Sunday, 31 May 2009

June 2009 is International Pagan Values Blogging Month!

To see what this is all about, please journey here.

In praise of the dark

Not so very long ago there was an event called Earth Hour. All around the world, people signalled their desire for action from politicians on climate change and other ecological issues by switching their lights off for an hour. Despite the fact this was a symbolic protest, a simple means of displaying a widespread and common desire ignored by politicians, it came in for a great deal of criticism. All the usual suspects lined up to condemn the action. They are clearly frightened by a democratic action that bypasses the control of those ‘in power’. What was sad, however, was the number of Greens and Pagans who spoke out against the action, arguing that it was pointless, that it wouldn’t change anything, that it would cause a surge in electricity production when the lights came back, and so on. Some of these arguments were put forward by the same people who think nothing of travelling hundreds or thousands of miles to attend conferences and protests in big cities and foreign countries…

Some of the naysayers had valid arguments to make, but they did tend to miss the point that this was an action in which ordinary people could participate. The trouble was, they tended to criticise without saying just how else those ordinary folk could make their voice heard. There are many fine examples of people getting on with their lives without screwing up the planet in the process; we could have done with seeing a lot more of those examples being pushed forward.

Irrespective of the arguments re a surge in electricity production increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, I do know that millions of people took part. I also know that politicians will regard it as a stunt and carry on as before. But the thing that got me thinking was the crass statement by a tame psychologist wheeled out for the occasion. He claimed that turning the lights off would send out the wrong message about change; that switching the lights off would give the impression that the only way we could save ourselves would be by plunging ourselves into darkness; that darkness was symbolic of lower living standards, of ignorance, of regression, and of death.

This is pop psychology at its worst and speaks as much (if not more) of a Westernised Abrahamic enculturation as it does of a true psychological evaluation.

As a species, we evolved with the dark as an important part of our lives. Every day, the world turns and we pass through the planet’s shadow. It is called night time. As we are diurnal and, to a much lesser extent, crepuscular, the night is when we rest and sleep. Sleep is essential to both our physical and mental well being. Although the length we need varies from person to person, we do all need the dark every twenty-four hours.

The levels of night time darkness also vary on a monthly cycle with the waxing and waning of the moon. Lunar cycles play a role in our physical and mental wellbeing every bit as important as the diurnal cycle. And the coincidence of the lunar cycle and the human female menstrual cycle is too close to be accidental.

Over the course of a year, for those of living away from the equatorial zone, there is a change in the length of dark periods as well. Again, because we are a diurnal species, we spend more time inside and asleep during the coldest part of the year. At least, that is how we evolved. And evolutionary pressures cannot be overcome by or ignored because of a few decades of electric lighting.

Darkness is, therefore, essential to what we are as a species. The interplay of darkness with light has helped to mould our physical, mental, and spiritual shape in exactly the same way the physical environment has. Psychology is a slightly different matter as our psyche can be changed much more quickly than other aspects of our being and is much more susceptible to social constructs such as education systems, religious and political traditions, and the philosophical creeds on which our society is based.

This does not mean this psychological analysis is correct or that such a psychology is healthy, especially as it appears to be at odds with fundamental evolutionary traits. Indeed, it seems to me that the notion that darkness represents or is psychologically associated with low living standards, ignorance, regression, and death is an expression of infantilism.

Fear of the dark is an infantile response, and then only in some infants. To further associate darkness with all that is ‘bad’ is cultural and not psychological (or only so far as our psyches have been conditioned by cultural pressures). A sign of maturity, a sign of the fact that we are growing up and maturing, is that we no longer fear the dark. This is not to say we should not be wary in the dark, but nor should we give way to fear.

Indeed, refusing to accept the darkness as part of our natural existence is indicative of cultural and social ills. All these lights, all this over complicated technology, the concept of a twenty-four hour society and all the ‘choice’ this is meant to endow tells me that the species is afraid of the natural world. This was not always the case. We have been made afraid of the natural world through the teachings of certain dominant religious traditions, through certain dominant philosophical and political traditions, and through involvement in the chimerical notion of ‘progress’.

There isn’t room here to enter into a discussion about ‘progress’ – it could easily fill a book. But accepting the dark as part of our lives is a sign of maturity. It is a sign of responsibility. It shows we embrace the natural and accept that we are a part of it, no matter how adept we may be at exploiting it. It shows we care for all the other species for whom artificial light has been a disaster. It means we value the night sky in all its glory.

This does not mean I believe we should sit in darkness every evening, that our streets should not be lit. But it does mean we need to take a much more responsible attitude toward our consumption of resources and to our relationship with the world in which we grew up and in which we must live. And it certainly does no harm to embrace and explore the darkness – literal and metaphorical.

[This is a slightly expanded version of a piece first published in GreenWay – the Journey of the Hedge Druid Network]

Saturday, 23 May 2009

I was only following orders...

A number of events, both national and personal, set me thinking about the nature of responsibility. Nationally in the UK, the scandal over MPs expenses and the way this group of people wrote their own rules, policed their own system and, at best, turned a blind eye to the excesses of others has shown just how out of touch it is possible to become – out of touch with the aspirations and moral behaviour of ordinary people. Many MPs have been blaming ‘the system’ for the problems – blithely ignoring the fact that they devised and approved that system. In essence they are using the old “I was just following orders” excuse. With the added twist of being the people who gave the orders in the first place.

