DO NOT DISTURB


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Strife [polemos] is father to all

[Heraclitus]

We are a glass of water. At the bottom of our glass is a layer of soil, of sediment. Most of the time the glass is still and the sediment remains undisturbed, and most of the time we like it this way. Every now and then, however, the glass gets shaken, and up swirls the sediment, around and around, before settling down at the bottom in a new composition. And again the glass is still, the sediment undisturbed. Sometimes the glass is still for a long time, and we may do our best to keep it that way.

We are a self-corrective system, and we are balanced. Like everything in existence, in order to retain our integrity we must retain our balance. Sometimes, however, we become unbalanced, and this can be a very unsettling state of affairs. If our system is to continue working then we must return to the old balance, or find a new one. But always we must return to balance: this is the dictate of our system.

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When was the last time you were challenged, really challenged?

How did it feel?

Did it feel like you were coming apart, like you didn't know who you were anymore?


Disintegration. Perhaps this is a requisite of the true challenge: that it must, in some way, cause you to fall apart, at least a little.

It may be true that most of the time we are that glass of water; and that our views, our ideas, our habits, our behaviours - all these things of which we are composed - settle like sediment down at the bottom, where they remain, compact and undisturbed. We could call this tranquility "balance," and as with all things, it is the definitive state of affairs. If we are indeed self-corrective systems, then this is the way it must be. Our system works to conserve the truth of certain descriptive statements, to keep us true to an image. To stray from the image - to stray, for example, from "healthy" to "ill" - is to upset the balance, and such a system would not be true to itself if it allowed an unbalance to continue unchecked. Thus, we get well; become "healthy" again, whatever we consider that to be.

What is true for the individual is also true for the collectivity. Our collective assumptions, norms and conventions all settle down in our collective glass.

When we are challenged - really challenged - the glass is shaken, a disturbance that represents a departure from our balance. Shaking up prevents us from petrifying, from becoming too solid. When the sediment is shaken it can break apart and return to the water above, where it can float free. It is reminded of the properties of liquid: of what it is to be loose, and of how it feels to be carried by the current. Indeed, in throwing the system into an "imbalance", shaking also works to remind it of a larger truth: that the stasis of a balanced system can become the torpor of complacency - the rigor-mortis of pertrifaction - and that it must sometimes be thrown into relief against its opposite: that solid must sometimes be reminded of liquid lest it take its "solidity" a little too literally. The autonomy of the individual system is put into perspective, shown that our "balance" - our personal status quo - can sometimes spell imbalance within a larger context.

On a societal level, a challenge - a shaking - is often posed by things within the culture which go "beyond the pale." We know that they have gone beyond because people become "outraged" or "offended." These people represent the voice of balance, a voice that is also within each individual. They are the part of the system that does not want things to change, that wants to preserve the sanctity of its sediments, its solidity. The conservative voice - with its tendency to gather together, to keep things the same - alerts us to the fact that something is happening; that we are being shaken. It is the guardian of our descriptive statements, insisting that we stay true to our image. Through its outrage it works to preserve the status quo, and to neutralise those elements that would unsettle the system.

Whilst its role is an important one, it has a tendency to be short-sighted. It is stuck on the idea of solidity and would keep us that way forever, safe and inert. It is wary of liquid, of its chaotic swirling, its refusal to settle down, take a form. And so, in deference to the larger balance, this voice must always be challenged, its precious solidity always shaken free.

We could see a mark of "maturity" as the ability for a system both to be shaken and to shake itself. Thus, a "mature" system (society or individual) is the one that can withstand the shaking - that can contain things like dissent and transgression - without tipping into a fatal imbalance and falling apart. In a sense, a system, as long as it permits its elements that go beyond, will always be shaking itself up. It is when a system becomes unilateral - narrowing what can be said and done - that it risks rigor-mortis. Those elements that would formerly have worked to maintain its balance are pushed underground - repressed - and a widespread denial takes place. The system becomes both unhealthy and unadaptive; a rock in the evolutionary stream.

For the individual, shaking up becomes a form of mindfulness. It is a ready acceptance of challenge, a monitoring of boundaries and an awareness of assumptions. In many ways, shaking up can run counter to the flow the collectivity, which often encourages us to keep our sediments undisturbed and exalts solidity as the condition par excellence.

With its connotations of disintegration, shaking up is not something that can continue indefinitely. We cannot stay liquid; we must assume a form, strike a pose. Rather, shaking up is a necessary myth, that runs alongside and counter to that other myth: staying the same. If balance is written into our existence, then to work against it - in whatever direction - is to become dysfunctional.

Related posts:-
Sailing the Turbulent Seas
Status Quo

"Laziness" (and other fictions)

"Why can't he get it together, he's so lazy"

"You're right, its just plain laziness"


"Laziness." What is "laziness"? Does "laziness" describe an element of reality, a "real" phenomenon? Does "laziness" actually exist?

