Medicine for wetiko

wetiko

Day before yesterday I was chatting with an old, close friend. She’s been dissatisfied with her life for a few years now and increasingly depressed about it because she can’t see the root cause, and therefore can’t see how to deal with it. It’s hard to watch, but there’s little I can do to help since her path isn’t mine. I can tell her about the practices that give me peace and joy and a sense of meaning, but they won’t work for her because she needs to find her own practices. But I have hope for this friend because there are already huge cracks in the old narrative of her life. I think she’s not quite ready to face the implications of that, but I think she’ll get there. I feel like my part is to get the thin end of the wedge into those cracks and give a little push.

I have been encouraging my friend (as I do everyone) to consider the possibility that depression is a natural early stage in the crumbling of one’s narrative, indeed it’s the only sane response at first. Actually, I think more often than not, what people feel at this stage is not so much depression per se as grief and a sense of heartsick impotence. The immediate instinct is to find medicine, but there is false medicine and true medicine. False medicine is an anaesthetic palliative of some sort, to numb the pain and quell the symptoms just enough to keep getting through your day as someone else’s human resource. That is slow-motion suicide. Big Pharma’s various emotional suppressants fall into this category, along with your alcohol, oxy, assorted Schedule 1 substances, porn (all too often), and consumption/hoarding. True medicine is waking up to wetiko reality even though it’s the scariest thing that can be imagined, and committing to staying awake. And then, in spite of it, choosing to spend every day in love, gratitude, awe, and ecstasy, and acting from there instead of from the fear. One does simply walk into Mordor, because there’s no other way.

I think this quote from one of Christina Pratt’s Why Shamanism Now? podcasts (unfortunately I don’t remember which one, so just listen to all of them), sums it up perfectly:

“If you want to call Trickster in, and that’s the only way to change the world, you’ve got to love it all, and give up your stories.”

So during our conversation, I opined that we live in a society so diseased, so collectively psychopathic, that its values are lies and slavery and our so-called “leaders” are effectively all evil. It’s Kali Yuga. But such times are the times that make heroes, and those of us who are aware can choose to start dreaming better. We Cassandras, the canaries in the coal mine, must put up with being branded lunatics, and still keep speaking our truths. Now is the time; today is the day. Start where you are. The good news is it’s up to us; the bad news is it’s up to us.

My friend said my worldview is dark. My roommate says that too.

I can’t deny my interior world is a little nuts, as I’m going through a rather sped-up initiation process (making up for lost time), which, if you have been there, you probably know is kind of like tripping balls 24/7. But goddamn, it’s beautiful. It’s gracious, it’s glorious, it’s ecstatic, it’s scary as hell sometimes, but it is anything but dark–if by dark you mean unduly cynical. If by dark you mean deep and vast and star-dazzled and mystical, well then, yeah, that’s a fair cop. I get many laughs and some tears from the irony that I probably enjoy more hours of pure bliss in a day with this “dark” worldview than my less cynical friends. But ever since I was a little kid, I have been a teller of unpopular truths. Why stop now?

Consider:

  1. There can never be equality in a socio-politico-economic system designed and predicated upon inequality. Our “leaders” are not only not our saviors, but insatiable wetiko pied pipers leading us deeper into danger. You have to be the change you want to see in the world, not vote for someone else to be it. Related to this: Resist the tyranny of lowered expectations. When you’re in a shithole, stop digging. Stop opting for the least worst and start supporting only what really aligns with your values.
  2. Consume less and think small. Maybe some source of unlimited renewable energy will be found/invented; I’m not holding my breath. We’ve been promised that some magical technological bullet was just around the corner, and for the past 50+ years, as far as I can tell all we have gotten is fancier toys and some increased convenience. That’s wetiko thinking. Whether such renewables are found or not, we need to start living as if the planet’s resources are as finite as they seem. Also, stop identifying with bullshit abstractions like nations or trans-national globalization and start identifying with your local community. Is progress real? I’m highly skeptical, but what is certain is that we have a hell of a lot of remedial work to do before we find out.
  3. Abandon the farce of philosophical materialism. Get right with the spirits. And for that matter all the other beings around us, whom we need to start recognizing not only as sentient, but as kin.
  4. Love it all and give up your stories. Dream lucidly. A heart filled with gratitude and love is the only medicine against wetiko psychopathy. From both permaculture and human history we learn that edges are the places of greatest abundance, diversity, and creativity–make room for the Tricksters there so someone else doesn’t do it for you.

