The Apprentice pillar at Rosslyn Chapel
" No question is so difficult to answer as
that to which the answer is obvious. "
George Bernard Shaw
December 27 2005
This Christmas a group of us went along to the Watch Night service at Rosslyn Chapel, which, being as it's on my way in and out of Edinburgh, is somewhere I quite often visit. I'm not affiliated to any organised religion, and neither am I captivated by all the Da Vinci Code-inspired hype (see for instance this recent article in the Scotsman). I like Rosslyn simply because it's an extraordinary place: an unlikely island amidst a sea of Midlothian mining villages which have suffered similar depredations to mining communities everywhere across the UK and which are now being slowly subsumed into suburban housing developments and out-of-town shopping parks. And in the middle of all this, about midway between IKEA and the city garbage landfill site, is this ancient and tiny chapel, perched high above a deep and spectacular wooded glen that you'd never know was there until you all but fell into it. Somehow it seems emblematic of how the ancient, the natural and the metaphysical can erupt into even the most banal and materialistic of existences. The mineworkings in the area have undermined the chapel's foundations, much in the way that industrialisation and its mechanistic perspective on life has undermined our spirit-conscious foundations, but it still stands: a crack in the veneer of post-industrial 21st century civilisation. And what a crack!
The chapel's energy is unique and its carvings just sublime. Having worked a lot in limestone, my respect and admiration for the masons (that's stonemasons) of 560 years ago knows no bounds. On this occasion – perhaps because of the glass or two of mulled wine we'd already enjoyed – I was reminded of the Latin inscription on the architrave which links the Apprentice pillar, itself representing Yggdrasil the Norse World Ash Tree or Tree of Life, to its neighbour:
"Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas." Translated, this text (summarising a story from the First Book of Esdras, chapters 3 and 4) reads "Wine is strong; a King is stronger; women are stronger still, but truth conquers all." Amen!
Is there a big secret at Rosslyn? Treasure? Riches? I think there probably is, yes, but it's all hiding in plain sight and doesn't really require much digging to bring to light. Truth is usually like that. After all, what greater treasure could there possibly be than the wisdom to enable one to live a deeply fulfilling and authentic life in harmony with all aspects of existence? And what bigger secret could possibly elude the vast numbers of people struggling in misery to live up to the illusory and unrealistic images we're given to understand are the ideals (ikeals, even?!) of modern existence? (Ideals which are, of course, largely contrived through the filters of a pervasive tyranny of the concept of "normality" pressed into the service of commercial exploitation.) As far as I can see, the secret that Rosslyn holds, both in its glorious carvings and in the wider context of its situation, is the wisdom it contains in its symbolism. It sketches out a pretty good basic recipe for an authentic life which, at the end of the day, is surely the Holy Grail of existence?
If that sounds all too disappointingly simple, consider this. Scottish composer Stuart Mitchell took 20 years to crack the design logic behind 213 cubes in the ceiling of the chapel, which he discovered encoded the notes of a piece of medieval music. Far from being something miraculous, the 6½ minute piece of music for 13 players sounds more like a nursery rhyme. Mitchell attributes its childish simplicity to the lack of musicianship of the chapel's architect. But perhaps its simplicity, juxtaposed to the complexity of its code, is perfectly natural. We do have a tendency towards embellishment of simple powerful ideas, as if somehow driven by a desire to represent them in a manner suiting their power and splendour.
Interesting that Dan Brown's hero is a professor of symbology.
December 27 2005 | | | Permalink
December 26 2005
Wherever and however you celebrate, a very happy Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year! Here is some Christmas entertainment (link expired as of Dec 2006) for you, courtesy of the team at Reuters in Hungary.
December 26 2005 | | | Permalink
Authority consults the written law – detail from fresco by Constantino Brumidi
" Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. "
Carl Gustav Jung
" Nothing exists except atoms and empty space;
everything else is opinion."
Democritus of Abdera
December 19 2005
Trust me, I'm a doctor
I started thinking some more about this societal penchant we have for telling others how to live their lives (see Dec 11 entry below) while simultaneously running to various "authorities" to find out how to live our own.
