Paradise Found – Part II: Yearning for the Golden Age

How many of us have occasionally grown weary hearing about “the good old days” from folks older than ourselves? As much as we wish to respect the wisdom of our elders, we find our attention drawn elsewhere as soon as the talk turns to the way things used to be, the simplicity of an earlier age, the beauty that has been lost in a lifetime. The impression is quickly formed that things have only gotten worse, that they will never be as good as they used to be, that something has been irrevocably lost.

What about ourselves? Are we any better, living in our memories of times gone by? Even young children often have this affliction, remembering a simpler time before schools and teachers when pleasure could be found every day in the backyard. Of course, as young adults, we think back to the schools and teachers as being part of that simpler, happier time; our brains tend to filter out the drudgery of classwork in favor of the fun and excitement that occurred with a lot less frequency. Our parents in turn look back to the time when we were children and they could live playfully and vicariously through us; to face the present is to face the realization that they are no longer children themselves.

By the same token, if we’re not caught up living in our own pasts, aren’t we constantly looking to the future, trying to find something to be hopeful about? The “light at the end of the tunnel” seems to be a favorite image nowadays; we spend a great deal of our time looking towards the future as a time better than the one we are in. People work long hours, trying to build up that nest egg that will allow them to live the rest of their lives in comfort and ease; the future has got to be a better place!

There is a problem with both of these approaches, of course. In seeking the goodness of either the past or the future, we again find ourselves on a quest for a mythical paradise, one which is just over the horizon. The search for the Garden of Eden is not restricted to the physical or astral planes then; it goes on in each of us every day as we imagine that at some other point in time, we will truly be happy. Of course, as long as our imaginations allow us to believe this, we never will be.

Why is it so difficult to believe that the present is what we make of it? Someday in the near future, we’ll be those people that we politely avoid today, talking about the good old days with a wistful look. Why can’t we realize until they’re past that these are, in fact, the “good old days”? Once again, it falls back to the idea that we can accept nothing but perfection in our concept of paradise. And perfect anything, being quite impossible in a universe full of dualities, is just never going to occur.

So what answer must we face? If perfection is unattainable, then what do we strive for? Is it that constant push for something better that drives us to all of the stress-related sicknesses and injuries of our modern society? There are many who believe that it is in fact just that; that we would be healthier as a people if we could escape from the grasp of a society that constantly pushes us towards better, faster, more efficient. As many have discovered the hard way, “better” is a relative term.

If we are not living our lives for tomorrow, constantly thinking at least a few minutes ahead in time (if not longer), we suddenly realize that there is something beyond the future, a concept that we have almost forgotten about. This radical concept is that of the present, the time that exists not yesterday, not tomorrow, but right now. Think about it for a moment. What truly pleasurable things do we do in the future? I’m not talking about things we plan for, but things we actually do. Of course, there are none; pleasure is a concept tied very strictly to the present.

Of course, the past and the future need not be forgotten in the quest for a perfect “now”; in fact, to do so carries a danger of its own. From the past we develop a sense of what makes us happy, of what will give us that warm feeling inside that tells us we’re doing OK. Certainly it is a good thing to look to the past with an eye towards improving our lot today; we can take pride in our accomplishments and learn from our mistakes. The difference is that we are not living in the past, languishing for it, and ignoring what is going on around us. Try as we might, whether time is a linear or a circular progression, it is highly unlikely that we’ll be revisiting the past in exactly the form we saw it in the first time around. It is time to leave it behind an move on.

In looking the other direction, the future beckons to us with a gleaming light from far down that dark tunnel, but, as the old joke goes, that light may very well be from the train barreling at us. It is an easy trap to look to the future as the place where all of our questions will be answered, where all of our wants and needs will be taken care of, where the meaning of our lives will suddenly be revealed. Of course, the future is a trickster, for once we arrive at it, it becomes the present and we are still left looking forward.

Yet, like the past, the future certainly holds a purpose for us; this purpose is just not quite as important as we make it out to be. Certainly we need to plan for the future, to ensure our continued success and happiness. The danger is to look to the future as the source of all success and happiness, for if we do that, we will be left wanting. When a realization occurs that some small hardship today will result in a lessening hardship tomorrow, there is no difficulty following that path, but when we live our lives in hardship while yearning for some unattainable tomorrow, we’ve set ourselves up for failure.

