell us about the Cosmos and how its constituent parts operate (Cosmogony/Cosmology); the social sciences describe how individuals and groups work, and under what conditions they work positively or negatively (Moral Philosophy); the psychological sciences delve into how the mind works and how best to heal it (the nature of the “soul”). You got the bulwark of most religious traditions right there – narratives on the Universe and how we relate to it, on how we relate to each other as individuals and groups, and how we work as individual sentient beings.

And with individuals like Dr. DeGrasse-Tyson or Carl Sagan stating that “we are stardust” or that “we are a way for the Cosmos to know Itself” you have mystics, prophets, and sages who seek to enlighten the masses as to the benefits of the path that they walk.

I’m not making this comparison to denigrate science by any means, but to look at the institution, the method, the philosophy in a new light. Religions don’t need to be focused on deities or adhere to rigid dogma: Buddhism at its core is an exemplary model of both those facts. Thus it would seem that, in a certain light, Science is a non-theistic religion, a philosophy much like ancient Stoicism that seeks to help us understand the Cosmos as best we can and to provide us with the best possible means of achieving eudaimonia – “the good life”.

———————–

Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality, p. 93

Building a Foundation

•January 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

A few months ago I wrote about my fledgling steps to begin building a civically-oriented religious practice for myself, mentioning that I was hoping to do more with the concept. One of the things that I’ve been able to polish up in that regard is a liturgical script for building a foundation of this civic practice by establishing a…well, foundation. The focal point of the ritual is two-fold: 1) to establish a “hearthstone”, or a locus within one’s dwelling to foster the energies (figurative or literal, depending on how one chooses to look at it) of a “home”; and 2) to enter into an agreement with one or more house-spirits. 

Why? Well, the hearthstone is there to (at least) help cement the idea of one’s house being a home, it being inspired by a suggestion from one of the priests at my wedding (who offered the idea that a stone used during the ceremony could serve as a symbolic cornerstone of my wife and mine’s new household as a married couple). Also, the idea of having house-spirits is one that has deep-roots in Indo-European cultures, especially the Northern European ones. So much so, I have heard that within the last century or so, it’s not been unheard-of to see “want ads” for house-spirits in the newspapers of some Scandinavian countries. The idea of having not only resident spirits of some kind, but happy resident spirits is tied into an idea of fostering good luck/blessings in a home.

Happy house-spirits = a luck-filled and prosperous home. Which is generally considered a good thing.

But, entering into an overt relationship with a house-spirit (or multiple spirits) to the mutual benefit of all parties is sort of a stepping stone to fostering an overt relationship with the spirit(s) of one’s street, one’s neighborhood, one’s city, one’s region, one’s state/nation, et cetera. In the same way that one “should” (in my estimation; YMMV) focus more on fostering a good relationship with one’s Ancestors primarily, then land-spirits, then deities (since the Ancestors are usually one’s blood-family, the land-spirits are akin to “neighbors”, and the deities are akin to government/public officials; family will help you because you’re family, neighbors will help you if have a good relationship with them, and public officials will help because that’s their job – but it’s a good idea to call on them sparingly since they usually have more pressing matters to attend to) – fostering a good relationship with one’s house-spirits is paramount since you share the same space with them, day-in-and-day-out, but it’s also a good idea to open up the web of community by seeking relationship with other “civic” spirits (street, neighborhood, etc.).

Anyway, as mentioned, this is a meant to be a stepping stone in that process, a beginning. I hope that it serves those who use it well, and please feel free to leave comments on any experiences with it.

Yuletide

•December 31, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Twelfth Night. New Year’s Eve.

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Seems somebody finally caught that Gingerbread Man after all.

The end of the old year, the beginning of the new. I wanted to post something real quick on Yuletide today to talk about  show off some of the traditions – both new and slightly-less new – that we’ve been taken to practicing around here this winter. 

As the wife and I have over the last three years, we celebrated the Rural Dionysia around the middle of the month with a procession of phalli, the watching of comedies (this year was an Arrested Development marathon), the drinking of wine, and the exchanging of presents. That last activity has become a tradition for us since our first celebration of the holiday together three years ago when we were still dating and living in different cities.