"Laziness" is, amongst other things, an explanatory principle that we use to describe a category of behaviours. From the endless profusion of reality - the continuum of events and things - we sketch out some borders, and tell ourselves that everything in between them will be referred to as "lazy." It is a handy fiction. Like all explanatory principles, laziness is a shortcut, a label we wheel out to stop us from having to dig any deeper, from spending any time. It is an adaptive invention that conserves energy, allowing us to get from A to B in the shortest possible time. If we can only cram so much information into our consciousness - concentrate on a finite amount of things - then our shortcuts allow us to get on with things, to get things done. They bypass the long route, because the long route is wasteful.

And so more often than not, we take the short one: "he is lazy." But if we use "lazy" then we should be aware that we are using a placeholder; that we are, in fact, marking something for further examination. The problem with a fiction like "lazy" is when it is literalised; when we begin to believe that the dragon really exists, and that it is embodied by this person, or that person.

When we look beneath "lazy" we begin to see a number of other things; more words rush in. We begin to see "preoccupied," "depressed," "afraid." We see these and much more. And then these words begin to crack and crumble, revealing further intricacies.

"Laziness" is not designed to hold reality, or to reflect it. Whilst pretending to describe reality, "laziness" actually works to keep us at arms length from it. The actuality that lies beneath "laziness" in an unexploded bomb: remove the lid - the label - and it detonates into a million pieces; a million fragments of reality - so many that we cannot hold them all, understand them all. They whirl around us, spinning us into a confusion. Perhaps then, it is best not to remove the lid, to look beneath "lazy."

But if we care about this person - this lazy so and so - then perhaps we owe them more than "lazy." Is "lazy" ever excusable? Maybe it just needs untethering from the reality that we hang around it, so that it can float up and take its rightful place, among all the other nebulous words.

Perhaps to use terms like "lazy" might just be plain ... lazy.

Communal Blogging

It seems that everyone has a platform these days: a website, a blog, a twitter.

On the surface, much blogging may appear to be a pointless endeavour: if the information is already out there then why reiterate or regurgitate it? Do we really need someone else to tell us the same thing again? The internet is crowded with voices, and each one wants to share something with us. It can sometimes seem like there are too many, and that every new one only adds to an already overwhelming tumult. With a galaxy of voices vying for our attention, how do we choose who to listen to, and what to look at?

We should first consider that the act of re-telling may be useful for the person doing it. It may be a way for us to process the things that we blog about, and in contributing towards the culture we may not feel so overwhelmed by it. In truth, blogging could be providing a number of benefits for the blogger, and whilst seeming to be an act that is primarily in the interests of the collectivity, it may well be a process that means most to the individual doing the blogging.

But to sketch out only the more self-serving aspects of blogging would be to mislead. We could also frame it as a communal activity; an activity that is in service to the community. In this sense the blog becomes a kind of community notice board, or an aspect - a corner - of a larger board. Through blogging about things we bring them to the attention of the community, saying "I think this is important, and I'd like to share it." In this way we also share ourselves with the community - we develop a voice, become a citizen.

Blogging becomes a way of giving your "self" to the community, a way of becoming known. The blog itself acts as a point of communion, a locus within a larger constellation. It is a person in the absence of a person, a self-portrait in ideas, interests, worries, criticism. It becomes an entrance-point to an individual, a way to make contact.

So we could see the primary importance of our blogs as contributing to the life of the community. The idea of community that is proposed here may, however, be quite different from traditional notions based on a real-world locality. Instead of consisting of our village or town, or our circle of "meatspace" friends (those that we actually see in person every now and then), it would consist of our network of online familiars.

In this way, from the galaxy of voices and information we can begin to mark out our constellations, to make some sense. The use of the blog needn't be in what it contributes to the online cosmos, but rather in what it contributes to our online locality. Across the often impersonal sprawl of the web, these devices allow the idea of community to blossom.

Related posts:-
Community Service

A TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW


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[...] the banal everyday makes banal demands upon our patience, our devotion, perseverance, self-sacrifice; and for us to fulfil these demands (as we must) humbly and without courting applause through heroic gestures, a heroism is needed that cannot be seen from the outside.

[Carl Jung]
The Essential Jung, p.154

[...] unless we admit that we are not, and never will be, born equal, though we are all born with equal rights; unless the Many can be educated out of their false assumption of inferiority and the Few out of their equally false assumption that biological superiority is a state of existence instead of what it really is, a state of responsibility - then we shall never arrive at a more just and happier world.

[John Fowles]
The Aristos, p.10

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Watching The U.S. Versus John Lennon I was struck by how often Lennon would "lose it". These were moments in which his act faltered, in which he was returned to 'all too human' form.

