Rites of Spring: Rituals of Renewal

April 8, 2012 § 6 Comments

By Tai Carmen

That men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.

Lord Alfred Tennyson 

The Spring Equinox — when the sun lines up with the earth’s equator — is rich with rituals of renewal, and marks the first day of Spring for those who live in the Northern Hemisphere.

There are two days each year when the daytime and nighttime hours are approximately equal — each being 12 hours long. One occurs between March 19 and 21 (the Spring or Vernal Equinox) and the other in September. These dates have strong ties to religious celebrations throughout the world.

“The Christian Easter is destined to fall roughly around the same time as the Pagan Easter [vernal equinox] due to its association to the Judaic Passover [marking the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage] which is also fixed by the lunar cycle,” Andy Paciorek explains in Strange Lands.

“Both festivals could be said to reflect new life, either Christ’s return from the dead or the blossom and birth of Spring. So it was not much of a stretch for the ascending Christian Church to merge both festivals. This is known as ‘assimilation’ and was a habit frequently employed in those times … to ease and encourage rather than force the conversion of heathens. ”

The modern English term Easter can be traced back to the ancient pagan goddess, Ēostre  for whom the German month of April is named. Eostre represents the sunrise, springtime, fertility, and new life, as do her symbols — hares and eggs. Hares because of their plentiful reproductive capacity, and eggs because all life starts with an egg. And so the tradition of eggs and rabbits as symbols of Easter is rooted in emblems of European folklore.

“The Easter Bunny is not actually a ‘bunny’ or rabbit at all, but is actually a hare,” details Andy Paciorek. “The hare was the sacred animal of Eostre (or Oestra or Ostera), the ancient Teutonic Goddess of the Spring Moon. At the time of the vernal equinox (March or April) the hares are famed for going ‘mad’…”

“The association of rabbits, hares, and the moon can be found in numerous cultures the world over,” notes Terri Windig in “The Symbolism of Rabbits and Hares,” “ranging from Japan to Mexico, from Indonesia to the British Isles. Whereas in Western folklore we refer to the ‘Man in the Moon,’ the ‘Hare (or Rabbit) in the Moon’ is a more familiar symbol in other societies.

“In Chinese folklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon’s light (without the need of impregnation by the male), or by crossing water by moonlight, or licking moonlight from a male hare’s fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin.

In Iran the Spring Equinox is celebrated with Nowruz — known as “the Persian new year” and meaning “new day.”

As with Passover, house cleaning is a part of the preparation, stemming from the old belief that cleanliness helps keep evil away (quite sensible.)  On the day of Nowruz everyone dons new clothes and families visit one another. Along with other symbolic items, such as sprouted barley representing rebirth, painted eggs signifying fertility and abundance are prominent in Nowruz traditions.

Hindus celebrate the Spring festival of Holi, known as the Festival of Colors, at the end of the winter season, on the last full moon day of the lunar month (February/March).

Marked by bright colors evoking springtime and fresh life, Holi has roots in Hindu mythology associated with good triumphing over evil. Social caste taboos are relaxed, joy and mischief are encouraged, and no one expects polite behavior. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, women and men all celebrate in the streets together, dousing one another with water and colored dyes.

“Taking the superstitions and rituals of the spring festivals as psychological symbols, we can appreciate the importance of personal renewal,” muses Jonathan Young in his article “Symbolism of Spring.”

“Putting on new clothing could represent the possibility of developing a new aspect of identity or finding a fresh sense of purpose. Spring might well be the appropriate moment to don new clothes, in a figurative sense, and claim an underused side of ourselves. A personal ritual for this month could be deciding what crops we want to develop in our lives so that we have a flourishing summer ahead.”

In Winter, we cocoon. We hibernate; dream. Symbolically, in Winter we gestate, go inward — a metaphorical death. In Spring, new life sprouts forth from the dormant earth and we are reminded of our own capacity to bloom.

What bulbs have been dreaming in the dark earth of your subconscious? What behaviors do you want to shed like winter runoff? What creative, personal or spiritual fruits would you like to bare in the upcoming year?

Creative Connections & The Science of Inspiration

March 29, 2012 § 9 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas.” ~ Terence McKenna 

The creative spark — that incandescent flash of insight known as a breakthrough — is known for being unpredictable, elusive and mysterious. Yet over the past few decades, cognitive psychologists have been studying the various neurological processes behind creativity.

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Research led by Mark Beeman and John Kounios has identified where the flash of insight comes from when a creative problem has been solved.

“In the seconds before the insight appears,” explains Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, “a brain area called the superior anterior temporal gyrus (aSTG) exhibits a sharp spike in activity. This region, located on the surface of the right hemisphere, excels at drawing together distantly related information, which is precisely what’s needed when working on a hard creative problem.”

