Fear Thee Well

(A version of this appeared in Sacred Fire magazine, Issue #7 as their Out of the Frying Pan column; it was titled Beyond the Culture of Fear: A Community Fire)

I was raised in a family that—even on good days—greets the world with trepidation. Although I cannot recall being given an explicit pre-natal orientation (“Welcome to Earth. Please watch your step! The inhabitants here are prone to wanton acts of violence. Your body is a biological time bomb which is waiting to be ravaged by viruses, bacteria, and/or a host of different cancers. The most basic law of terrestrial physics is: ‘There is always something very bad waiting to happen to you!’”), I seemed to have picked up the message nonetheless. For us, life is an all-too-brief dash through the great cosmic minefield.

To varying degrees, I suspect this is the kind of upbringing that many of us have had. And to judge from the news these days, this kind of wariness does look like very good preparation for the world we live in. For as we careen our way through the first decade of the 21st Century, there is a lot to keep one up at nights. Ever since the events of September 11th, 2001 it seems like our worst fears have been confirmed: We are a constant state of alertness for new terrorist attacks. The price of gasoline has more than doubled. The war in Iraq has become the quagmire for a new generation. The dollar has sunk to historic lows, and America is viewed with a great wariness—if not outright hostility–by much of the world. But the problems go beyond America and its PTSPD (Post-Traumatic Stress Policy Disorder) orientation to the rest of the world. If you factor in global warming, new and more virulent diseases, and dwindling natural resources, it begins to look as though my initial socialization to the world was naively optimistic.

This is certainly not the bright future that we were told to imagine for ourselves only a few decades ago. The immediate post-war years (And I mean World War II here, since it is getting hard to keep track of all the wars lately!) was a time when technology promised answers to every problem: We dreamt of living in mega-cities, flying our GM aerocar home after a few hours of work, stopping in our climate-controlled high-rise to throw some dirty clothes in a GE laundromatic (which would clean, iron, and fold each item), popping a gourmet Swanson freeze-dried dinner in the microwave and eating before heading off for a quick jaunt to visit friends on the other side of the continent. For a vacation, we saw ourselves traveling to a Sheraton resort on the moon or Mars to try our hand at low-gravity golf. Nuclear power would give us access to unlimited energy, and all the world—indeed the whole solar system—would cater to the trend-setting tastes of American consumerism. The only thing to fear in this corporate-sponsored techno-topia was to be out of style—i.e. not consuming fast enough.

But something happened along the way—perhaps starting with the Vietnam War and the social upheaval of the 1960’s, followed by Watergate, and the hard-nosed real-politik that began in the 1980’s. Corporations still hawk technology as the solution to all of our problems (“new and improved!”), but no longer have the temerity to look too far into the future. If Disneyland was to build a “Tomorrowland” which reflected our current Weltanschauung, it would appear more like a scene from “Bladerunner” or “The Matrix” than something from “The Jetsons.” Even as we gobble down Prozac and Viagra to keep ourselves “up,” even as we dream wildly about the promise of building better humans through genetic engineering and nano-technology, there is a pervasive sense that the future may not be so cheery; not to mention the sinking feeling that we may not be able to patent drugs fast enough to make it seem otherwise.

Now I have to be careful here, because of course not all of the world’s people have come anywhere close to realizing the modern western dream of high technology and consumerism. On a given day, the vast majority of the world’s peoples are still struggling to meet the most basic of needs. But here in the industrialized west, our way of life has become THE WAY, and despite signs to the contrary, the major economic and political institutions continue to promote this vision with an evangelical furor. Whatever doubts we harbor about the future, we seem unable to conceive of anything beyond technology and unlimited consumption to get us there. If anything, newly developed nations like India and China have the enthusiasm of recent converts: They too are beginning to shop until they drop.

To really understand what is behind all of this, you would have to go far back in time: Before the internet, television, and much earlier than the Industrial Revolution. You would have go to the very origins of human culture. For when our ancestors first developed the ability to use language, they also began to abstract from their immediate experience. We celebrate this “fall” in the story of Genesis, when Eve tempted Adam with the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Now we may have good reason to question the decidedly misogynistic tone of this story. Yet an important aspect of this biblical account still holds: With language and knowledge (the abstractions of the mind), we not only realized something called “nakedness.” That might have led to some interesting diversions if only it had stopped there!. But this also marked the beginning of a long love affair with our own thoughts. God did not have to cast us out of the Garden of Eden. We were already high-tailing our way out in search of better real estate. Suddenly “there” and “tomorrow” became more compelling than “here” and “now.”