Whilst Lennon had always been a communicator through his music, his political activities required him to become a communicator of a different sort. The gravity of the messages he wanted to convey required a certain type of act. The act of "pop star" or "musician" wouldn't fit the bill. To communicate a message of love and peace, Lennon had to assume an archetypal role, to walk in the footsteps of others who have carried a similar message: names like Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi, amongst others. Part of the reason why we hold these figures in such high regard is that they managed to stand the strain of the act that was required from them; indeed, they acted so well that we may even begin to forget that they were only human.

We are all, in a sense, acting. In fact, we could say that it is our ability to act, amongst other things, that makes us human. Animals generally cannot, or do not, act. A shark will not decide to 'better itself' by becoming a vegetarian, nor will a gazelle decide to 'be a man' and stand up for itself the next time a lion comes calling. The idea that we can be something other appears to be a distinctly human one, an upshot of our ability to imagine. In imagining we are able to think of alternate ways of being, ways that may often seem to contradict the image that our 'natural impulses' would hold us to. We imagine that we can be 'better', and in being better we must act. But this act needn't seem false. It is put on, and necessarily so: through putting it on we are able to craft ourselves, remould our basic image into the shape we want it to be. It is in this way that we become 'human'.

Thus, it is often when the act slips that we describe someone as being 'an animal.' In being an animal we fail to be human (which, from an animal's perspective is probably for the best. But from ours it is a slip, a regression). If we have a dim view of humanity then we may describe someone as being 'all too human.' Both descriptions concern a failure to maintain the act; the act of 'human' or 'something more than human.'

As a collective we have various structures in place to help us maintain the act. Laws remind us of the basics, and conventions and etiquette help us to tweak and refine our performance. Some people seem to be able to act better than others, and some acts seem to be worth more than others. Our collectivity offers us models that we can follow, and some of these seem harder than others. Buddhism, for example, proposes for the Westerner a truly difficult act, asking us to relinquish the sovereignty of our ego and to see through the idea of the "self." It's act eventually becomes a non-act; "enlightenment" a seeing-through of the act (or does the Dalai Lama still need to fight his instinctual urges? Does he still need to act?).

Maintaining the act involves a constant remembering. To stay on course may necessitate constant minor adjustments, because we all forget the way from time to time.

Lennon's act was a hard one. His message of love and peace posed a challenge to a Western society in thrall to the ego and entrenched in patriarchal values: rationalism, practicality, logic. Like those who exemplified his role in the past, he came under fire, and his act was truly put to the test. We see a number of these moments in the documentary. At one point Lennon is asked an irksomely earnest and 'ignorant' question by a reporter, to which he replies with an amusingly ironic quip. Another moment finds him being patronised by a woman from the New York Times, and he reacts with visible frustration and yet more irony.

We sense that he had to face a number of these moments, and his lack of patience becomes obvious. Of course, Lennon was only human, and we cannot blame him for letting the act slip. After all, it would take a truly exceptional person to carry - to live - the message of peace and love through these trying situations. But unfortunately this exceptionality is what his act required from him. When watching these moments I find myself wondering, how would the Dalai Lama handle that reporter? How would Gandhi have reacted to being patronized?

It seemed that Lennon was not prepared to make the sacrifices necessary for him to fulfill his role, which brings us to ask: did he understand the implications of the act that was required from him in the first place? Or was he simply not up to the task?

The way Lennon handles himself in these situations displays a crucial difference between him and the likes of the Dalai Lama or Gandhi. He is too quick to become defensive, to raise his shield and protect his self. As soon as he does this he enters into a battle and his ability to communicate is curtailed - an opposition is created, a situation that makes neither party amenable to the other. This self-protectiveness seems to indicate that Lennon was too entrenched, or attached, to his position; too attached to the idea of "John Lennon." To be a truly great communicator it seems that we must be able to abandon our position when needed, and we do this as a sacrifice to the Other, and to the whole. We do whatever it takes to keep open the lines of communication. When Lennon was tempted into ironic remarks, to taking up the gauntlet of a battle, he forgot the duty that his role demanded of him. In these moments he was thinking of himself, not of the Other.

If we consider Lennon's perspective an enlightened one, then his frustration often seemed to be due to the sheer amount of ignorance that his role forced him to come into contact with. He was trying to communicate an enlightened message, but was thwarted by a lack of understanding, or, in many instances, an unwillingness to understand, or to even listen. It seems an inevitable outcome of this scenario that he should develop an "us vs them" attitude (in fact, Lennon probably already had this attitude from quite early on; he talks about trouble in school, about always seeming to be on the outside).

And yet, if we consider ourselves to be in any way "enlightened" and others to be ignorant, and if we care about the well-being of the whole, then perhaps we have a responsibility to those who we consider less fortunate than ourselves. If we are attempting to communicate a message of enlightenment, a message that we expect to bring positivity to the community, then is it not our duty, not only to the collectivity but to the message itself, to put the idea of communication first, and to serve the message in whatever it demands?