 

Michael Michalko, author of Creative Thinkering, agrees: “Creativity comes from observing the relationships between objects and making metaphorical-analogical connections […]

“If one particular style of thought stands out about creative genius, it is the ability to make juxtapositions between dissimilar subjects. Call it a facility to connect the unconnected that enables them to see things to which others are blind.

Leonardo da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.”

Researchers of brain function have found that certain factors increase the likelihood of receiving an insight. For instance, subjects exposed to a short comedic video boosted creative solution performance by 20%.

Interestingly, studies conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that drunk test subjects given word problems outperformed their sober peers by 30%!

The insight puzzles given were ‘remote associates,’ in which a person is asked to find an additional word that goes with a triad of words. For example:

Pine Crab Sauce 

(the answer is below the picture)

(The answer is “apple” — pineapple, crabapple, applesauce.)

Why would subjects exposed to comedy score higher than peers not treated with a laugh? The same reason drunk subjects outperformed their sober peers.

“The answer,” according to Lehrer “involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. […] We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.”

Creative blocks occur when the logical left hemisphere of the brain has reached an impasse with its linear, systematic approach; interrupting its frustrated obsession with the wrong questions can free up the right hemisphere to supply the essential fresh connection. Relaxation helps.

“This research,” expounds Lehrer, “explains why so many major breakthroughs happen in the unlikeliest of places, whether it’s Archimedes in the bathtub or the physicist Richard Feynman scribbling equations in a strip club, as he was known to do. It reveals the wisdom of Google putting ping-pong tables in the lobby and confirms the practical benefits of daydreaming. As Einstein once declared, ‘Creativity is the residue of time wasted.'”

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 So next time you’re hitting your head against the wall of some creative problem, give the left brain a break and take a shower, play a game, drink a beer, watch a comedy video, take a nap or take yourself on a walk.

Studies show, this is a bona fide part of the creative process! The insight hiding in the superior anterior temporal gyrus of the brain needs a chance to offer its fresh connection.

“If you’re trying to be more creative,” concludes Lehrer, “one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed. Steve Jobs famously declared that ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Mr. Jobs argued that the best inventors seek out ‘diverse experiences,’ collecting lots of dots that they later link together.

“Instead of developing a narrow specialization, they study, say, calligraphy (as Mr. Jobs famously did) or hang out with friends in different fields. Because they don’t know where the answer will come from, they are willing to look for the answer everywhere.”

“Original ideas,” agrees Michael Michalko, “inevitably are created by conceptually blending subjects from different universes into something new.”

The Modern Vision Quest

January 12, 2012 § 15 Comments

Each of us has a calling, a unique voice, a song we must sing, a vision we must enact. ~ Circles of Air, Circles of Stone

Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. ~ Norman Cousins

Traditionally, the vision quest is a sacred right of passage in native cultures. It signifies a turning point in life taken to find oneself and one’s direction.

Usually done in conjunction with some consciousness altering practice — traditionally, fasting, sleep deprivation or the use of natural hallucinogenic drugs — the young initiate would go out alone into the wilderness, after much preparation by elders, to seek communion with the forces of the spirit world.

Often the period of return to the tribe was marked by sacred celebration, a ritual or a tribal event, such as a drumming ceremony, in which the repetitive rhythms induce a meditative state of prayer, spiritual receptivity, connectivity and communion among participants.

It was an opportunity for young initiates, or older participants seeking insight or transformation, to connect with the sacred within themselves, the tribe and the world.

We have no modern equivalent. Or more specifically, our modern equivalents are stripped of the sacred; debased. For example, going to college and venturing out into the world of newly-freed freshman to drink, dance and party is largely considered a rite of passage. But what visions can be found in a night of binge drinking?

Yet, we yearn for this type of self-expression. To unleash the inner animal and find self-renewal. We thirst to connect with something greater than ourselves, to engage our fellow man and find our direction. While there exist retreats to guide one through a modern vision quest, these are always a gamble. Apart from being expensive, operators have been known to get in over their heads, as happened to James A. Ray in 2009, wherein three participant deaths occurred as a result of a botched sweat lodge ceremony. As with many self-help practitioners, the line between the shaman and the charlatan is often difficult to ascertain.

Because of this ambiguity, and the inherent risk of trusting a stranger with your life — particularly a stranger who stands to gain monetarily from your acceptance of their authority — I propose an alternate solution to express this ancient desire in the modern age: Create your own vision quest.

This can be done in a multitude of ways. The simplest option is to give yourself a day for self-reflection wherein time is taken in solitude in nature to go inward and reconnect with the earth. Running water is particularly stimulating for introspection, as it creates a meditative soundscape of soothing white noise, not to mention energetic properties of movement and cleansing. Even if your nearest creek or river can be found hours outside of town, it’s worth the trip: simply removing oneself from one’s context is a source of renewal within itself.

