Updated: May 31
To be honest, it feels too late in the day to ask if things are getting too weird. When I started to write this, the protests in Bristol meant the sound of police helicopters had become commonplace. The recent tragic murder of Sarah Everard had calls for curfews, and of systemic misogyny. And that was just one month. You might have thought it would take a lot to relegate a global pandemic to news' backseat, but apparently 2020 and '21 saw that as a challenge to rise to.
As a vulnerable person, my mum's stepmom has been kept in residential care and potentially experienced the effects of a lockdown more than most of us. Since last March she's been primarily confined to her room, shut in with the carers and fellow residents, protected from the outside world. As miserable as that sounds, this is a woman who’s lived through a world war, growing up in Coventry during the blitz. While being locked in a nursing home isn't the most inspiring proposition, at least the Luftwaffe isn't involved. But while most of us haven't had the misfortune to live through a war, for many, 2020 was a call to arms.
With the elderly safely out of sight and mind, have we traded the wisdom of the elders for the reactivity of youth?
- Credit Paul Douglas. (The combo of passive and not so passive aggression could almost be funny.)
Guru's & Guidance
Most spiritual traditions stress the importance teachers, teachings and the wisdom of elders'. While a cursory Google of ‘guru scandal’ highlights the risk associated with these top-down lineages, what do we lose if we reject these traditions altogether? Rather than assuming all gurus have mucky paws, is there a case for finding the custodians with the cleanest hands?
I’ve made bad call’s at times when I've given my agency to teachers that were far more fallible than I wanted to recognise. But trip-ups aside, I don't doubt there are beings who’ve walked ahead of me offering some level-headed guidance. Ram Dass (AKA RD) was a shining example of this, and his death in December 2019 a real loss. His departure seemed inspired by the same showman's timing that typified his talks. Dying in Dec 2019, he left the party before aperitifs were finished and the world began to eat it's own tail. Not only a source of wisdom, RD was a link and translator for the deeper, timeless wisdom at the core of the key religions, particularly through his guru Neem Karoli Baba (AKA Maharaji.)
(Ram Dass & Maharaji)
In the early '70s, RD was living in India, while Bangladesh was witnessing a horrific famine. Appalled, RD was fired up to drive his camper van out there, as a makeshift ambulance. On telling Maharaji his plan, the response was simple. “If you desire. But don’t you see it’s all perfect?”
"Perfect!? Starvation, children dying, one of the worst disasters in recent history! Perfect?"
With the benefit of time and faith in Maharaji, RD was able to sit with the concept of perfection. Stepping back from his own personal reactivity and drama, he eventually heard what was under those words; Not that the suffering didn’t stink, but that when you have a wide or deep enough perspective, events have a different resonance.
For all but the barbaric (or enlightened,) it's impossible to hear that 1.5 million deaths is perfection. But what happens when you adjust your viewpoint, step back a century or millennia? Knowing we've existed on this planet, in our current form for roughly 300,000 years, will a famine that lasted a few hundred days make it into the Homosapien top ten events?
It's unlikely Maharaji's message was "It’s all perfect, so just chill out and kick back with a chai.” That simple phrase was a distillation of one of the key themes of the Bhagavad Gita (AKA the Gita).
karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ’stvakarmaṇi
2.47 You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.
AKA shit's going to go down whether you like it or not.
It's your job to roll your sleeves up, keep your head and act impeccably. But even so, accept that however well you do, the outcome is ultimately out of your control.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the key texts in the Hindu tradition and at its heart, is a war. A family split in two becomes a conflict the divides the world. And the Gita's not alone, war is a constant theme in many of the world's religious texts. What better allegory for our own battles with our internal demons than an external war? I'm not sure I would agree that anyone is wholeheartedly ‘evil’, I fully embrace the idea that we all have aspects of ourselves that can benefit the world if we combat them. Or other aspects we could foster.