These are my provisional prescriptions, and pretty much the point of everything I find myself saying these days. This is the advice I’d give my friend; I’m not sure she’s ready to hear it, but what the hell, maybe I will anyway. Do these sound “weird,” “dark,” or “cynical”? They seem pretty optimistic to me.

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Salt and spirits

I just got around to Gordon’s interview with Joshua Cutchin on a Rune Soup podcast from last month. It’s pretty interesting (I mean, food, right?) but it got me thinking again about an issue that has always perplexed me: What’s the deal with salt and spirits?

From around minute 33 to 34 Gordon and Cutchin discuss salt in the context of faery food–or rather, the absence of salt.

shinto-offerings
Shinto offerings. The salt, rice, rice wine, and water are in the white vessels in the back row; the salt is in a little conical pile.

From what I know (and I’m not an expert, just spitballing here) it seems to be a widespread belief in European cultures–at the very least in northwestern Europe–that faeries/spirits are repelled by salt. So don’t give them salt as an offering unless you want them to bugger off. I have heard the same argument made about ancestor spirits, but by contrast, I’ve never heard that deities are bothered by salt; and in fact, some traditions use salt to purify before approaching a deity (I’m thinking of khernips here).

But I’ve always been a bit dubious about that because in Shinto salt is one of the essential offerings (along with sake, uncooked rice, and water) for both kami and ancestors. These four offerings are considered the essential foodstuffs in Shinto–the four elements of food, as it were–so while other things can also be offered, you cannot omit these four.

Salt, rice, rice wine, and water are also ritually pure, as emphasized by their white/transparent color. Purity vs. pollution is a huge deal in Shinto, and spirits are pure, so the offerings must also be pure, and the offerer must purify themself ritually before offering. Salt is considered purificatory and apotropaic in Japanese culture just as much as it is in Europe; in fact if this isn’t a human universal it is about as close to it as we get.

Now of course it’s easy to say, well, kami aren’t the same as faeries, and that’s true as far as it goes; but there is massive overlap between the two domains, and cultural differences notwithstanding, human ancestors are human ancestors. I want to know why kami and faeries, Japanese ancestors and European ancestors ostensibly have opposite attitudes toward salt.

  • Are there cultural differences on the other side?
  • Is this purely a human scheme imposed on the spirits, which is actually irrelevant to them?
  • Or does this reflect different modes of human interaction with spirits?
mori-shio
Mori-shio is salt placed outside the doorways of homes and businesses to repel bad luck, etc.

So both the Japanese and Europeans are agreed that salt is apotropaic. Kami and Japanese ancestors not only aren’t dispelled by salt, they seem to have some analogical kinship with it as pure beings/things. Yet faeries and European ancestors are dispelled by salt. This would seem to suggest faeries/Euro ancestors belong to a class of potentially dangerous or impure beings subject to the apotropaism of salt. They lack that analogical kinship with salt. Of course the folklore agrees that faeries are indeed potentially dangerous, but then so are kami. Does this reflect a difference in human attitudes to safe spirit contact?

Kami is kind of a catch-all term for spiritual beings that are not human, from giant powers of the land like volcanoes and the ocean, to pan-Japanese deities (at least, as close to the Western concept of deity as you’ll find in Japan) like Inari or Tenjin, to local spirits that behave pretty much exactly like faeries do in Europe. One difference between kami and faeries (as I provisionally understand it) is that whereas all faeries are tricky and temperamental, though some are basically good (i.e., well-disposed to humans) and others are bad (ill-disposed to humans), every kami or human ancestor has both a “rough” (aramitama) and a “gentle” (nigimitama) soul. One village’s protective kami can be the next village’s monster or plague demon. So whether a kami is dangerous or not depends to a large extent on the perspective of the humans involved with it and the relationship that has been cultivated.