If we are 'enlightened' then is it not an abuse of our privilege to gain a laugh at the expense of the 'ignorant,' or to engage them in a battle? Likewise, we may become frustrated, but it is our duty to prevent our frustration from spilling over into anger and acrimony, and from polluting our good intentions.

Comedian Bill Hicks frequently alludes to an "us vs them" divide in his routines; he is enlightened - he knows good music, and sees through the hypocrisy of much of modern life - and if we are with him, if we see this too, then we are also enlightened. We are a part of "us" and we probably know who "they" are all too well. But there is a subtle form of arrogance running through this "us vs them-ism." Hicks doesn't appear to equate enlightenment with responsibility. His frustration at the ignorance of others is palpable, and we sense that he feels compelled to use his enlightenment as a weapon, perhaps as much to defend himself as to attack others. As with Lennon, he seems to feel that his position needs to be protected, and his routines become a form of pre-emptive attack. The underlying narrative is a battle, and Hicks is first and foremost interested in the sovereignty of his own position before the well-being of the whole.

Whilst we oppose those who are unenlightened, there will always be a divide across which communication fails, an us vs them situation. If we believe ourselves to be enlightened, and if we want to communicate a message - a message that we believe is of benefit to the collectivity - then we must consider the responsibility that these things demand of us. If we preach an enlightened message whilst undermining it through our words and actions, then we are doing no more than playing a game; a game that has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the us vs. them. Our games allow us to declare that the emperor has no clothes, as long as we don't then chop off his head.

Of course, we may often be interested in no more than game-playing, and this may well be the case for Hicks. His us vs. them-ism is a cornerstone of his humour, and without it his act probably would have been very different; or, indeed, may not have existed at all. With Lennon things seem to be different - he ostensively set out to communicate a message as far and wide as possible, and it would be a betrayal to this message to find that he was, if only unconsciously, playing a game. As with Lennon, our act may demand that we go beyond our games, and if we believe in the act then must listen to it, and do whatever it takes to remain true to the role.

Related posts:-
The Larger Mind

ASSUMING A POSITION


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"The kind of blogging I do has to be based in personal obsession, in spats and rivalry, in a kind of light, oblique but perpetual autobiography. There has to be a subject for all this data to make any sort of situated sense, and that subject has to be seen to have a body, clothes, a way to wear those clothes, and so on. As soon as I get tugged out of that embodied, situated world I get bored and anxious and mistrustful. I want to know always who's speaking, how old they are, what culture they were raised in, what their vested interests are, and so on.

For me, the Anon is suspicious because I can't see what s/he looks like or what life his/her comment is rooted in. For the Anons (or some of them), I'm the suspicious one, because my comments are far too obviously rooted in an ego, a persona. The Anon's habitual mode of attack is therefore ad hominem, but since it comes from -- apparently -- no-one it could also be described as ab nemo."

[Momus]

"To disagree with three-fourths of the British public is one of the first requisites of sanity"

[Oscar Wilde]

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What is a "position"?

Psychologist Eric Berne described a position as a "simple predictive statement which influences all of the individual's transactions [...] Unless something or somebody intervenes, [a person] spends the rest of his life stabilizing his position and dealing with situations that threaten it: by avoiding them, warding off certain elements or manipulating them provocatively so that they are transformed from threats into justifications."1

We could see a position as a castle. We may live within it, and we may, when we need to, man the barracks and defend it against attack.

When we look for someone's position we are looking for their epistemology; the ideas and beliefs that lead them to think and act the way that they do. To see their castle is to see the individual bricks that it is composed of, and, if we look hard enough, it is to see the foundations upon which it rests.

In understanding a person's position we bring perspective to our image of them, framing their behaviour within a larger picture. When their thoughts and actions no longer clutter the foreground, we are able to relativise their claims to truth; instead of being the whole truth - transcendent, impersonal - they become someone's truth. A person's position is the centre of their individual mythology, and both influences, and is influenced by, the stories that they tell themselves about the world. To see a position is to see a person's fictions, the meanings and values that are guiding them.

When we can see a story, and when we can frame this story within a network of alternative fictions, we may feel less threatened by its otherness. For example, when Oscar Wilde tells us that "The first duty in life is to assume a pose", we may find his words incommensurable with our own experience, and may reject his statement as false. If we understand Wilde's background - his fiction - and can see his position, then we may be less tempted to reject his statement on the grounds of its truth. For Wilde, the idea of the pose may have been an important one in giving meaning to life, and it may be that it could also mean something to us. Be if we take his truth as literal - as objective, as transcending the realms of subjective fiction - then we are forced into a corner, into either accepting his truth and modifying our own position accordingly, or rejecting it outright. If, on the other hand, we are able to relativise his truth, and to frame it within his position - and this position within a system of multiple positions - then our tight corner disappears. His truth can exist without threatening to annihilate ours.

