December 20, 2012

Apocalypse, Schmapocalypse: Sex, Death & Honesty.

Apocalypse, Schmapocalypse

Well, the world ends right about now, or so many in our community were predicting a year or two ago.

Thankfully, the chorus has died down to a mumble the closer we have gotten to the fateful day. But I don’t want to just let it pass. I want to publicly call for a new deal, an agreement, call it a covenant, if that floats your ark.

When we are all still here on December 22nd, 2012, can we please recognize that there have been hundreds of apocalyptic predictions, and that as with those, this one was meaningless?

Dead wrong. Baseless. {Alongside this basic recognition, I want to suggest that David Wilcock, Daniel Pinchbeck and all the others who have made a small fortune convincing people of the veracity of cosmic 2012 claims should apologize publicly, including Sounds True. In addition, all my yoga colleagues who have jumped on the 2012 bandwagon to promote retreats and workshops should apologize.}

The reason the Mayan apocalypse is meaningless is that prophecy is an outdated, superstitious endeavor that should have died out with the Old Testament. But it is an activity that speaks to a certain aspect of our psyches. It speaks to our desire to know the unknowable, to predict the unpredictable.  So much so that we would almost rather believe in a foretold end of the world, than accept that there is no way to metaphysically foretell anything.

We want to believe that we are the center of things; this universe was made for us. We believe it holds hidden codes, numerological signs, astrological indicators that somehow provide a divine accounting, a heavenly mathematics, a sacred geometry that makes it meaningful in a deeply anthropocentric way. So, when the world comes to an end (which every culture and generation has narcissistically imagined would happen during their lifetime) it will have cosmic significance, supernatural import, it will have been prophesied by an ancient source.


A Fetish for the Ancient

You see, we fetishize ancient cultures, as if distance from us in time equates to depth of wisdom and insight. Ancient people lived in touch with a supernatural realm that we moderns have abandoned, or so we tell ourselves. They knew the hidden truths, the cosmic trajectory, God’s plan, the ultimate meaning and purpose of life—which of course has some otherworldly significance.

So, for a while there, many of us just went along with the idea that the Mayans had a prophecy that we should all take really seriously, because they were an ancient culture. Never mind the fact that they couldn’t predict, and thereby prevent, their own demise!

Never mind the fact that they sacrificed animals and practiced blood letting as offerings to the gods on their many holy days, and believed that if they didn’t do so it would stop the regenerative cycles of nature. Never mind that they would occasionally sacrifice human prisoners from neighboring tribes, a practice they thankfully indulged with less appetite than the later Aztecs.

Then there is the little matter of child sacrifice when laying the foundation for a new temple or enthroning a new king—at which time the bloody (and perhaps still beating) heart of a child would be lifted toward the sky.

Never mind any of this – they were ancient, and so they were spiritually wise, right?

Perhaps not.

At the heart (if you’ll excuse the image) of this is our longing for meaning, for purpose, for a sense that the universe itself has a logic that we can become privy to via some spiritual awakening. Surely, we postulate, ancient shamans, yogis, astrologers, or priests had awakened in this way. Surely we don’t find people who have today because we have lost touch with something essential that would grant us entry to the realm of spiritual magic and transcendent knowledge.

And underneath this longing? Existential dishonesty. We deny our existential situation at all costs, and ironically we often do this in the name of “being spiritual.” The facts are that we live in a vast universe that does not care about us the way a good parent should. We live in a world in which randomness and injustice wreaks havoc on innocent people’s lives every day: hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorism, rape, murder, child abuse, and yes, crazy lone gunmen opening fire on little schoolchildren.

Three Card Monte

Seems like no matter what tragedy happens on planet Earth, there will be a religious spokesperson on hand to link it to prophecy, punishment for breaking God’s law, or proof of a divine plan. Pat Robertson said the earthquake in Haiti had to do with their long-standing pact with the Devil. He and Jerry Falwell blamed 911 on America’s leniency toward gays, of course militant Islamists saw it as God’s will prevailing.