Some accounts say that a kami first appears in its aramitama guise and must be pacified to reveal its nigimitama nature. (This reminds me of what the fox says in The Little Prince, viz. that he won’t play with the prince until the prince takes the time to establish a bond of friendship.) Does salt perhaps banish the aramitama while having no effect on the nigimitama?

Salt is a biological necessity for humans and many other animals, which is reflected in its primacy as one of the four basic Shinto foodstuffs. In other words, Shinto offerings provide the spirits (including spirits of the dead) with the same sustenance as living humans take. If the idea behind offerings is to give something of great importance to humans/the living, salt makes sense. Does the avoidance of salt for faeries and ancestors in Europe reflect a different attitude toward proper nourishment of the dead/non-embodied? It is certainly not the case that the living and dead/non-embodied require completely different foods, since many faeries seem to like things like milk, alcohol, honey, etc. Everyone seems to appreciate water and booze.

I don’t have answers to these questions but would be curious to hear of your experiences. In my own dealings with spirits, none of them has had any aversion to salt as an offering. But as I write that, I realize that none of the spirits to whom I have offered salt is a European faery-type being* or a human ancestor (though I have given food cooked with salt to my ancestors, and didn’t notice any adverse effects).

*Unless Emma Wilby is right about cunning persons’ familiars being faeries (I find her argument persuasive), because that would suggest that rather than referring to a specific type of being, faery in English, or sidh(e) in Gaelic, or Tylwyth Teg in Welsh, are potentially as much catch-all terms for spirits as kami is in Japanese. Wilby thinks that the faery faith in Britain retained shamanic elements from earlier times, in practice if not in doctrine; and that the familiars witches consulted were, individually, either spirits of the dead or faeries (often spirits of the dead living among the faeries, according to testimony). In other words they are the same general type of beings that shamans deal with, i.e., “spirits” sensu lato. And if that is how you define faery, then I have offered salt to faeries and they didn’t mind at all.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

The World's End

After talking about Rashomon in my last post I thought it would be appropriate to discuss another movie that’s been on my mind lately. So I was reading this post over at The Secret Sun, and usually I don’t read the comments but I happened to be skimming them. Someone mentioned they’d recently watched the third installment of the Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, but said they didn’t get the ending. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out so I decided to re-watch it.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

It’s no secret the Cornetto Trilogy films are, among other things, about Englishness in all its folly and glory. They’re not subtle about it. But unusually for pop culture, there are more layers of symbolism than are evident upon first viewing, particularly in Hot Fuzz and TWE. A lot of people seem to hate on TWE but story-wise, it’s the most complex and most pointed of all the Trilogy.

The ending and the point of the movie seem pretty obvious to me, but in fairness I must admit with embarrassment that when TWE came out, I completely missed the Arthurian parody/homage even though they specifically mention it in the dialogue (obviously I didn’t read any of the reviews like this one, either). The movie came out in 2013 and it turns out to have been really prescient in light of Brexit–I mean, if you had watched this film right before the vote you would have been able to predict which way it would go. Indeed you might say that re-watching TWE was kind of a personal sync for me in light of, oh, everything that has happened on the global and European stages this year, and indeed Chris Knowles’ speculations in that very Secret Sun post that prompted the re-watch in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic plot of TWE is about a group of men who decide to re-attempt an epic pub crawl they failed to complete 20ish years ago. This project is at the behest of their dissolute but charismatic man-child/leader, Gary King. In the process they discover an alien colonization in the old hometown, which they defeat at the cost of all civilization on Earth.

The Matter of Britain

The Arthurian parody/homage is evident first in the characters’ surnames: (Gary) King, (Steve) Prince, (Oliver) Chamberlain, (Andy) Knightly, and (Peter) Page. They are on a quest to get in their cups, and what is the Holy Grail if not a cup? (Its usual depiction in Arthurian stories.) You can find lots of other little nods but I’ll stick to the main points.

The alien colonization, which has resulted in the imposition of a homogenized, globalized sameness–or “Starbucking,” as the characters call it–on the local culture, is akin to the Romanization of Britain. Sure, it’s clean and peaceful and superficially pleasant (but other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?!), but there’s no depth or color or diversity. Just as Tacitus said of the Romans, these aliens “create a desert and call it peace.”