Because it is no longer in the foreground, making claims to universality and thus threatening our own truth, we may feel more able to approach, and entertain, Wilde's idea; to visit his castle, look around, note the structure, the decor. To see his position, and to frame it within a landscape of alternative positions, is to allow it room to exist.

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1 Games People Play, p.42
Monotheism & Polytheism

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We may often fool ourselves into thinking that there is such a thing as a definitive position, a castle of castles, and that we may inhabit it, or that someone else may. This belief springs from what we could call a monotheistic view: it has in mind a "perfect castle" and measures all others against this standard. When we're in a monotheistic mode (thinking with the mono-view) then we may come to think that we'd prefer it if there was only one castle. The fact that there appear to be many becomes something of an inconvenience - how, after all, do we know which one is the "right" one? Perhaps we can see from a distance whether a castle fits the bill or not, but appearances may be deceptive. We may have to visit each one and check. This is, of course, to assume that we've managed to make it out of our front door in the first place. It may, after all, be easier to decide that ours is the "right" one and leave it at that. That way we won't have to get tired wandering around, and we won't risk getting lost on the journey.

The monotheistic view has its roots in the Christian tradition, and the idea that there is one God, and one way (thus, one castle - "God's castle"). This one way - the "true path" - is exemplified through the figure of Christ, and to deviate from it is to live erroneously.

We find an alternative view in the form of polytheism, which has its roots in the Greek tradition, and the idea that there are many gods, each representing different facets of the human psyche. The polytheistic view invites us to think in terms of modes.

If we consider our castles with the polytheistic view, then we see that there is no such thing as a definitive castle. Instead of being inconveniences, the differences between castles can become points of interest. We may marvel at how much other castles seem to differ from our own, and from each other. We may find that when we are in a certain mood we prefer one castle and not another, that our different moods (or modes) seem to draw us towards different castles. Above all, we are able to appreciate this difference between castles, and our journeys and visits give us occasion to celebrate it.

In the monotheistic mode multiplicity may have a tendency to become a nuisance. If our way is the right way, then theirs musn't be. Likewise, if theirs is the right way, then we must be in the wrong. By defining a "right" path, monotheism also creates a "wrong" path, and when we see the world through its lense we may be tempted to categorise what we see in terms of this opposition, amongst others. But slip into the polytheistic mode of thought and we suddenly become open to the multiplicity of possible positions, realising that one may be no more "true" than another.
Remembering the Balance

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Society is, at best, a system that manages to combine many disparate elements whilst maintaining some sort of balance between them. If this balance was not maintained then the system would degenerate in one way or another, before either finding a new balance, or collapsing. In this sense, we can see society as an eco-system, much like the kind that we would find in a forest. Balance between its various elements is key, not only to the survival of the system, but to the survival of the individuals within the system.

Now, let's imagine that within our forest there is a badger that has somehow managed to get it into its head that to be a badger is the "right" way to be, and that all other forms of existence are inferior and irrelevant compared to his. Not only does our badger have a monotheistic view, but he also has a rather militant spirit and has somehow acquired destructive technology and the know-how to use it. Suffice it to say, the fragile balance of his forest will not last long. Perhaps what our badger doesn't realise is that without his environment to sustain him, he will soon be a goner too (or perhaps he is a nihilist to boot).

Of course, destruction may not be the only way our badger may go about his path of domination. If he can't abide the thought of killing, he may instead choose to convert all those around him to his position. Suddenly the palette of the forest become dominated by two non-colours, as everything is painted in black and white. Hole digging and meat-eating likewise become the norm. In no time our badger has managed to implement a forest-wide monoculture, saving himself the bother of investing in all that expensive weaponry.

Our badger has made the mistake of taking his "badgerness" literally. His belief in the correctness of his own position has blinded him to the fact that he lives within a balanced system, one that requires its multiplicity - the difference between its elements - for its survival. He is short-sighted, unable to understand things beyond the four walls of his castle, the confines of his position. When he looks out of his windows he sees only confusion, and deviation.

His confusion is, perhaps, understandable. He has become so accustomed to the look and feel of his castle that all others naturally appear foreign and deviant. He has forgotten the truth of his castle: that it hasn't always been around, that it was built brick by brick. Perhaps he built it, or perhaps someone else did, but it was built.

To avoid confusion, let's leave our badger in his castle and return to the human world. Within a forest we are talking about the differences between species, whereas within a human society we are talking about the differences between people. The badger is confined to his castle, his position as "badger" - he has no choice but to take his position literally. He would probably find it very difficult to start flying if commanded to do so by a domineering bird. As humans we have freedoms that the badger does not; we can imagine other ways of being, and we can, within limits, move between them. So whilst the badger may be confined to his four walls, the same is not, strictly speaking, true of us.

