This post is the first of a pair, both of which are part of a series on Ayahuasca, yoga and Nondual Shaiva Tantra.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
–William Butler Yeats
Since adolescence I have not been a big fan of organized religion. From my own cultural perspective growing up in the midwest of the United States, religion seemed to carry a lot of baggage. My studies of History, especially of the West and of the Middle East, offered a mountain of evidence for serious issues that I had with organized religion.
Like nationalism, religion seemed yet another form of glorified tribalism at the heart of which lies an “in group vs out group” mentality whose greatest legacy resides in the propagation of division, conflict and violence in the world. I found the assaults on reason, freedom of speech, and the subjugation of women and minorities as distasteful as most contemporary readers would, though I was, and still am, incredulous as to how so many people could so easily overlook these passages in their own holy books.
I’ve read a lot of the work of the New Atheists, in particular the work of Sam Harris–someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. His book, Waking Up: Spirituality without Religion, is a book that I would highly recommend for those who find themselves interested in exploring questions around consciousness and spirituality without the baggage and dogma of much of organized religion. Like Sam, I find far more issues with those religions that fall within the Abrahamic tradition, though many problems are common across religious traditions.
All of the progress that we today value in the West came about really in spite of The Church, not because of it. Scientific progress, technological advancement, the ideals of the Enlightenment–the Church vehemently fought these bedrock values of modernity at every twist and turn, as it sought to preserves its privilege at the perch of power and influence in European society. Religion seemed to be the ideological justification for power, wealth, and status for a Church swimming in corruption.
Whenever I read passages of The Bible as a teenager the book struck me not as something divinely inspired but as a document clearly reflective of the species who wrote it: full of jealousy, anger, pride, and judgment. If an omnipotent Creator exists why is he so preoccupied with the extent to which this puny species worships Him or not? Apparently, God had an ego and a BAD temper. Apparently, He also had the gender of a human, even though He was allegedly transcendent.
Suffice it to say that I could write many, many posts (an entire blog really) about my qualms with organized religion. Yet while I still appreciate the work of those who push back on religious dogma anywhere, I’ve come to see that focusing solely on the negative aspects of religion is a big mistake as well. One significant way in which some of these New Atheist authors miss the mark is that they underweight the important functions that myths have to play in human societies.
Myths allow us to interpret experience in different but equally important ways. Most developed countries appear to be largely disenchanted with myths. We find ourselves torn between two extremes. On the one hand, there is religious literalism. This view insists myths are literally true, rather than appreciating them as the far more nuanced, rich, and metaphorical lenses through which humans can interpret and explain fundamental experiences of the human condition. Past and present is littered with examples of the collateral damage of this world view.
Of course, myths live on in other ways precisely because it is part of our basic need as a species to answer the same set of eternal questions: Why are we here? How did we get here? What is our purpose?
One space in which modern societies perpetuate myths is in their History textbooks. While I don’t think History textbooks should be a place for telling myths so much as a forum for teaching critical thinking the fact that they do so in ever society highlights the need of our collective unconscious to tell the story of who we are as a people. Of course Hollywood plays a role in retelling myths; the popularity of the Marvel action series speaks to this in some ways.
While modern science provides far more persuasive answer to some of these questions, science can’t do the job alone. There’s a good reason that we should read novels, along with non fiction. We need epic stories with compelling characters, rich metaphors and resonant themes that both help us to reflect on and even to reimagine the human condition. Telling and retelling these stories is an integral part of the project of human flourishing itself.
Without science and reason humans tend towards dogmatism and authoritarianism. Without myth and metaphor life becomes too dry and mechanical. Without savoring stories we don’t taste the rasa–the juice, the flavor, the essence–of life.
I’ve come to view literalism–rigidity of thought–as the larger problem. This isn’t to discount the contents of religious doctrine–some ideas can be more dangerous than others when followed literally–but rather to acknowledge the real culprit. Literalism not only affects religious thought but other types of ideologies: economic, political, even science. This is part of the work of our yoga: to make our minds more malleable and responsive to varying contexts and conditions.
The Lord Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. In one version of the Ganesha story, Shiva cutt off Ganesha’s human head because Ganesha had taken instructions too literally and, in a fit of anger, Shiva sliced off the young boy’s head, which he later replaced with the head of an elephant. The moral of the story warns listeners against the perils of thinking too literally.
Source: Lord Ganesha
Over the past year I’ve come to appreciate the power of myths and metaphor and the role of many religious traditions in passing down these stories. I’m indebted to several teachers including Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, Sally Kempton, Douglas Brooks, Hareesh Wallis and Paul Muller Ortega for helping me to appreciate the importance of myths and metaphors. Studying a school of yoga known as Nondual Shaiva Tantra (NST) has allowed me to fuse rigorous intellectual inquiry and critical thinking with a profound sense of mystery and mythology. Reading the work of Joseph Campbell has also inspired my interest in myths.
In forging a new relationship with the Divine, it’s instructive to return to the root of the word itself. This term comes to the English language via Old French (deus), which in turn originates from the Latin word “divus” (godlike). However, an older antecedent of this word reveals a richer layer of meaning: the Latin root “divus” ultimately derives from the Sanskrit word “deva,” whose verbal root before “div” means “to shine,” or “to illuminate.” Thus, we can conceive of the Divine as that which illuminates. Conceiving of the Divine in this sense is central to the views of Nondual Shaiva Tantra and to the way that I’ve come to think about the Divine as well.
If you’ve had issues with organized religion yet find yourself interested in exploring these fundamental questions around consciousness, this universe and our role within it perhaps you’ll find it helpful to return to this original meaning of the word Divine: that which shines or illuminates.
This is what myths and metaphors allow us to do: at their very least they enable us to see things in a new light; at their most potent they empower us to illuminate that which was dark. Like the endless embrace of Shiva and Shakti, of consciousness and energy, we find ourselves returning to the timeless imagery of light and shadow that appears in so many myths and religious texts.
What is the day without night? What is consciousness without energy? What is this universe without myth, mystery, magic?