(The Mother - Adolf Hitler 1938)
Accepting that war is part of our outer and inner experience, how best to approach it, seems a worthy topic for our consideration. Early on in the Gita, Arjuna (the hero, AKA us) throws down his weapons and cries. “I won’t fight. The other side is my family, my teachers. These are people that I love. I won’t do it!” To which Krishna (GOD, AKA our inherent wisdom) replies “Sorry pal you’ve got to. The Kauravas (the villains, AKA our lower nature) have to be stopped, the world is properly F'd if you don’t. Your role is to lead the Pandavas (the heros, AKA our higher nature) to win this war. So pull up your socks, pick up your weapons and let’s do this. Now come here big fella, gimme me a hug.”
To put this in a broader context, Arjuna was neither naive nor a coward. He’d grown up as a warrior, he’d be trained and guided by elder teachers and he’d experienced the world, having been oppressed and exiled. The preceding story is one of control and countenance in the face of constant injustice and oppression. By the time we meet him, as he breaks down and refuses to fight, he’s taken every courageous stand to avoid the war with his persecutors. And yet here he was, being given the mandate to take action. Not as a knee jerk reaction, but as a guided and considered response to an unjust situation, with potentially dire consequences. Sound familiar?
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and where are we? Our personalised echo chambers feed us one-sided information. We've limited access to, or appreciation of, the elders or the wisdom, that if nothing else, has kept them alive long enough to be elders. We also suffer from much lower discomfort thresholds and far itchier trigger fingers.
It only takes the smallest spark under our collective asses for things to get incendiary, incredibly quickly. And where Arjuna was able to consult God, most of us rely on Twitter.
But we don't have to completely succumb to the madness, there are tools. Keeping the Gita to hand is akin to giving ourselves a multi-millennia reference point; a 2000-year-old tree to hug and remind ourselves that it's not all as it seems, or as our phone's would have us believe. As a device, the Gita is invaluable in giving a sensationalist headline or triggering post, a little more context. And these kind of tools are essential; In meditation, we might use the breath; We’ll get distracted, caught up in emotions and fantasies getting lost for a while, but the breath is always there for us to come back to.
We can use the Gita in the same way, a reminder in our day to day, that when life submerges us, we can always come back to that constant.
And the religious texts aren't the only weapons available to us. There are still chances to tap into a wisdom that comes supported through lineages that go back to a time when we lived much more closely to our land, our families and (I hesitate to say it,) our tribes; When we were indigenous. A writer who I absolutely fucking fanboy over is Tyson Yunkaporta (his book, Sand Talk - How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World is highly recommended).
As much of a fan as am, listening to Tyson talk on Soul Seed Gathering podcast recently, I really struggled (as i think the host did) with his view on our current civilisation; the fact that it's essentially breathing it's death rattle.
Arguing that no matter how hard we fight to bring about change, we are no match for the machine that is capitalism. He acknowledges that there are people that could turn the tide, but that only people so rich and powerful (and potentially morally corrupt) that they are the ones who'd lose the most. Instead of trying to save, or at least attempt CPR on this dying beast, they're figuring out how to get off this planet or keep their bodyguards loyal once the financial systems have collapsed. Admittedly, at first glance it's not the most inspiring world view. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking it's nothing short of nihilistic.
But listening to him talk, part of the joy of Tyson is his sense of humour, enthusiasm and irreverence. And there is a marked difference between irreverence and irresponsibility. When asked how he's dealing with this impending apocalypse, Tyson's response is just to do all he can to make sure that the perennial wisdom lives on as purely as possible. There aren't many people who admit as lofty a purpose as Tyson.
I sense that to some extent his ability to find the humour because he is able to step back far enough to see that a light touch is the only way. If not lost in the madness it's possible to join the cosmic giggle. By understanding that he's not the be-all end-all, but simply playing out the role as best he can, in the really long game. A game that recognises even the rocks possess an ageless wisdom. His people have seen countless appocolpse' he says, but here they still are. And he’s simply a node in that much bigger process that will continue on, in some form or another. As long as this planet allows us to be here.
Leaving the final words to Ram Dass.
“I’ve been asked many times whether this is the aquarian age and it’s all just beginning, or if this is armageddon and this is the end, and I have to admit I don’t know.
The way I’ve usually copped out in dealing with it is saying, “Whichever way it goes, my work is the same. My work is to quiet my mind and open my heart and relieve suffering wherever I find it.” That seems to be what my life is about, and it doesn’t matter which it is- it’s the beginning of everything or the end of everything – regardless, that’s still what I gotta do.