The ocean, too, is tremendously healing, as most people can agree. A day spent alone at the sea can yield great self-renewal. Salt water specifically has therapeutic properties both on a physical and energetic level. Once alone with the  sea, woods or river, one can ask oneself the big questions one may be avoiding: what do I want to do with my time on this earth? What do I have to give? What do I want to be doing?

If you stumble upon a thought which excites you, pay attention. As writer-mythologist Joseph Cambell famously said, follow your bliss. And as the great Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran said: ““Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights. But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge.” Go there & ask. If pain comes up, address it. The pain is the dragon that guards the gold.

I find it helpful to ask myself questions I feel I do not know the answer to, and see what comes. Something always comes. Writing these questions & this process down can be tremendously helpful in crystalizing the inner jumble of thoughts.

If you have an open enough mind, try asking a tree or a bird for advice — though it’s likely just our own self projecting an answer onto the other, new insights can be achieved by this kind of reshuffling of one’s typical thought process. You may be surprised by the answers you receive.

If self-analysis just amps up your angst, go for a more meditative non-thought approach. Equal clarity can be gained by a restively blank mind. The simple act of taking time out for oneself and journeying out into the natural world is restorative, nurturing that aspect of self unengaged by modern past times.

Relax your mind and every time you have a new thought, label it “thought” and let it go. Tibetan Buddhist monk and writer Sakyong Mipham, author of Turning the Mind into an Ally, recommends labeling the specific kind of thought. I.e. “memory,” or “fantasy,” or “worry.” You may be surprised by how often one’s thoughts are pointlessly and compulsively reliving some scene from the past, or falling into a projected fear or fantasy about the future. Once we begin to break our thinking down, we can better understand and control its mechanisms.

These are mini-quests we can take at any time. All it takes is a day free of obligation, the desire to rediscover one’s inner sense of direction and the commitment to finding some beautiful spot to think, or not think. In a similar vein, a mirror meditation —consisting simply of the prolonged facing of oneself in the mirror, in solitude, while lovingly dealing with whatever mental-emotional issues arise —can do wonders for breaking open the shut down parts of the self.

So often we look in the mirror only to asses and self-critique. A quick cursory glance on the most superficial level. Yet prolonged gazing into one’s own eyes can yield wonders of self-discovery.

It is the eyes which should be focused on. Don’t focus on flaws of complexion or compare your face to a magazine image of false perfection. It’s easy to do, but you are not using the mirror for meditation if your mind becomes engaged in this direction, you are using it for its profane purpose and adding to the problem, not the solution. The mirror meditation is a sacred tool in the quest of return to the self, and must be used as such.

Also, we can create our own communities of questers.

One fun and powerful way to embark on a modern vision quest is to do it with friends. Gather together a group of like-minded individuals, who share your goal of self-renewal and inner questing, pool your resources and rent a lake house or a cabin in the mountains for the weekend. The day can be dedicated to solitary journeying — everyone goes off into nature and does their own thing, whether it be journaling, meditating, or simply an introspective hike.

In the evening, everyone returns to the group house to share their day’s experience and storytell. Music and dancing are primal keys, particularly in conjuncture with a day of quietude and meditation. Apart from having therapeutic properties, intimate dance parties are among life’s joys. It’s not the same at a club, where you have to watch your physical space and may, despite your best efforts, still have your appearance in mind — this kind of movement in a safe space with friends and lots of room is more akin to dance therapy. If you throw your all into an hour of dancing out the demons, I promise it will leave you feeling luminous.

In a world so full of possibility, yet so often perceived on the go, creating this kind of intentional space to journey, together and alone, supplies a much needed psychological reboot to the modern dreamer.

*For a modernized version of traditional soul-retrieval check out the post “Soul-Retreival.

The Death and Resurrection Show

May 10, 2011 § 13 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“Beat the drum and sing songs. If you are an ordinary man, nothing will come of it; but if you are to be a shaman, you will be no ordinary one.” ~ Siberian shaman

“The unfathomable experience that humanity has symbolically expressed for millennia through myths, fables, rituals and ecstasies, remains one of the hidden centers of our culture, of the way we exist in the world.” ~ Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies

“Listen, wait, and be patient. Every shaman knows you have to deal with the fire that’s in your audience’s eye.”~  Ken Kesey

The word shaman, originally Siberian, is an anthropological term. In the Tungus language, a saman is a person who “beats the drum, enters into trance, and cures people”(The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby).