Much of the time we may forget that we also live within a balanced eco-system. To truly believe in the sovereignty of one position over another is to overlook this balance. It is a belief founded on a confused epistemology. For example, in the popular Western consciousness, certain values often appear to be held in higher esteem than others. Our consciousness is entrenched in a rationalist perspective; we see the value in things like science and commerce because their projects appear to make sense: in other words, the logic that underpins them is easy to identify. Science cures diseases, and gives us new technology - it answers questions, and solves problems. Commerce makes the world go round. Things like art and religion seem to make less sense; they often raise more questions than answers, and any answers they do provide are generally not certifiable by "scientific" standards. Their logic is, from the rationalist perspective, obscure and confusing.

If we are too entrenched in our position, and if that position has at its roots these rationalist ideas and values, then we are bound to overlook the necessity of things like art and religion to the balance of the system. We may not believe that we need these things at all, that they are an aberrance, and we may wish that they did not exist. If we were able to act on this belief, and if we had the means to eradicate these ideas, then we would be making the same mistake as our badger; from a simple lack of insight into the wider balance of the system, we would be tipping it into a potentially disastrous imbalance.
Battles and Challenges

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It is our contention that within a monotheistic framework we are more tempted to preserve the sanctity of our position - to arm the battlements - when faced with the position of the Other. Another castle represents a threat to our own, and more often than not a battle ensues. Battles are a form of game-playing: if our interest lies solely in preserving our position, then we will play to win and nothing more. A battle is a very specific and narrowed form of communication; its main messages are, "I am right and you are wrong" and "I will show you that you are wrong". It is not a place for indecision, vulnerability or doubt - and if we decide that these things are requisites for a constructive dialogue then we cannot see a battle as "constructive."

Yet, a battle, like a game, can also be enjoyable. It structures time, gives us something to do, and can be exciting. It allows us to exercise certain aspects of our being, to flex and thrust. But we would be mistaken in thinking that we are engaging in anything other than the reification of our own position. Once arms are laid down - the pose seen through - a more nuanced form of communication can begin.

A polytheistic outlook allows us the room to be more amenable to foreign words and deeds. Of the two, the polytheistic view appears the wiser, but, because it can lead to relativism, it must also go hand in hand with a willingness to have our own position challenged. It can become all too easy to use a position to dismiss the thoughts and actions of others - "Of course he would say that, because of who he is (but I needn't take heed, because my position is different.)" - and so we become immune to the challenge that is posed by 'otherness'. In avoiding conflict like this, we would again be making a mistake similar to that of our badger earlier on, an error based upon a limited view of the ecosystem. We would be overlooking the possibility that contact (in its varying forms; conflict, negotiation, exploration) is a necessary and healthy occurrence. In avoiding conflict entirely we have essentially tipped the balance in the opposite direction; where formerly our badger sought to assert the sovereignty of his position through the annihilation of all other positions - through sameness - he would here be asserting his sovereignty through relativism, through difference. Both paths have in common the refusal to have his own position challenged.

The battle, then, becomes the refusal to be challenged, and the challenge can only take place when the battle ends.

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Related posts:-
Rules of Engagement
Common Ground

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A wise man once said, "those who are awake have one world in common, those who are asleep live each in a private world."2 Perhaps this one world, this common ground, is that area outside of our castles; and when we are able to step out of our front door - to leave our position behind - we become truly "awake." Awake in this sense would mean untangled from self-interest, from the concerns that go along with living in a castle. After all, a castle can often be self-perpetuating; it provides comfort, a place to live - but if we are to continue living within it then we must maintain it, and, when necessary, we must defend it. To step outside of the castle is to put its demands in perspective, to see that looking after our castle may not be the be-all and end-all. Thus, in many ways, to enter the common ground is to become liberated.

With this in mind, when we are faced with the behaviour of others we can ask; does this behaviour come from within a position, or does it come from without - are they still standing in their castle, or are they in common ground? In short, is their behaviour entrenched or transcendent? Because to understand where behaviour comes from, is to be able to form a more nuanced approach towards it.

We've seen that we all have our positions, our castles within which we exist. We've examined the ideas of monotheism and polytheism and how these outlooks can affect the way we see others' positions as well as our own. We've seen that understanding a person's position can make us more amenable to their 'otherness', but we've also seen the importance of having our own position challenged. Having seen these castles, our own and those of others - and having seen the distance between them - we must be willing to leave our structures for a while, and to take a trip. We must be willing to knock on some doors, and to ask to come in.

