Enduring through horror requires clear meaning

I doubt there is a person alive who does not want happiness, fulfilment, and a deep sense of meaning for their lives.  To be human is to desire a life with purpose.  Sadly we look in the wrong places. We imagine a meaningful life is devoid of suffering.  That is a big mistake.
Victor Frankl (1905-1997) the Jewish-Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and later Dacchau, discovered a unique path to a meaningful life. 
Each morning in the Holocaust camps roll call was held. Numbers tototooed to the prisoners’ wrists were read out. In this bizarre lottery if your number came up, you were taken to the gas chamber for execution.
The holocaust was an extreme form of the same randomness we are living in Covid19.  Some get the virus and show no symptoms, others get Covid and die. It’s a viral lottery.Frankl the psychiatrist-prisoner watched people go insane with fear and grief.  Who would blame them? But he also observed many prisoners who did not break down.In the back of Frankl’s mind as he observed this meaningless hell, was a maxim written decades before by Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) , “He who has a Why? in life can tolerate almost any How?” 
Frankl noticed that those who looked beyond themselves and their suffering even in the hell of the Holocaust, were able to stay sane and find meaning.  He wrote of his experiences and discoveries in the book, “Man’s search for meaning” which outlines the basis for his “logotherapy”. In Greek, logos describes “meaning” or “plan”. Finding meaning heals the mind.
According to Frankl, “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: 1. by creativity or acts of kindness; 2. by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” He also believed that “everything can be taken from a person except one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances”. Frankl gives the following example:“Once, an elderly physician consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened if you had died first, and your wife had survived you?:” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have saved her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.”
In attending to those whose suffering moves us, and in caring for those whose losses break our hearts, we find a transcendence that makes our situation bearable and gives us meaning.

Facing and embracing our Demons

Down the Hatch by Aaron Johnson, 2007, Courtesy of Stux Gallery.

In Tibetan tradition there is a story about the great cave-dwelling yogi Milarepa that illuminates the bumpy road we all travel when we try to make peace with ourselves.
One day Milarepa left his Himalayan cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere!
His first thought was, “I have got to get rid of them!”

In the story, he lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. The more he chases them, the more comfortable and relaxed they seem to be.
Realizing that his efforts are failing miserably, Milarepa tries a new approach and decides to teach them his religion. If chasing them out won’t work, then converting them is the answer. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and non-existence, compassion and kindness, the nature of the spiritual life.

After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are all still there, staring at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving!

At this point Milarepa lets out a sigh of surrender, realising that just maybe, these demons have something to teach him! So he looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. so I open myself to whatever you have to show me.”

In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further.
Approaching the final and largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the last demon bows low and dissolves into space.

One of the things I love about this story is how it doesn’t feed our romantic vision of spiritual life.

We sometimes imagine that if we can lead our spiritual life the “right” way, we won’t suffer and struggle. We will be on a direct path to ever-increasing tranquillity and joy.
We are not prepared for all of our unfinished business being exposed, and all our unresolved trauma pushing up from the unconscious depths like a fountain of black sludge.
Milarepa’s story feels much closer to the truth.

Working with all that has been pushed down and ignored in me is pivotal to the spiritual journey. And when those demons appear, it’s impossible to simply relax and let go.

A female Tibetan teacher Machig Labdron (1055-1145 CE) suggested five slogans to deal with our demons:
1) Confess your hidden faults to yourself. 2) Approach what you find repulsive in others. 3) Help those you think you cannot help or those you do not want to help. 4) Let go of anything you are attached to. 5) Go to the places that scare you.

Embracing our deepest fears is often our salvation.

Radical Christ 28 – Good Friday Recipe: Roast leg of Scapegoat

I love pourquoi stories.  They are tales we have told through the ages to explain certain phenomena.  Pourquoi (pronounced pork-wha) is French for “why?”, any pre-schooler’s favourite word!

You know the story of the family that always cut the end off the lamb roast, before cooking. No one knew why.  On consulting great granny they discovered that in her day she had a small roaster and had to cut the joint to make it fit!

Pourquoi stories are the way cultures, religions and families pass on their rituals and sadly, their biases too.