Gary doesn’t defeat the aliens so much as severely disappoint them. His drunken give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death bombast is the final straw that convinces them humans are just not worth the trouble, barbarians who can never really be civilized. So they withdraw, leaving behind a shambles and ushering in the Dark Ages.

Everyone settles down into a less-civilized, more chaotic, but indeed more free, form of their earlier lives. Steve and Sam finally get together; Andy and his wife repair their marriage and “[go] organic in a big way”; the original Peter and Oliver have been killed, but their Romanized alien android clones carry on in their places. Gary assembles a band of decommissioned Roman soldiers androids and goes around pacifying the unruly countryside.

So on this level, TWE is a loving poke at the mythic roots of Britishness itself. It’s interesting that whoever created this aspect of the story chose to portray a more historically-probable version of the Arthurian mythos, with Arthur as a Dark Ages warlord dealing with internal political and cultural divisions rather than a medieval monarch ruling over a chivalrous Camelot or a proto-Welsh chief defending Britain from Saxon invaders. It’s probably a pretty accurate view, albeit a lighthearted one, of post-Roman Britain. It was also a smart way to frame the narrative since it allowed its juxtaposition with the other story-within-the-story…

We want to be free to do want we want to do!

…which basically is “Britons will never be globalized.” I say “Britons” here because while Hot Fuzz is very much about the English, the Arthurian elements pull TWE out to a slightly wider scale. It’s still, in many ways, a very English view of Britishness, but it is a bit more inclusive.

At this level we have the aliens–an interplanetary “network” of right-thinking races joined together for the greater good–having decided that humans are finally worthy of joining. They have tried to make the integration as unobtrusive and seamless as possible by starting with a small English town; residents are given the option of conforming with the blah sameyness in return for safety and technological progress, or being killed, mulched, and replaced with android clones. In a particularly ironic twist, they even take people’s DNA from that most cherished icon of British life, a pint of ale down’t pub.

When Gary and his friends unwittingly uncover the aliens and fight them, the Network gives Gary, Steve, and Andy an audience. They explain the plan and all its “benefits” (“you are children and you require guidance”) but Gary demands that humans be free to do what we want any old time. The aliens give up on us and depart, destroying all our technology and ushering in the apocalypse as described above.

This part of the story portrays Britons as so passionate about their sovereignty and uniqueness that they will literally destroy themselves, and possibly everyone else, to defend them (“we’re more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could ever imagine”). Even if the majority of the UK were happy to belong to the European Union Network, even if it brought real benefits to many, even if the tipping point were some cack-brained numpty acting out of entirely stupid and self-serving reasons, ultimately the British will prove un-globalizable, un-Starbuckable. And so Britain might be the thin end of the wedge that spells the end of globalization (and maybe all civilization). See what I mean about Brexit?

out of order

It’s interesting that a number of people seem to find TWE sad. I think the ending is extremely optimistic. It holds out the hope that humans will reject the frictionless samey desert-called-peace and learn again to treasure that local ale with the surprisingly fruity note that lingers on the tongue; and that no matter how badly we fuck up, we keep on being stupidly, beautifully, chaotically creative. And kind of noble sometimes, for all our barbarity.

As Gordon White has been at pains to point out for some time, Starbucking is a very real phenomenon and we owe much of it to Silicon Valley’s vision of a “frictionless” “world without sin.” Inevitably there are financial and political elites encouraging this for their own reasons (ahem TPP/TTIP), but I would suggest that Google and Facebook algorithms designed to feed our old searches back to us, drawing the noose of parochialism and confirmation bias ever tighter–the Starbucking of our minds and hearts–is a more immediate threat. We can get strawberries in winter, mid-century quasi-industrial Scandinavian minimalism from Malaysia to Milan, and money from a plastic card. All wrapped up in a nice little package of scientistic materialism and faith in Progress. It’s just so dang comfortable–now “aesthetic homogeneity is a product that users are coming to demand” (source)–that it probably will take a self-destructive idiot of the Gary King variety blowing us all to kingdom come to reset us.

We haven’t left the Tricksters much else to work with, after all.