Almost universally, indigenous people have sought meaning and clarity through ritual ecstasies. The word “ecstasy,” despite its modern connotation of supreme bliss, originally meant “to be out of ones head.” The Greco-Roman Dionysian Mysteries (aka the Cult of Dionysus) parallel the shamanic practices of tribal cultures — a systematized disorganization of the senses via trance states induced by intoxicants/hallucinogenics, music and/or dance, with the goal of personal transformation/liberation from social constraints, and communion with a divine or supernatural principal.

(If that sounds like a pretty good time, keep in mind that there are tales of humans being hunted like animals and sacrificed by wild Dionysians).

“In intoxication,” muses Bertrand Russell  in A History of Western Philosophy, “in physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The [Dionysian] ritual produced what was called ‘enthusiasm’, which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god.”

The idea of the shamanic ritual was to go through a symbolic death of sorts, to shed old psychic skins, and emerge, in a sense, reborn. 

Interestingly, rock shows and raves more closely resemble these archaic rituals than modern religious services. Show business has taken the place of shamanism. 

Celebrities are the medicine men and women of modern society. The shaman addresses the collective psychic state of the participants through ceremonial performance, guiding the group through a transformative experience, usually accompanied by hypnotic rhythm.  Archaic man’s ecstatic mysteries have much in common with modern man’s rock shows.

John Lennon famously complained about the vast amount of godlike power assigned him and his band-mates as Beatles. People would show up in wheelchairs wanting Lennon to heal them. “The Beatles,” relates Rogan Taylor, “had been mistaken for medicine-men. Soon they began to look and act like medicine men.”

“By the mid-sixties,” continues Taylor,”something strange was happening on a scale never previously seen. Rock’n’roll had burst out of its adolescent shell to become a full-blown sacred cult.

“[…] The star performers were being hailed as culture heroes and worshipped with an ecstatitic intensity more usually reserved for religious rites […] soon they even began to look like weird prophets from another age.

“Their bizarre regalia and wild manner were framed in fantastic lifestyles and their powers acclaimed as extraordinary […] it was as if the old shamans had cast away the last vestiges of disguise to stand openly on stage at last.”

And just as gods must journey into the underworld, modern celebrities do what they can to do this mythic requirement justice, often living in a ceaseless Dionysian frenzy until they self-destruct and die young, as so many young musicians and actors have so tragically done. But such is the price of a shaman.

A shaman gets his powers in some way from the other worlds he journeys to, from his strange lifestyle, and through his ability to transform and articulate transformation to the tribe.

Just as spirits often “possess” the shaman during his trance, musicians often report feeling possessed by a greater spirit than themselves on stage. R & B singer Beyonce has said of her alter-ego “Sasha Fierce:”

I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am. 

Religious Historian Mircea Eliade sums up the vast anthropological literature on shamanic ritual as “the death and mystical resurrection of the candidate by means of a descent to the underworld and an ascent to the sky.”

Some of today’s most mainstream performers re-enact these ancient transformative rituals with startling precision. Take for instance shock-pop icon Lady Gaga’s infamous MTV Video Awards performance wherein she smeared her white dress with (hopefully fake) blood . . .

. . . and then walked around looking like a living sacrifice for the rest of the night.

In a strange interview Lady Gaga acknowledges her awareness of her role:

What are you looking for? What you’re looking for is magic…magic is what happens on the stage … I’m here to entertain you and I’m here to be a martyr for show business… I will die in front of all of you so that you can watch and enjoy.

But a coked-up, gyrating, scantily clad pop star singing about sex is a far cry from a peyote-smoking medicine man pounding a drum and guiding the tribe through a night of cathartic dance, ritual and sacredly framed drug-induced vision questing.

One primary difference is training and tradition: archaic medicine men and women had the tradition of their tribal elders to draw upon, trained often for years to become the spiritual guides of their community.

Today’s would-be rock shamans have only the mantra of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” chanted by their hedonistic heroes to go by, and stardom is a map-less road known for inspiring egomania, isolation, addiction and suicide. These are our shamans, the blind leading the blind, and millions of children aspire to be just like their heroes.

“We live in a culture where everything tastes good,” says Daniel Pinchbeck, author of Breaking Open The Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Modern Shamanism, “but nothing satisfies.”

In today’s culture of distraction, where humankind is increasingly isolated from nature and from a sense of visceral community, we can still pursue the sacred art of the vision quest (for inspiration, check of The Modern Vision Quest on Parallax.)

We must make our own reality-maps, as those leading are blind themselves, our healers, wounded. We can create new ceremonies and transformative techniques that have meaning to us personally.

The important thing is to take the time to stop and commune with our inner visions, tap into the greater cosmic wisdom, etc — in short, to take the time to dream. In a culture of media overload and technological gadgetry, we must remember to honor our need for deeper meaning.

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