A continuing tradition of ours from last year (the first Yuletide we were living together) is the hanging of sacrifices to Oðinn upon the Yule Tree. Based off of an account by Adam of Bremen, whether it’s strictly true or not, the imagery has been with me for years. So, this year – like last year – we hung gingerbread sacrifices. While last year we just said a simple prayer and hung the offerings on nine of the Twelve Nights. Myself veering more toward the love of structure (“morphophilia”? No…that doesn’t sound right…) I decided to come up with a series of brief devotionals for each of the Twelve Nights of Yule, including sacrifices to the Old Man on nine of them. Having worked through eleven of the twelve, thus far the wife and I have been pleased. We had to be flexible on one or two nights due to geography and timing (we traveled back to Columbus on Christmas Eve to be with my family, thus couldn’t really do the devotionals as originally planned; but we made it work), but beyond those snags it’s been a good run. It’s safe to say that we plan on continuing the tradition next year, as well.

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A winter home for our house-wight

A completely new tradition we did this year was making a gingerbread house for our resident house-wight. We picked up a kit at our local grocery store, put it together one night, and then set it on top of our hearth after saying a few prayers and making an offering. It looks really nice and it’s a fun way to spend some time together, as well as honoring the spirits of house and home.

Tonight we also have our New Year’s Eve party, another tradition started last year. So, that means I have to wrap up here and go help before my loving wife yells at me.

Merry Yuletide to All, and a Happy New Year!

 

Those poor guys never had a chance.

Those poor guys never had a chance.

Religio Civica

•November 5, 2012 • 1 Comment

One of the things that has circled around through the treacherous swamp that is my mind over the past year is how and why patriotism or any kind of national passion has become the sole provenance of fundamentalist Christians.  And by that, I mean how in popular media discourse it seems that the only way one can believeably profess to be a patriotic American is by being a jingoistic conservative Christian. Doesn’t seem to matter if you’re religious or not, if you do hundreds of hours of community service or not; whether or not you’ve sacrificed blood, sweat, and tears for this country and its people (the one exception seems to be members of the military, but given the reaction that service members in favor of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” got from the Right, even that sacred cow doesn’t seem as sacred as it once was).

I’m not saying that this is the actual state of things, just what I’ve gleaned from the national dialogue. I could be wrong in my interpretation, of course, but whether or not this is the true state of things in America is not the point of this post. The role of religion in national sentiment and activity is.

I’ll admit, I’ve always identified more as a cosmopolitan than a flag-waving patriotic American, seeing the vast masses of humanity as my countrymen and -women and the Earth as my homeland. But, I’d be delusional to think that the fact that I was born and raised in the United States (and still reside here) doesn’t mean that I’m not invested in what happens here. But, I’m also a very religious person, and so, as I started getting more interested in politics, community awareness and activity in the last few years, the thought struck me:

Why is the only stereotype regarding religious, patriotic citizens in this country focused on Christian fundamentalists?

Why do they have the corner on that particular “market”? Why isn’t there more dialogue or stories regarding the efforts of Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans, or even pagans?

It was about that point when I started entertaining the idea of developing a more civically-oriented religious practice for pagans: liturgies for developing relationships with the genii loci of one’s community (street, neighborhood, city, etc.), recognizing and honoring our own (national) mythic figures (e.g. – the Eagle, Uncle Sam, Columbia/Lady Liberty, Brother Jonathan, the Founding Fathers, etc.), and returning a sense of sacred ritual to civic duties among other things. While I haven’t been able to get a lot done with it thus far, I have been able to come up with a small devotional/prayer for the impending national election tomorrow:

Approach the altar, light incense and votive candle, center yourself with a few deep breaths, and say:

“Blessed Kindreds:
Honored Founders, Majestic Eagle, Great Columbia and Uncle Sam:
This day the citizens of our nation exercise their greatest civil right
And their most sacred duty – they Vote.
May wisdom, duty to community, and the desire for freedom for all
Guide our choices.
So be it.”

My aim is to do more with this since I know that it’s helped me to be more motivated politically (not that I plan on running for office or anything like that, but to be more aware, informed, and active as a citizen), and hopefully having more material along these lines out there will help other pagans feel more connected and invested in the country that they call home (whatever country that might be; this idea is by no means Amero-centric). Because while our society is secular, to think that every single citizen is going quarantine their religious life from their political life is naive. Religious citizens, of course, shouldn’t attempt to shove their views and tradition-based prohibitions (e.g. – refraining from drinking alcohol, refraining from abortions, etc.) on to the whole of the citizenry at large; but that doesn’t mean that religion can’t be used as a positive route to increased civic activity for individual citizens.