There have been rumblings of doom about the damage this is doing to democracy. Not the fact that elected representatives had their noses in the trough for so long, but that this is now being revealed. It won’t harm democracy, because this shows that we simply don’t have democracy in the UK. The political system is corrupt at all levels.

And this corruption stems from an inability to take, or wilful disregard of, personal responsibility. “It was the system.” “I was just following orders.”

At a personal level I encountered, and foolishly dipped my toe into, a discussion about whether or not a ‘teacher’ should charge for their teachings. Given the context – religion/spirituality – I was inclined to agree with the original proposition that they should not. There was a lot of strident input to the effect that should NEVER charge (it turned into that sort of discussion, peppered with capitals). But I did have questions. Surely someone who is making the effort to prepare teaching materials, who is taking time to clarify their own thoughts and write them down, should at least not be out of pocket.

Things got awkward, because I refused to see the issue in black and white. I was told that people can only be ‘symbolic’ adherents if they take teachings from a book; that prisoners got what they deserved; that (grudgingly) concessions ought to be made for the disabled. When it descended to the level of someone saying that if you wanted recompense for materials used, things like toilet paper, I left the discussion.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it never ceases to amaze me how unpleasant some online discussions can become. I wanted to explore the issue, but it was evident that because I was perceived to be taking a different stance to the person who first voiced the opinion I had to be jumped on and insulted. I don’t know why. I had assumed that as the discussion was about teaching, the basic idea of learning through debate might have filtered into this group’s collective consciousness. Clearly, I was wrong.

It seems to me (and I may be wrong) that these people were not thinking for themselves. They had received a teaching and accepted it. They were just following orders. Why? Should they not be taking responsibility for their spiritual path, thinking things through and supporting their stance with coherent propositions that take into account the complexities of the real world?

To be honest, I find this kind of zealotry to be frightening. It speaks to me of a high degree of immaturity and insecurity. It also speaks of an abrogation of responsibility.

I agree with the sentiment of the original proposition. If someone has an insight into spiritual matters, I believe they should share that and not profit financially. But that is a guiding principle, not an absolute. Not just because it would be unfair for the teacher to be out of pocket, but because it denies that the pupils/adherents (call them what you will) also have responsibilities.

The teaching/learning relationship is just that – a relationship. No teacher possesses absolute truth. No teaching is beyond question. No pupil should accept without question. This does not mean that questioning will not lead people back to the original teachings, but every person who learns has a personal responsibility to ensure that what they learn satisfies their own intellectual and practical exploration of the world.

Equally, pupils should not ever treat a teacher as a guru. It doesn’t matter how clever they are, how insightful. They are human. If they are a good teacher they will not dictate their teaching, but guide others to understanding. If they are a great teacher they will accept the possibility that what they teach will be rejected, as long as it is rejected honestly. If they are a good teacher, that won’t happen; good teachers are the ones who help others to teach themselves, not the ones who gather little groups of nodding donkeys about them.

One of the responsibilities of a pupil is to ensure they do not take without giving back. Giving back is part of the learning process. It keeps the discussion rolling round. It takes things on. Giving back may be very simple. If a teacher hands out printed sheets of paper, it can be as simple as offering a few pennies toward the cost of that paper and that ink and the time it took to produce. It doesn’t have to be that. Giving back comes in many forms, physical, intellectual, and spiritual.

Taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and one’s actions was a basic tenet of ancestral Celtic moral teaching. Ancestral Celts built a complex legal system with this belief at its core. Their social structures were much the same. There are complexities here which apply less to us now. Ancestral Celts belonged to a tribal society. The tribe and the individual within the tribe were bound in a relationship that reflected our relationship with the rest of the world.

But at the heart was the notion that you alone were responsible. You could not blame the system; you could not rest on the defence that you were just following orders. You could not, as a pupil, expect your teacher to do all the work and carry the other burdens inherent in teaching. You had responsibilities. You acted in a responsible fashion.

If I was a teacher, with a group before me (rather than being a money-grubbing writer – a whole other argument I won’t go into), that would be the first lesson. It would probably be the only lesson. Because once it is learned it changes the relationship. The teacher is not wise, all learnĂ©d one who must be obeyed. The pupil is not the ignorant adherent who must be prepared for the ‘secret knowledge’. Teacher and pupil become explorers together. They are companions, with one who guides the others simply because they have travelled that road before and know some of the interesting places along the way.

It is, perhaps, the difference between genuine explorers and travellers, and those who go on a package holiday. The former go in the hope they will learn, change, and be better for it without unduly altering the landscape. The latter want everything laid on for them, they want to see the exotic sites (from an air-conditioned bus) but have a nice hotel to go back to, they want comfort, and they don’t really want to be any different when they get back (apart from a nice tan and the cachet of having been somewhere different).

This has been a bit of a rant. But it seems to me that there are enough people out there not facing up to their responsibilities, enough people saying they were only following orders/their leader’s teaching, enough people blaming a system they have tacitly accepted without people who call themselves ‘pagan’ doing the same.