In the last, it may be that no-one has a sovereign position, that no-one is so enlightened so as to see the full workings of our ecosystem. The monotheistic view may make us believe that this view does exist, but it leaves us in no doubt that there is only one who is able to see this way: God. With its pantheon of gods, polytheism blows this model apart, allowing us to structure our thought in a different way; one that may be more in line with a world that has at its heart no certainties, and no definitive positions.

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2 Heraclitus, as paraphrased by John Fowles in The Aristos, p.216

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In fact, how can we let ourselves be moved to pity unless by transporting ourselves outside ourselves and identifying ourselves with the suffering animal, by quitting, so to speak, our own being in order to assume his?

The commiseration will be the more energetic, the more intimately the spectator identifies himself with the sufferer [...] It is therefore quite certain that compassion is a natural feeling which moderates in every individual his self-esteem, and contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire race.

[Jean-Jacques Rousseau]
Émile, p.115-20
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, p. 92, 94

The Nymph and the Oak

Once upon a time there was a forest that was inhabited by nymphs. The nymphs took pleasure in hopping from tree to brook, from plant to fungus, from animal to insect, bringing inspiration and vitality to each and every thing. We could say that these nymphs were the soul of the forest, and their shape-swapping dance somehow seemed to play a part in its fragile balance.

Now, whilst most nymphs found joy in their hopping about, it would sometimes happen that a nymph would tire of his dance, preferring instead to to choose a suitable form in which to come to rest. It is with one such wearisome traveller that our story will concern itself ...

Our hero had for a long time played his part, hopping from one thing to another. He had come to notice, however, that he was never more comfortable then when within the sturdy frame of an old oak tree. And so it was that one day he decided to quit his jumping about, choosing the oak as his resting place, his "form of forms." He grew close to the tree, and began to understand its rustling and creaking, its slow and steady breath, its silence. As time passed the two grew ever closer, and our hero began to forget where the tree started and he ended. "I am a proud oak," he thought, "these branches are my branches, these roots my roots." He forgot what it was like to have been a nymph, to have hopped from one form to another. His tree seemed to him his natural form, and any thought of dancing and hopping had long since vanished from his mind.

There were many things that our hero liked about being a tree. His sturdy trunk was immune to the strongest of winds, and provided a stable resting place for the weary back of many a traveller. His thick canopy provided shelter from storms, and his strong branches a home to birds and insects. His bark was rough and durable, and his roots reached deep into the earth. Yes, it was a fine thing to be a tree, especially one as proud and powerful as he!

Yet, as time passed, the inhabitants of the forest began to notice a change in the old oak tree. Where once its branches had reached far into the sky, rustling and chattering along with the other trees, they were now cast downwards, and had become gnarled and rigid, indifferent to the breeze that flowed through them. Any birds that had once made their home here had long since disappeared. Not only that, the bark of the tree seemed rougher, full of jagged edges, and no travellers dared risk their backs against its trunk. Where once the oak had seemed at the centre of things, it now stood alone, the life and energy of the forest passing it by.

It so happened that one day a pre-occupied young nymph, reveling in the newly discovered joys of bird-form, alighted upon the twisted branches of our oak. No sooner had he landed than his thoughts were back with flying, and he readied himself to take off. As he spread his wings, he heard a strange noise coming from beneath him that stopped him in his tracks. He cocked his bird head and listened intently. Sure enough he heard the sound again - it seemed to be coming from the tree that he was perched on. Bringing his head even closer to the tree he began to make out the very faint sound of weeping. Someone was weeping within the tree!

He hurried off and quickly convened a group of his young nymph friends. "I think someone is trapped in that old oak tree! Its branches are so twisted and rigid that it cannot talk when there is a breeze, like the other trees! Its bark is too thick for hopping through, and its trunk is so sturdy and its roots so deep that we can't possibly move it! What is there to do?!"

Another of the group spoke up. "I've heard tales that there is a nymph within that tree, and he's been there for many an age."

"Perhaps he has been there so long that he has grown tired of being a tree," spoke another.

"Perhaps he is lonely," spoke a fourth, "And that is why he is weeping."

"We must do something," said the bird-nymph. "We can't leave him in there, sad and alone".

And so it was that our young nymphs formed a plan. The bird nymph flew off, collecting the seeds from as many trees as he could find. Upon finding one he would fly back and drop it near the lonely old oak. Another of the nymphs would hop into the seed, and within no time a shoot would break through the soil. After a while a fine collection of young trees had began to appear around the oak, their energetic rustling and chattering filling the air. Whenever a breeze came by, they would bend their flexible trunks, reaching their branches toward the oak and caressing its rough surface.

Other nymphs hopped into the brook, and when the sun shone down upon them they travelled up within the water droplets toward the clouds. In no time they were raining down upon the oak, drop after drop, soaking its leaves and branches, tracing the furrows of its trunk, and tickling its roots.

It was in this way that life was brought back to the oak. Having made his nest within its branches - not the most comfy of spots, but nest-worthy none-the-less - our bird nymph listened carefully day after day. To his relief he could no longer hear any weeping. Only silence.