Before his precipitous fall,  yoga emperor John Friend, talked about the Japanese Tsunami in terms of the “karma of those people…” and sought to describe the inevitable pain caused by having “part of a building fall on your foot,” as opposed to the (un-yogic) suffering that would be caused by wishing it wasn’t happening.

Mike Huckabee thinks those innocent kids in Newtown died because there wasn’t enough religion in their school.

“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. ”

Turns out Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei agrees, saying “lack of religion in the United States is the main reason of the school shooting.”

Both statements are in atrociously bad taste. They are also untrue. There is as little connection between a supposed “lack of religion” in American schools and the actions of a deeply disturbed young man armed to the teeth with weapons he should not have had access to, as there is between supposed ancient prophecies and the cosmic fate of our planet.

Likewise there is no neat and tidy to way to try and explain such senseless carnage using concepts like karma, divine orchestration, higher purpose, or any other metaphysical speculation. It just sucks. Perhaps we can figure out some real-world strategies for managing mental health and gun control issues more prudently, but there is no ritual or prophecy, no prayer or invocation that could have had any effect on the actions of Adam Lanza—that’s just the reality we inhabit.

These formulations are also an insult to the loss of human life, but this is not new. The religious impulse in us humans, whether expressed as Fundamentalist Islam or Evangelical Christianity or New Age superstition, generally devalues human life in favor of belief in some otherworldly, eternal plane.

I know, it is complex, because religious principles in come ways try to get us to value human life—but they do so based on belief in a supernatural order, instead of based on being in visceral, emotionally invested, reasonable appreciation of our humanity.

It is not an unfair generalization to say that all religion is centrally concerned with finding a way to convince ourselves that we can live for ever. That there is a soul distinct from the body that will go to a better place if we believe certain wildly divergent tenets, perform certain elaborate rituals, and live in accordance with a moral code laid down by their invisible supreme being.

Further, we can see the threads of connection between this existential conflict and the various ways we try to control the uncontrollable or know the unknowable via prophecy, astrology, psychic readings—anything to get an illusory handle on the slippery, unpredictable scary reality of living in the unknown. We are horrified by our flesh and its vulnerability, its excretions, needs, desires and ultimately it’s mortality.

Perhaps, we imagine, if we really control our bodies, our sexual desires and feelings and create elaborate rituals around food and special numbers and magic words, we can overcome what in the end is our unavoidable nature.

This simply doesn’t work, and we now have several recognized psychological diagnoses for the most pronounced forms of these obsessive behaviors.

Fearless Honesty

But there is another option. It is one pointed out by certain Buddhist teachers on my journey.  This inflection comes through to me from the work of Pema Chodron and Stephen Batchelor. Their teachings bring me to think that the reduction of suffering lies not in avoiding, denying, or trying to control life’s inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but in coming to terms with same.

The fantasy of developing magical powers or finding the perfect teacher who knows the ultimate metaphysical truth, or cracking the secret code of the universe via the Mayan Calendar, the architectural ratios of the pyramids, and the corresponding geometry of the stars, is simply a kind of obsessive narcissistic folly. While it remains high up on the marquee of pop spiritual consumerism, this aesthetic represents the most superficial slice of what a spiritually engaged life should emphasize.

Instead of this wild goose chase, practice sitting quietly and being at home in your body. Practice attending to your emotions; your fear, grief and rage, your helplessness in the face of what you cannot control. Practice accepting the inevitability of death and let it wake you up to being more fully alive while you are here. Practice observing the mind’s many gymnastic contortions in avoidance of basic honesty about our existential situation.

Embrace your body and your loved ones, revel in the ecstasy of the senses and the natural world, art and technology. Celebrate your primal sexual nature and our marvelous predicament as self-aware apes trying to learn to love one another on a pale blue dot floating at the edge of the Milky Way in an expanding universe that  may indeed become inhospitable to life some day, but not for any superstitious metaphysical reason.

Sit with a broken heart in the face of the kinds of horrific tragedies that occur on our planet and let it be what it is. In so doing, my experience is that the preciousness of life and love is in fact amplified beyond measure.

Sending any who read this love at the end of the world, compassion in an hour of deep sorrow, and inspiration to live more freely, honestly and openly within the very reality we actually have to face in order to be awake.

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