Back to the present then. There are times when things seem bleak indeed, when the present seems to be heaping more and more upon us with no respite. How is it possible to remain positive and feel the power of paradise when the negatives seem to be so stacked against us? It can be challenging, but it often requires little more than an increase in sensitivity, an expanded awareness of the immediate environment.

The important thing to remember is to dwell neither on the past, which we will not relive, nor on the future, which may not turn out the way we imagine it will. It is too easy to become trapped in one of those timeframes; so lost in the past that we stop learning, stop reading, stop trying new hobbies or finding new friends, or so absorbed by the possibility of the future that we neglect the here and now and opt for the mysteries instead. The circle is vicious; as we constantly strive towards the future, we are destined one day to dwell in the memories of the past and wish we had made more of things when we had the chance.

Paradise Found – Part 1: Returning to the Garden

As a species, it seems as though we have spent thousands of years searching for something better, some fabulous place where our every need is met, and everyone lives happily in peace and harmony. Utopia, Paradise, Shalimar, Eden; these are but a few names for that place which we believe, deep within our hearts, must exist in some hidden corner of the world we inhabit.

Many books have been written, including James Hilton’s classic 1935 novel “The Lost Horizon”, where the concept of “Shangri-la” was brought to Western society (although the concept of such a place in the Himalayan region was possibly introduced by Siddhartha Gautama himself in the founding teachings of Buddhism, 2500 years earlier). Additionally, paintings, sculptures, and other works of art have been created, visions seen; and legends passed down; all of this mythical place where we believe perfection exists. Expeditions have searched the deepest corners of the darkest jungles, the most remote inhabitable places on the planet, even below the surfaces of the earth and the ocean, but no one has ever found the fabled lands of milk and honey. In some ways it is easy to understand, for as human, we often seek that which has never been found, the quest for the impossible drives us forward, giving our lives a purpose. Yet the very definition of such a place as Utopia is “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place”, suggesting the futility of the search.

Entire religions and similar mythological belief systems have based themselves on the idea that this paradise exists, and that certain tests must be passed before being allowed to enter. Some tests are written in the form of moral codes to be upheld, some are in the form of personal sacrifices or pilgrimages, but all share the common trait that the key to this place, this wonderful world unlike our own world of pain and suffering, can only be discovered after completing all of the necessary tests. This idea moves in the direction of discovering this blissful place, but falls short in the end, clinging as it does to it’s insistence that this is an other-worldly, or at the very least nearly inaccessible, place.

Recently, I saw an interview with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists. The interviewer was quite sure that the Dalai held the secret of the location of Shangri-la (also known as Shalimar), the mythical city of wonder, and pushed the issue. The response was pretty simple and forward, basically that he believed there to be no such place on the physical plane, and as far as other planes, he didn’t know. He went on to say that he did not worry himself with such things, but concerned himself with the beauty of the Earth around him instead, and maintaining peace in his own life. Missing the point completely, the interviewer went on to imply that the Dalai Llama had simply avoided the question and was hiding something; when in fact the answer had been given out loud (and rather easy to see, I thought).

How can we overlook the obvious? Are our lives so difficult, so filled with sorrow and pain, that we cannot see the beauty of the world we live in today? Certainly there is strife and evil around, but how can we possibly appreciate the beautiful without the ugly, the nice without the nasty, the black without the white, the old without the young? Can there be a place where everything is always wonderful, full of sweetness and light, peace and love? It seems unlikely, to say the least, for even if such a place existed, we as humans would grow to be unappreciative so quickly as to make it less than paradise almost overnight.

Have we, in fact, ever left the Garden of Eden? Examining this particular tale more closely, it is only after people receive knowledge that they are banished from the garden. Were we in fact banished, or did the knowledge gained simply allow us to recognize that there was more than a simple, positive force at work in the environment; that in fact some negative is necessary to balance the positive? We were not banished from the garden, we merely learned that it was not a place of pure nicety, and this realization led us to believe that we had lost something. In fact, nothing has been lost except the innocence with which we first faced the world.