The Pursuit of Wisdom

•October 16, 2012 • 1 Comment

Several months ago, I came across the book The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanely Robinson, and began reading it primarily because I was intrigued by its premise: an alternate history divering from our own during the 1300s CE, when instead of only killing off 1/3 of the European population, the Bubonic Plague kills off roughly 99%; though a few scattered, isolated populations of Europeans survive, their impact upon history is dramatically lessened, and the book covers the next 700-odd years looking at how the Chinese, the Muslims, and the Native Americans dominate the world stage. Now, one of conceits for the narrative is that all of the key characters in each time period are actually reincarnations of the same members of singular jati (a “family unit”, but in the book used in the sense of a group of souls vaguely karmically bound together), being born, living, dying, and then shuffled through the bardo back into physical existence once again.

My wife was intrigued by the concept of the book, as well, so when I finised it I passed it off to her. Which prompted her a week or two ago to – quite non sequitor-ly – ask me whether or not I believed in reincarnation.

After rambling down tangential paths – self vs. non-self, what exactly gets reincarnated, etc. – my answer boiled down to the fact that I subscribed to a fairly Neo-Platonic view of Existence: that while the natural trajectory/progression is to go from individuated, self-hood to union with the Ground of Being, I also believe that that union isn’t permanent or eternal. At some point – whether a few seconds or a few aeons later – one gets spit back out into the cycle of Existence as a finite, individuated self; rinse and repeat.

“So,” she asked me, “what’s the point of trying to re-unite with the Ground of Being?”

Well, my feeling is that union with the Ground of Being is preferable to being a finite, individuated self – but there’s nothing wrong with being a finite, individuated self. I’m no gnostic: I don’t see manifest existence as a prison, a punishment, or anything intrinsically evil. It has it’s ups and downs, its thrills and chills, its states of exalted fun and dark sorrow. But, much like being in a dream that has the potential to turn into a nightmare at any moment, it’s nice to wake up and realize that all of that existential angst and terror wasn’t real in any permanent, eternal sense. And that the fun was just that: fun, but nothing to linger on or to which you should become attached.

Manifest existence as a finite, individuated self should be enjoyed and delighted in as much as possible. But one should become no more attached to it than that awesome dream you had when you were sixteen and found yourself in a room with some scantily clad celebrities who were about to do naughty things to you that were illegal in forty-five states (or, you know, whatever you guys might have dreamed about that was really, really nice). In my view existence/life as we experience it is something to enjoyed and learned from, but one doesn’t need to flee it either to escape suffering or to receive some promised, eternal bliss.

To that end, I told my wife, I don’t believe in pursuing any spiritual practice for soteriological or salvationist ends. Those things, in my opinion, miss the point. Learn to cope with the suffering  and the addictive terrific-ness of life? Sure. But aim to extinguish suffering (whether it be one’s own suffering or cosmic suffering, in regards to the Bodhissatva Vow – which, in my opinion, is a pointless vow to make as all sentient beings will never all be enlightened at any one, single point in time) and desire? No, that way lies folly.

Instead, I find it smarter and more beneficial to pursue the accumulation of wisdom. Seeking wisdom instead of salvation allows to you learn how to live your life well, while you’re living it, not deny your life, not seek escape into some transmundane realm on the other side of death (or the apocalypse, depending on one’s flavor of escapism). Are you unhappy with your life? Seek to either change the circumstances of your life or to cope with said circumstances; whichever may be the wisest choice depending on the factors involved in your situation.

But, how does this tie back into reincarnation or union with the Ground of Being, etc? Well, if there’s no permanent escape from the Wheel of Existence, only a temporary reprieve when you unite with God/the Tao/the One/the Source/Xenu/the Ground of Being/whatever, then working hard to better yourself for some abstract reward (better karma, Heaven, etc.) becomes pointless. Working hard to better yourself because bettering yourself improves your lot NOW (whether by influencing external factors or by helping you to roll with the punches better when the World decides to beat up on you) – that right there is part of the pursuit of wisdom. To pursue wisdom is to keep learning – about the Cosmos, about living well, about one’s self, etc – and to apply that learning in beneficial ways (‘cuz learnin’ don’t mean jack-shite if you don’t find some way to apply that knowledge). Whether you’re doing it simply to improve you personal situation right now, to improve the situations of others around you, or to climb another rung on the Great Ladder of Being, it doesn’t matter.

The pursuit of wisdom is beneficial no matter what. That’s why the pursuit itself is wise.