For many eons, the heart wisdom of ancient traditions kept this tendency in check. We would periodically get lost in abstractions: Wondering perhaps if it was time to re-do the cave and “make a bolder décor statement.” But the rituals of our ancestors helped us to come to our senses before we fell too far down the rabbit hole created by our over-wrought minds. Before the mind took over the show, we lived much more in the rich immediacy of experience. This “blooming, buzzing, confusion” is also known as the realm of the heart. Through our hearts, we feel our connection to all things: To other people, to nature, and to Divine. From that place of deep wisdom, there is nothing to fear. We are never alone, and our essential spiritual nature is such that death is merely a transition. There is nothing to run away from, there is no threat that requires the great walls of civilization to shield and protect us. Everything is to be embraced—even the inevitable encounters with pain which are part of our mortality. And quieting the fear-driven chatter of the mind and getting us to this place of heart and acceptance is the path of all of the great spiritual traditions.

And yet as we began to cultivate crops and congregate in cities, we grew increasingly used to living amidst the constant din of our brains–our ideas about the world–and spent less time in the immediate experience of life. Even religion became a rather dry intellectual exercise: Witness Medieval monks pondering how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. And then not so very long ago came a profound turning point with the so-called “Age of Enlightenment.” Descartes coined its motto: “I think, therefore I am.” From then on, Mind dominated the scene in western culture. At first Divine was seen as a kind of “cosmic Mister Goodwrench” who set the universe in motion and stepped back to admire the handiwork. But it was not long before Divine was dropped from the picture entirely. Science and rationality became the new dominant religions. Life was no longer about finding one’s place in the Great Mystery. Rather, it was about being comfortable and entertained. Instead of a Stonehenge or a Chartres Cathedral, we came to revel in the Mall of the Americas and Las Vegas.

A Culture of the Mind is tantamount to a way of life driven by fear. The mind confronts the vicissitudes of life (Will it rain today? Will I have enough to eat? How can I avoid traffic on the commute to work? Will I earn enough this year? What if  get Ebola?) by trying to plan for a path of comfort. The mind craves ease and predictability. This is not to say that mind is the enemy. In proper balance with the heart, it serves a very important function: It keeps us out of danger. Without the mind, we would not bother to look both ways before crossing the road. We are indeed somewhat vulnerable, and with due deference to my upbringing, any parent must use mind and fear to teach their children to avoid situations that are truly harmful. And yet, without the counter-balancing wisdom of the heart, we are driven by fear. With the advent of the Age of Enlightenment and the marginalization of spiritual traditions and their heart wisdom, this became the state of affairs in the western world. Descartes could have just as easily said, “I think therefore I fear.” Or “I think and therefore I feel alone.” A perpetual War on Terror, gated communities, and virtual reality are all natural artifacts of a culture of mind and fear.

Unfortunately, this culture of fear underlies the whole political spectrum. While the Right may be shrill about terrorism and the “Axis of Evil,” the Left loves to conjure up images of environmental catastrophe and economic polarization. The New Agers simply “transcend” from the suffering, the turmoil, and the imbalance, or imagine that we have limitless freedom to program—using the mind of course--a whole different reality. The challenge is to face the current state of affairs without blinking: Confronting our personal and collective fears head-on. There are indeed increasing signs that our way of life is out of balance. But trying to create a political agenda from a “mobilization mentality” will only perpetuate the problem.

Many of us have been forced to begin groping for the path of heart by an unexpected turn of events: A loss of our employment, or the end of a long-standing relationship. Or for many of us, the turning point may come in the form of a major health crisis or even a brush with death. Some major disturbance in the otherwise well-planned trajectory of our lives can create a kind of opening for heart wisdom to break through. Whether we are facing a dramatic crisis or not, there are practical steps that we can take to help nurture our connection to this heart wisdom: Slowing down, beginning to spend more time in nature, and perhaps adopting practices like meditation or yoga to help quiet the mind. Many of us have important healing work to do—and we need the help of plant spirit medicine, shamanism or other deep healing modalities to get back into harmony and balance.