The concept of heaven espoused by the teachings of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths is one of return to the Garden of Eden after death through the upholding of a certain moral code in life. If the supposition of the previous paragraph is true, that we have never truly been banished from the garden, then what is heaven? Is it a return to a more innocent state; in fact, a loss of the knowledge that allows us to separate good from evil? I often joked about it when I was younger, but now I truly wonder: how wonderful a place can heaven be when those most likely to go there are the most miserable in this life? Do they lose that “wisdom” that leads them to a pious, often unemotional life at death, suddenly breaking loose to enjoy their deaths?

This concept has always bothered me, but in my own spirituality I begin to see some answers. I cannot accept death as being a loss of wisdom, as I believe in reincarnation, and it makes little sense to be reborn into another life without having gained something, some bit of enlightenment, from the previous one. To lose wisdom at death would be a constant regression, and as a species, we would be steadily devolving instead of evolving, growing simpler with every passing generation. Certainly not all is retained, but enough to carry something further the next time around.

The other concept, and the key to a great deal more, is the idea that paradise is not some far-off, remote place inhabited by people unlike ourselves. Paradise is right here, right now, and all that prevents us from seeing it is our preconceived notion of what it should be. Certainly the pollution of the inner city calls forth images of hell rather than heaven, but a simple walk through the woods after a fresh fallen snow is enough for me to realize that no heaven could have greater beauty. If we begin to realize that we already inhabit Eden, might we not be more inspired to take care of it?

The concept that has driven the most literary endeavors is that of the ideal society peopled by those who work together in peace and harmony towards a common good. As a planet, this is probably beyond us; humans have been at odds with one another as long as they have existed, and this trait is not unique to humanity! Certainly, on a small scale, we can be brought together in peaceful groups to accomplish goals; look no further than those who work to save the forests or help the poor. Must there be petty fights, jealousies, the taking of sides? Of course! Once again, we cannot appreciate the good without the bad, but the existence of the bad does not mean that we cannot achieve the good. And this is the lesson of paradise.

Singing the Praises of Pagan Life

Imagine walking downtown and hearing a street-corner preacher shouting, “Have you heard the TRUTH about the GODDESS?” while wearing a sandwich board proclaiming “She is LIFE” and handing out a little pamphlet titled “God has Horns”.

Okay, I don’t want to imagine that. I don’t like proselytizing by any religion, but I think that the Pagan paths are especially unsuitable for it.

One of the biggest problem with singing the praises of the Pagan lifestyle to the uninitiated masses is, which flavor of Paganism do you promote? Interview thirteen Pagans about the word “Pagan”, and you’ll get thirteen different answers. If we can’t even agree on one definition, how can we try to convert anyone else?

Within the more mainstream religions, there tends to be more agreement on most issues dealing with conduct, faith basics, and accepted scripture, in spite of sectarian differences. Members of a single church are likely to hold very similar beliefs; thus they can speak about those beliefs to those whom they’re trying to convert and be reasonably sure that they’re speaking for the entire group.

In the Pagan community, there is a much greater emphasis placed on individual spirituality. Even among members of a single coven, there is often a diversity of ideas regarding what is sacred, what is acceptable, and what is profane. While a leader might be called upon to speak for the entire group on certain topics, only the most naïve (or conceited) would expect everyone to be walking an identical path.

I believe there are many spiritual paths, most very personal, all eventually leading to a common truth. None are more or less valid than any other. No single path is right for everyone, so why would I try to force anyone else to fit my mold? No other person has lived my life, experienced what I have. No one can ever walk in my footsteps for very long and remain true to their own spirituality.

Another argument against proselytizing is more societal than personal. The very definition of the word implies coercion; not only is the proselytizer telling me about his religion, he is actively trying to convert me. Consider the work of missionaries: convinced that their path is the only truth, they strive to subvert the culture of the people they live amongst, tearing down ancient traditions and replacing them with a “one-size-fits-all” religion that doesn’t quite fit anyone. As a Pagan, I’m very aware of the irreplaceable cultural wisdom that has been supplanted by missionary work worldwide. I want no part of it.