The Crucifixion of Jesus is a multi-layer pourquoi story which like the mythical Urobouros swallowing its own tail, circles around and challenges our comfort zones.

The most common level of the story tries to explain why a peaceful prophet from Galilee was cruelly killed at the hands of Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  This orthodox answer is an extremely unhelpful one, “God planned it to be this way.” 

What! That’s a disgusting image of God! What father would kill his own son? How the church came to this brutal understanding of the horror, requires some questioning.

The Church was trying to make sense of Jesus’ unfair death and rationalised it back to animal sacrifice which was the religious forgiveness ritual then.

But why animal sacrifice in the first place?  Pourquoi?

Well, it’s preferable to sacrificing humans!  The Bible story of Abraham wanting to sacrifice Isaac, but God substituting a ram, is another pourquoi explaining the transition from human to animal sacrifice.

The pre-schooler in me continues – Why human sacrifice?  The answer to this one lies in our collective unconscious, and long before the bible was written.

Paleo-Anthropology studies these ancient myths and Rene Girard was one of its great scholars.  Studying ancient pourquois, Girard discovered that as humans began living in groups, they had to deal with troublesome people who didn’t fit in and disrupted the status quo.  The easiest, primitive solution was to demonise these characters, which then justified killing them.  

Individuals and groups were treated this way in times of stress. Medieval Jews were blamed for Bubonic plague just as recently, some blamed the Chinese for COVID19!  Ironically, right now the Christian church itself is being scapegoated for all the troubles in the world from paedophilia to colonisation. 

Yet in a strange anomaly within our mental processing, a residue of remorse lingers toward those we have scapegoated and destroyed.  

So the Greeks took Oedipus who killed his parents and they made him a god. Many of the Greek gods were rebels who achieved divine status.  We scapegoat our suspicious ones then remorsefully deify them.

Preachers proclaim that God killed Jesus, but if that’s true, we’ve been exonerated from our collective culpability in the greatest scapegoating crime ever committed!

Humans, not God, kill and destroy those who challenge and threaten us.

Jesus broke no taboos. He taught only an inclusive path of love, yet we killed him for it.  

Why in God’s name do that?

The Radical Christ 27 – The Decolonial King

Colonization has been a hot topic for a while now.  

Traditionally understood, colonization was the process whereby European powers, mainly in the 16th and 17 centuries, expanded their reach into newly “discovered” continents, subjugating the indigenous populations and replacing their cultures and religions.  

Colonization had happened before during the Greek, Roman and Crusading eras, but not on the scale of the European waves. 

The human rights atrocities and destruction of human lives, communities and environment that accompanied this process are well documented.

It would be erroneous however, to assume that colonization has ended.  

Slavery, as well as religious and cultural hegemony, may not be as blatant as those dark days, but a mutant form of colonial expansionism is currently in full swing.

No longer territorial, this colonising does not redraw the world map, but its impact is every bit as life changing and oppressive.

Continents like Africa and South America and the subcontinents of India and China, have been colonised in this process, and this time the colonists are Americans.

The USA has been amazingly successful in propagating its culture globally. 

One example is that South Africans born after 1985 now speak American English and not UK English as my generation does.  

Not only our language, but our eating habits, portion sizes, and fast food culture is decimating populations with diabetes, obesity and sedentary lifestyles as we sit slumped in front of the Americans’ most powerful vehicle of colonisation, our television sets.

Coupled with a rabid global consumerism of chasing the American dream by those unable to afford that dream, and we understand how families and communities have been captured in debt bondage every bit as vicious as the shackles of the old slave traders.

And if that weren’t enough, the American fundamentalism of certain churches, has added yet another a layer of unthinking anti-intellectual  brainwashing to the spirits of colonised people. We are so brainwashed we don’t even realise we have been colonised!

And none of this is new.  

When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which the church commemorates this weekend, he was entering a completely colonised city.

Read the scriptures here: John 12: 12-19 Zechariah 9:9

At all the levels described above, including religious power mongering, Jerusalem had been colonised by Rome.

So Jesus arriving as a humble king on a donkey and not on a Roman war horse or chariot reenacted ancient Jewish tradition and made a rebellious statement. 