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Monotheism & Polytheism

It's not Christian love that's conquered the world; it's not its sophisticated interpretations, sophisticated theology. It's successful because it mobilizes the will, and the will needs fundamentalism or it doesn't know what to do.

Fundamentalism serves the hero myth. It gives you fundamental principles - words, truths, directions. It builds a strong ego. It is American psychology. No Hermes, no Dionysus, no Aphrodite in it at all. Utterly monotheistic because there is only one meaning, one reading of the text - like, for instance, the one meaning of Christ's suffering.

[...] anything that doesn't fit within that unity is split, or schizoid, a hysterical complex or autonomous or whatever else, and you have lost the fact that you are a bundle of many levels, people, noises, impulses, trends, personalities, possibilities and no two days are the same and no two voices are the same and one is a loose structure of many beings - Jung called them complexes.

But as long as one lives in the myth of unity one is forced into commanding the psyche to obey the principle of unity and the unifier, the ego, creating this monstrous Western ego, which then has to be subdued by all kinds of Christian virtues: tolerance, self-control, patience, humility, charity, obedience, poverty ... all this huge ascetic structure to deal with the Monster which is created by its own dogma!

So that the repression which Freud placed at the basis of our relation with the unconscious is nothing more than the Christian myth at work in us each, cutting us off from our innate polytheistic imagination and renaming it, the unconscious.

[James Hillman]
Inter Views, p.81-2

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It is conventionally held that ancient polytheistic humanism collapsed because it was unrealistic, a highly artificial system. But there is a sense in which it was realistic, as we should expect in any religion springing from Greek origins.

The gods on Olympus at least represented actual human attributes, or varying and often conflicting archetypal human tendencies; while the Hebraic system - the uniting of desirable (moralistic) human attributes into one god - was a highly artificial procedure.

In many ways the Greek system is the more rational and intelligent; which perhaps explains why it has been the less appealing. The Hebrew god is a creation of man; and the Greek gods are a reflection of him.

Nonetheless, periods of history come when it seems clear which serves the general need best. Monotheism saw man through the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman empire; but today the benevolent scepticism of humanism seems better suited to our situation.

[John Fowles]
The Aristos, p.114-15

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Only Playing


Daughter: Daddy, are these conversations serious?

Father: Certainly they are.

D: They're not a sort of game that you play with me?

F: God forbid ... but they are a sort of game that we play together.

D: Then they're not serious!

--

F: Suppose you tell me what you would understand by the words "serious" and a "game."

D: Well ... if you're ... I don't know.

F: If I am what?

D: I mean ... the conversations are serious for me, but if you are only playing a game ...

F: Steady now. Let's look at what is good and what is bad about "playing" and "games." First of all, I don't mind - not much - about winning or losing. When your questions put me in a tight spot, sure, I try a little harder to think straight and to say clearly what I mean. But I don't bluff and I don't set traps. There is no temptation to cheat.

D: That's just it. It's not serious to you. It's a game. People who cheat just don't know how to play. They treat a game as though it were serious.

F: But it is serious.

D: No, it isn't - not for you it isn't.

F: Because I don't even want to cheat?

D: Yes - partly that.

F: But do you want to cheat and bluff all the time?

D: No - of course not.

F: Well then?

D: Oh - Daddy - you'll never understand.

F: I guess I never will.

F: Look, I scored a sort of debating point just now by forcing you to admit that you don't want to cheat - and then I tied onto that admission the conclusion that therefore the conversations are not "serious" for you either. Was that a sort of cheating?

D: Yes - sort of.

F: I agree - I think it was. I'm sorry.

D: You see, Daddy - if I cheated or wanted to cheat, that would mean that I was only playing a game with you.

F: Yes, that makes sense.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('Metalogue: About Games and Being Serious'), p.14-15

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'[...] But there's no reason to be surprised if we can't convince the majority of people. They have never seen our words come true. They are used to carefully matched phrases, not the kind of spontaneous argument we are having now; and as to a man who will live up to our ideal of excellence and do his best to match it both in word and deed, and who rules a state as good as himself - that, surely, is a thing of which they've never seen a single instance.

[...] Nor have they heard enough free and fair discussion, which strains every nerve to discover the truth out of sheer desire for knowledge, and gives a wide berth to subtle tricks of argument whose only object is to make an effect or contest a point, whether in law-court or lecture-room.

[...] I think a lot of people fall under it quite unconsciously, and fail to see the difference between scoring points in a debate and arguing seriously. They are unable to draw the distinctions in kind needed for the discussion of a subject, and so get sidetracked into purely verbal contradiction; they aren't really arguing, but only scoring points.

[Plato]
The Republic (Penguin Classics Edition), p.163, 221-2

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