I won’t coerce – or induce – anyone to walk the same path that I do – it’s the right path for me, and only me. What I will do is share some of what I’ve learned along the way, with the goal of helping others find the path that’s right for them. Education provides an opportunity to dispel ignorance and help others find their own paths. Proselytizing is little more than religious bullying.

Contrary Winter

Gone is the green of Summer, the brilliant reds and yellows of Autumn. In their place, shades of white; crystalline ice and snow that covers and decorates every surface, every branch of every tree. It is beautiful without a doubt; a beauty unlike any seen throughout the rest of the year, for it is a beauty of rest, of life unseen. The soft blanket of snow that covers the Earth in the Winter seems to do more than merely hide the dirt below; in some ways, it seems to cleanse, as though washing away the filth instead of merely cosmetically hiding it.

For many, it is a time of hibernation; not unlike those animals that practice that long slumber, they remain indoors, wishing and waiting for the warmer temperatures that will again allow them to go outside and revel in Nature. It is a mistake to abhor this season, to wish it non-existent, for this is when the cycle of Nature becomes most evident, when it can be seen in all of its glory. Winter is much more than cold temperatures and slick streets; it is a time to rejoice in the period of rest; to see the power of Nature in a much different light.

Even in the “Dead of Winter”, the world is not dead; signs of life abound at every step. The evergreens serve as a reminder that the trees are not dead, but resting. The chickadees and other birds brave enough to remain behind remind us that the birds have not passed on, but merely moved away for a short while. The busy squirrels, the deer, the rabbits in the field; all are evidence that Nature has not simply forsaken this time of year. If anything, She is busier than ever; for the Springtime will be here in a few short months and there is much to do before then.

There are few experiences quite like that of laying in a snowbank at night. Snowflakes land on my face, quickly melting away but at the same time slowly cleansing my soul,. The sound of those same flakes hitting the ground is so much more intense than true silence; it is a stillness of motion; a silent sound. The clouds in the sky reflect the snow on the earth, and there is no true darkness, yet breaks in those clouds reveal a blacker sky than can ever be seen in the summer. It is a season full of contradictions, life hidden below apparent death, cleansing white covering a darker despair that lies below.

It should not be surprising that so many cultures around the world celebrate these short days and long nights like no other time of the year. Oldest of holidays, the Solstice is celebrated under many names and guises; yet the name is not so important as the direction, the path of giving, of loving, of generosity. If at no other time of year, we are led to be more forgiving, more willing to work together, more tolerant and warm towards one another during this magical season. What sway does the season hold over the human psyche that can exact this change, that can allow spirit to suddenly take a forefront?

Some might believe it the very root of their religion, the teachings of elders, that leads them on this quest to taste the milk of human kindness for a short season. Personally, I think that for this brief period the spirituality of the masses drives the religion instead of the other way around. Too many ignore the teachings of their own faiths throughout the rest of the year to believe that they suddenly have a change of heart in the season of Winter.

More likely it is the season itself, a deeper, more ancient yearning . At this time we become more isolated, more separated from the rest of our kind, and we find ourselves craving human contact more than ever. People once gathered for warmth and the sharing of provisions; whether in cave, longhouse, or castle. Today, even in our isolated homes, that need persists.

In the end, we are all members of one large tribe. Is this what drives us to be more charitable, to give more freely of our time and money, to help out those less fortunate? Selfishness fades for an all-too-brief period; ask people what they really want at this time of year, and you’re likely to hear about things like peace, love, understanding, healing; things that benefit us all.

Nonetheless, this season of contradictions shines through. Coupled with warmth, good wishes, and friendly behavior is a mean streak. People complain about the weather from the time the temperature drops below freezing until it rises once again a few months later. Tempers run short, and there is no place with less holiday cheer than a shopping mall right before the holiday. Cars drive by, spraying slush on passers-by, and people literally run into one another as everyone seems to be rushing more than usual. How is this inner conflict resolved?

