April 8, 2012 § 6 Comments
That men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.
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?
March 29, 2012 § 9 Comments
“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.
“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.”
“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.'”
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.”
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.
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.“