He was protesting the physical and mental colonisation of Rome. His parade was one that recalled the servant kingship of David the shepherd, and the estimated 600000 citizens of Jerusalem loved it. “Hosanna” they cried, seeing Jesus as a new David, a liberator from the Roman tyranny that so controlled and consumed their lives.

But by the end of that same week, in fact by the Thursday night, that same crowd had been flipped by those in power. The colonists had won the battle for hearts and minds. 

Jesus had been called out and cancelled, skilfully scapegoated to be crucified on the Friday morning.

Radical Christ 18 – “Strolling through Storms”

Jesus walking on water, and then inviting Peter to join him on the stormy surface of Lake Gallilee makes our Western minds reel with incredulity. This story cannot be taken literally. Humans cannot walk on liquid water.
So as with all deep truths, we need to investigate the narrative as myth. Myths are those true stories that probably never happened historically or scientifically but remain true.

The walking on water miracle is an interesting study in overcoming fear and balancing our lives.

Join Peter as he unpacks this part of the archetypal life of Jesus as a map for our own journey in life.

Radical Christ 17 – Compassion Takes Guts

Ram Dass spoke eloquently of developing a spiritual practice that enables you to keep your heart open in hell. Mahayana Buddhists have the notion of Bodhisattvas, enlightened being who after countless rebirths are ready to enter into the bliss of Nirvana, but who vow not to cross over until they have assisted all sentient beings, to cross over before them.

Once in conversation with a Zen monk, and referencing the Boddhisattva concept, the monk smiled at me and replied, “Yes, but Jesus also was a great Boddhisattva.” In that moment my entire life changed as I realised we are all just ‘walking each other home’, another Ram Dass saying.

Compassion lies at the heart of all spiritual practice, in fact is the absolute validation of our journey. If my journey, religion and practice does not increase my compassion, what’s the point. If my religion makes me cruel, fearful and judgemental what’s the point?

This episode explores the way Jesus experienced compassion and unpacks some of his crazy wisdom that enabled his to say to marginalised and dispossessed people that they were “Blessed”.

This isn’t what you may think.

Karl Marx misread this ascpect and called releigion “an opiate”. He was wrong, It isn’t opium, correctly understood this crazy wisdom is dynamite!

Links:

Bodhisattva Vows

Ram Dass – Keeping your Heart open in Hell

Radical Christ 15 – Follow me – with YOUR Cross

The Cross as a symbol has become unanimous with the Christian Church.

In this video Peter explores the cross not as a Christian Brand mark or even as a Colonial Crusading Emblem, but rather as a integrative symbol of psychological healing.

The cross is not intended to be expanded as a symbol of global dominance, rather is it intended as a symbol of contraction and convergence to the centre point where the four axes converge.

It is the centre of the cross that is most redemptive. It is also clear that we cannot take up the Cross of Jesus in this process. We are told explicitly by Jesus to take up our OWN cross.(Mt 16)

Radical Christ – 14 INTEGRATION Practice – “Self-enquiry”

Accompanying the Radical Christ Journey – Peter offers a series of Integration Practices to help move Information, through integration, to personal transformation.
In the first practice we travel to India and the little town of Tiruvanamallai
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiruvannamalai
the home of Ramana Maharshi who taught the Advaita method of “Self Enquiry”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-enquiry_(Ramana_Maharshi)

Simply investigating “Who am I?” can bring us to a transforming encounter with the Divine Witness that is in us and IS us. The name of God is I AM is it not?

Happy exploring…

Radical Christ – Saviours and Scapegoats

Early on in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the crowd want to make him King.

Both occasions are after he has miraculously fed them (John 6:12-15) and extravagantly made wine from water. (John 2:23-25).
In a publicist’s nightmare, on both occasions Jesus withdraws from the projection and idolization, “because he knew what was in people’s hearts”.

What was it that Jesus knew?

Carl Jung in his work Aion, has helped us understand the psychology of projection which I unpack in this video.

Understanding how we project our own gold out of the shadows of the unconscious can help us understand (if not desist), from falling in love, worshiping the wrong objects, and even from falling prey to scapegoating others when they don’t meet our unrealistic expectations of them.

We cannot blame the devil, nor make Jesus responsible for our salvation.

As the poet Mary Oliver says, “You are the only person you can save.”

Also available on podcast. The diagram isn’t (grin)