The answer lies in the nature of the problem. See, it’s the rushing around that causes the problem; and this can be proven by example. It takes little more than getting the car stuck in a snowbank to prove the point. For the first few moments, panic sets in. I’m in a hurry! This is going to affect my busy schedule!

Something magical happens at this point. Someone stops to help. And in that simple act, attitudes shift, and the good feeling returns.

The person stopping t help suddenly realizes that their immediate purpose, that thing that seemed so important as to drive them beyond the level of reasonable stress, is no longer so critical. There’s a fellow human in need, a stranger perhaps, but a fellow nonetheless. The world is forced to slow down, as no one ever gets out of a snowbank by speeding. The only result is spinning wheels, another reminder that things are being approached too quickly. With the assistance of people who are able to reach past their contrived needs and get to something more important, along with a slower, more careful attitude, the car gets liberated from the snowbank. At least for the duration of that exercise, we are strangers no more.

Is it accidental that Winter produces such things as snowbanks to stick into, slippery streets that toss us off the road, and blinding snowstorms that drive us to seek shelter wherever we can? Or is it Her way of bringing us out of our self-imposed isolation and stress, to return to the deeper needs within us, to be among others of our kind?

Winter people, those of us who revel in the season, have an innate understanding of this. The camaraderie at a ski lodge, at a meeting of snowmobilers, at the skating rink and the ice sculpture contest, reflects a special warmth in being cold, in sharing with others the joy of this season of strange and contrary things.

Be Fruitful and Multiply?

(Originally published in PanGaia magazine)

Pagans seem to have a greater tolerance of non-traditional lifestyles than society as a whole. Yet when it comes to the topic of child-rearing, that tolerance often slips away.

“Oh, you don’t have any children? I’m so sorry.”
“You know, you really would make a great father.”
“You’ll change your mind. Everyone does eventually.”
“How can you truly appreciate the Goddess unless you’re a mother yourself?”

Our little subculture seems at times to be drowning in fertility rites both ancient and new, as well as Earth mothers and fathers who define themselves and their spirituality in terms of their children.

From an aspect of wide-ranging, social consciousness, my path brings me to be deeply conscientious about how my actions impact the Earth. I try to avoid wasteful packaging, recycle whatever possible, and drive efficiently. I’m also aware that by choosing not to bring one additional child into the world, specifically in this country, I’m choosing to cut the potential for an additional 200,000 pounds of accumulated trash and the burning of 20,000 gallons of gasoline.

On a more personal note, I simply prefer not to have children around me all of the time. That doesn’t mean I despise all young people, but that I recognize that my personality is not well suited for fatherhood. I don’t believe that parenting is some innate talent that everyone is born with. Like most everything, there is a combination of innate talent and learned skills that contribute toward good parenting, and whether or not I possess the former is irrelevant in that I have no desire to learn the latter.

I’ve met far too many people who, before becoming parents, had very mixed feeling about children–then went ahead and had them anyway. Is it good practice to accept the responsibility of parenthood, only to shirk that duty after a short period of time in order to further one’s other goals? Or to enter into that responsibility, knowing full well that the time and effort of maintaining a source of income will preclude the sort of quality parenting required?

Childbirth is an act of the highest magic. And, like all forms of magic, it should not be entered into without carefully considering the consequences, both on a personal and societal level. For my wife and me, it was a working that we chose to forego; and I believe we are better and stronger for it. We do not consider ourselves somehow distanced from the Goddess; we simply express our gratitude and respect in other ways. Fertility does not have to mean reproduction.

By choosing to remain child-free, we have given ourselves the time and freedom to pursue other aspects of life that would not have been possible had we chosen the role of parents. Our “fertility” takes the form of the help and compassion that we offer to our community, it reveals itself in our more creative pursuits, it manifests in the love and warmth returned from our adopted four-legged children. I don’t believe that we’ve missed out on anything by remaining child-free. If anything, we’ve had the capability to do and learn more than if we’d ever been encumbered by little ones.

I don’t hope to convince anyone that it is wrong to bring children into the world. Instead, realize that, while the decision to become a parent should be the most well-thought-out decision of your life, in the end the choice is yours.