But an important aspect of beginning to build a healthy, more viable life is finding authentic community. This is not just a “virtual connection” whereby a lot of people are linked up via MySpace so that they can chat about their likes and dislikes. Rather, this is the kind of connection wherein people meet face to face, and they share important aspects of their lives with one another: Their hopes and triumphs, their failures and fears, and the joyful expression of their creativity—through music, dance, stories, poetry, and the like. The electronics can be useful, but the real heart of community comes through direct interaction: Breaking bread together, working on common projects, even gossiping or telling jokes. A real community--like a significant relationship--shares the most sacred and mundane of experiences in order to build trust and strengthen the bonds of connection. This is the kind of community where people can depend upon one another in times of need. This is also the kind of community that comes together to celebrate the important transitions in life: Birth, initiation into adulthood, partnership, parenting, elderhood, and death.

Over the years, many of us have been drawn into something called the Sacred Fire Community (SFC). It spawned this magazine, and it continues to give birth to a range or programs and projects. But the core of the Sacred Fire Community is helping our people to once again have the deep experience of Fire and heart. And the most concrete example of this effort is an ever-growing number of community fire gatherings around the world. This is an opportunity for people to meet in a safe heart-space, where they can share deeply about their lives, as they also enjoy the laughter and warmth that comes from connecting in a good way. The community fires use the offerings of a particular ancestral tradition—the Huichol people of the Mexican Sierras—to create this safe heart space. These fire gatherings are emblematic of everything which the Sacred Fire Community does: There are rites of passage for young men and young women, retreats for adult men and women, groups to support birthing and dying, and affiliated projects like the Blue Deer Center and of course this magazine. All are attempts to create space for the heart to be heard. All are part of our mission to foster a global community that rekindles our relationship to each other and the world through the universal and sacred spirit of fire.

Fire and heart have been supporting humans since the very beginning. And so there is nothing essentially new about the Sacred Fire Community. It is a recognition of something very old, something primal. It is the same kind of deep remembering that happens when people first come to a consecrated fire. Despite all of the fearful conditioning, despite the eons of history dominated by mind, those who come to the fire experience something primal and familiar. They sense the whisperings of the ancestors. For those of us who have been “brain-washed” by modernism and mind, a fire gathering offers a neutral space to begin hearing the voice of heart, tradition, and Fire.

This past summer, the Sacred Fire Community sponsored its first inter-spiritual conference in Upstate New York. The conference featured elders from various Native American, African, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. In many ways, the conference exemplified the whole purpose of the SFC: A kind of tradition to create space for all of the traditions. And yet it was easy to sense a kind of reserve or wariness on the part of the elders when we first gathered. After all, what did they really know about the SFC and its agenda? The first evening, we consecrated the fire in the Huichol tradition as the elders sat closest to the fire. And with that simple act, something began to shift: The elders and participants were welcomed. There was talk about a world out of balance, and the need for the wisdom of the elders to help chart our way through the challenges of the future. Over the next two days, the elders each offered a compelling sample of the wisdom from their respective traditions. There was sober talk about the state of the world. But there was also great laughter, ecstatic dancing around the fire, and by the end of the weekend a kind of joyful “fullness.” Along the way, there were signs that the ancestors themselves were present: Watching us. Encouraging us. This is what the Sacred Fire Community is all about.

The Culture of Fear is really the Culture of the Mind, and after thousands of years, it is quite pervasive and powerful. But it is also an increasingly rigid system which is straining to maintain itself. And like anything rigid, it is susceptible to cracking and ultimately crumbling apart. Even as social, political, and environmental problems seem more intractable, the cracks are allowing something new to come through—something so delicate and mysterious that it fails to get noticed by the talking heads or the Powers That Be. To borrow from Dickens, it is the best of times and the worst of times. Each one of us can play a very important role towards bringing harmony, sustainability to the world. And yet it is truly a time of great imbalance and suffering. We must acknowledge our individual and collective fears. And yet if we turn away from the hysterical warnings from all sides of the political spectrum and we begin to access the wisdom of Fire and heart, we will find that whatever lays ahead, we will thrive.