Aside from being simply a case of what goes around comes around, what's this all about? It seems rather strange that we should consider ourselves authorities on everybody else's lives but our own, and others greater authorities on our own lives than we are. After all, there's only one person who knows what the experience of being ourselves is really all about. Others can share bits of it, empathise with some of it, or find resonance with their own experience, but they can't experience it. They can only experience themselves.
The word authority derives from the Latin auctor meaning "he that brings about the existence of any object, or promotes the increase or prosperity of it, whether he first originates it, or by his efforts gives greater permanence or continuance to it" (Lewis & Short, Latin Dictionary, 1880). It's that "promotes the increase or prosperity ... permanence or continuance" that seems key. It doesn't sit too well with situations where authority becomes disempowering or even abusive; where, for example, a therapist undergoes a small fracture and becomes the rapist.
Yet for authority to be disempowering, it needs willing candidates. We seem to like our authoritative figures every bit as much as they like playing the role. We live in a culture that largely regards the internal processes of self-reflection as irrelevant nonsense (dreams and imaginings) or dysfunction (physical symptoms), so we're constrained to seeking a reflection of our present state through the eyes of others who, being as they're doing exactly the same thing, are as likely to present us with a projected description of themselves or their shadows as anything related to our own processes. Is it any wonder it all gets so confused and confusing?
So what's the solution? Trying to devise rules and regulations for every conceivable potential abuse of authority will just result in a mountain of legislative code that nobody can either keep track of or prosecute. But the game can't go on if the players won't play ball. The fact is, we each have our own individual resident personal advisors who are on the job 24/7, are totally, selflessly and solely dedicated to our welfare, cost nothing to employ, who are perceptive, incisive, and invariably correct, and who don't give up on us even if we've never so much as given them the time of day. All that's required from us is a little investment of time to learn how to consult them, trust, and a willingness to drop the common misconceptions surrounding their advice.
This is not to say that we can't benefit from other's knowledge and expertise, or that we shouldn't continue to seek help and reflection from the world outside ourselves as well. Only that standing on our own two feet, well briefed, and walking hand in hand with our external advisors, is likely to promote our increase, prosperity and continuance to a far greater extent than placing ourselves entirely in their hands. Responsibility = response-ability.
But whatever you do, don't just take my word for it ...
December 19 2005 | | | Permalink
" Abuse no one and no living thing, For abuse
turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. "
" Before I flew I was already aware of how
small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space,
in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that human
kind's most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.
Sigmund Jähn, Astronaut, German Democratic Republic
December 11 2005
This month's Article of the Moment explores the plight of indigenous peoples displaced from their lands by Western financed and inspired conservation initiatives. The numbers are staggering. "World estimates offered by the UN, IUCN, and a few anthropologists range from 5 million to tens of millions. Charles Geisler, a sociologist at Cornell University who has studied displacements in Africa, is certain the number on that continent alone exceeds 14 million." It seems that even when we're trying to get it right, we're getting it wrong.
Marginalised, dispossessed of their ancestral lands and livelihoods, their cultural rug pulled out from under their feet, still waiting on their promised financial "compensation", and condemned to join the lowest and poorest classes of whatever country they live in ... the story is the same the world over. Small wonder that many indigenous peoples regard "conservation" as just another form of colonialism. Yet so many of these peoples have lived for centuries, sometimes thousands of years, in harmony with their environment, as much a part of the local ecosystem as any other species until Westerners marched in claiming to know better.
Such an unfortunate trait in our society, that. Probably responsible for more pain, abuse, degradation, disempowerment, even genocide, than all the rest of our less endearing characteristics put together and multiplied by a factor of 10. We may think we've progressed from the days of outright imperialism, but we haven't really. It's exactly the same behaviour, just latched onto a different rationale and making use of different channels and methods. It's also a trait we're as much victims of ourselves within our societies as any other peoples we visit it upon.
It all seems to be encapsulated nicely in the changing fortunes and meanings of a single concept: sophistication. Owing its ultimate derivation to Sophia, Greek Goddess of Wisdom ...
"... the meaning of the word sophist (Gr. sophis meaning "wise-ist," or one who 'does' wisdom; cf. sophós, "wise man", cf. also wizard) has changed greatly over time. Initially, a sophist was someone who gave sophia to his disciples, ie. wisdom made from knowledge. It was a highly complimentary term, applied to early philosophers such as the Seven Wise Men of Greece.
"In the second half of the 5th century B.C., and especially at Athens, "sophist" came to be applied to a group of thinkers who employed debate and rhetoric to teach and disseminate their ideas and offered to teach these skills to others. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life of Athens, practitioners of such skills often commanded very high fees. The practice of taking fees, coupled with the willingness of many practitioners to use their rhetorical skills to pursue unjust lawsuits, eventually led to a decline in respect for practitioners of this form of teaching and the ideas and writings associated with it." (from Wikipedia)
From the 5th century until the Industrial Revolution, the word's primary meaning revolved around this derogatory and degraded sense of Sophia's bounty. It was used to describe clever, specious or even deceitful arguments; ones where base cunning and an instinct for emotional manipulation were far more in evidence than anything approaching wisdom, and where the truth of the matter came a poor second to the ability to sway the opinion of the majority. (Sound familiar?) The Latin verb sophisticare, derived from the same root, meant to adulterate, cheat or quibble.
Around the middle of the 19th century the word started to take on a different meaning. Sophistication came to mean wordly wisdom, refinement, discrimination, and became something to aspire to rather than to treat with contempt. Quite what prompted its change in fortunes isn't clear, but it's interesting that it occured at a time when many cut their ties with the land to become part of the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Yet for all our new found wordly wisdom, refinement and discrimination, it seems all too obvious these days that we're frequently deceiving each other and ourselves with clever and specious arguments, and that our apparent collective ability to discern real wisdom from pure spin amongst all the rhetoric is generally pretty poor. Sophistication indeed!
The contempt of indigenous peoples for our ham-fisted attempts to conserve environments we know next to nothing about, while side-lining the real experts, seems all too often richly deserved.
A little more humility might go a long way. Living in Western civilisation really only equips us to be experts in Western civilisation and Western points of view, and those are very, very far from being the whole picture. We're so immersed in it we can't see it for what it is. It's like the cartoon of the two fishes with one saying to the other "So what's this ocean you keep talking about then?". All too often we forget that other experts exist too, even though they may work with different models of existence, without technology, and in realms that go far beyond the material fixation of the Western world view.
After all, our presumption of superior knowledge and expertise in the workings of the natural world is totally illogical when placed alongside the fact that of all societies on this planet we have the greatest degree of disconnection from it.
Perhaps we need to give up that cherished notion that we know better all the time and look at what's staring us in the face? Indigenous peoples deserve our respect as fellow human beings and fellow experts in their areas of knowledge. We need to bring them to the table on equal terms. Their expertise and ability to access realms we've become all but completely disconnected from, combined with our technological skills, are a potent combination and offer the prospect of real and lasting progress.
This is all very pertinent considering the proving I'm working on at the moment and will hopefully publish shortly (in the Provings section on the site). It took me 3 months of working with the proving and the story surrounding the substance to arrive at some conclusions about the "message" it seemed to be conveying very strongly. Then someone I prescribed it for articulated it quite simply and directly on her third dose – "All tribes must come together. All the ecosystems of the world are mixing. Invasive species have a place, they are creating new habitats. Something that seems awful now is really the hope."
This seems a very cogent illustration of why it's necessary to bring indigenous peoples into the reckoning as equal partners in our efforts to conserve what's left of the natural world. It's not just in the message itself, but in the fact that what took me the best part of 3 months to work out piece by painstaking piece (through a reasonable balance of rational analysis and intuitive apprehension) took someone with much more well developed abilities to communicate with the energetic/spiritual dimensions of the natural world less than a minute to bring out. And in 4 crisp sentences rather than 4,000-odd words!
December 11 2005 | | | Permalink