Going the Back Way

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Lately I have had a practice of hiking up a difficult mountain for the cardio benefits and then using the coming down time for spiritual wandering. Today I set off on my path upward but had ill-timed my ascent—a 20 something couple was also hiking up. I am a bit self-conscious (it’s the puffing and wheezing, really) and so was not enjoying having them behind me. And indeed, the girl barked at her male companion “where is your cardio!!” and pushed on past me, shooting me a disparaging look as she went. I rolled my eyes behind my sunglasses—then almost gagged. This girl would never be attacked by a bear or cougar; the amount of perfume she was wearing would stun any animal from 5 feet away. I held my breath and slowed down, waiting for the guy to pass me.

He did and I figured they would push on ahead of me and I would be free of them. Instead, he received a call on his cell phone, which he answered, and then proceeded to hike slowly, while loudly talking on his phone.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time he hung up his cell phone. “Now we are getting somewhere” I thought to myself. They would get on with it and leave me to my slower, wheezing ascent.

But no, now they had to stop and start taking selfies.

Okay, I realize this is common behavior in our culture. And it’s not limited to millenials. And, I should probably not even pay attention to it. But something about this couple clicked something in me and with a huff of irritation I veered off on a side trail and started hiking the mountain the less popular back way.

And it was glorious. The mall-perfume miasma of the girl was replaced by the gorgeous scent of warm pine needles and hot blackberries. The slanting light of the sun as it started to dip behind the mountain made the pale, late summer grass glow. And I saw something I had never noticed before—the path was glittering. For a second I thought someone had gotten crazy with glitter out in the woods, but no, a closer look revealed that it was likely mica flakes. And here and there were chunks of quartz stuck in the dried mud.

Indeed, it does pay to take the less trodden path.

Knocking…

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A friend recently wrote a great post about saying “yes”, and it got me to thinking about accepting, seeking and knocking. My own form of spirituality is most frequently practiced while wandering in natural areas. Doors have opened to me there of their own volition. But sometimes, a person has to knock. Is it always a good idea to knock on a door? It’s a gamble, isn’t it? And when we are talking elements, spirits and gods, who knows what may be behind the door—one thing is probably for sure, though. We may not know who or what is behind the door we knock on, but it is very likely that the entity knows who we are.

Lately, in a stretch of forest I frequent, I have heard knocking. And the creak of opening doors. In an outer sense, these sounds are probably woodpeckers and tree trunks in the wind. In an inner sense I feel it’s a call. A call to knock on some doors myself.

When Sh*t Gets (Un) Real

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“Shit just got real!”.

People often say that when something intense happens in their life. I always thought that was funny and kind of nonsensical. The way I look at it, when something intense and potentially life -changing happens, well, then, shit just got unreal. “Real” is your mundane, day-to day-living. When something crazy happens, you are thrown into a temporary state.

Shit just got liminal, in other words.

Whenever something nutty or intense happens to me, whether it be illness or getting a sudden amazing opportunity, I know that I am hitting the liminal target with a bull’s-eye. That target has a lot of potential, but also, a lot of pitfalls. Its a chaotic neutral state, a kind of misty, time-suspension zone. Day to day thoughts and actions aren’t going to apply. There can be a lot of joy, but also, a great deal of pain. Decisions will be made and new pathways will open, oftentimes whether a person wants it or not. These are the rites of passage that life, and the gods, throw at us.

Even if you are not a religious, mystical type, you will have these liminal moments and they will probably change you. If you are a mystical type, then these unreal moments open up a whole kaleidoscope of opportunities to interact with your gods and pathways. There is often an intensity and clarity that you will not have in your day-to-day dealings.

So, next time shit gets unreal, know you are in the liminal zone and that it will pass, but while you are there, you can really get some work done—and pass into the real with a new outlook.

Soul Cipher

I ran across this story about paper notebooks and how, although their place in society has changed somewhat, they still remain relevant in the digital age.  The author points out that for “digital natives” , “paper is a curiosity” and it draws some people for that reason. For those of us considered “dinosaurs”, we remember a time when everything was on paper and every artist or writer had paper notebooks. We dinosaurs cling to our paper notebook/sketchbooks out of nostalgia, but, increasingly, for privacy and sanity as well.

I met with a friend last night and over drinks, she drew out a small sketchbook filled with her wonderful line drawings. “I wanted you to see this” she said in hushed tones. “I showed them to another friend and he just kept saying I should put them on the internet”. She shook her head. “I can’t do that. They are mine!”

She is an astonishingly good artist, has exhibited publicly before, but also has expressed her continuing reticence to release her things to the Internet. “People will just screenshot them and next thing I know my drawings will end up on a shirt being sold from whoknowswhere. It’s a piece of me, so I can’t let that happen. And the only way to do it is to not upload them to the internet.”

And so just like that, the ubiquitous sketchbook/notebooks of the analog age have attained a more important part of something they already somewhat were — a personal grimoire of the spirit, of sorts.

Sure, you can keep notes on your various devices and make digital art and never show it to anyone—but human nature is strong and the temptation to just post it to the internet will always be there. From the other side, you can always take pictures/scan your work from your paper notebooks and then upload them—but that is probably less likely.  And, the benefit of using paper notebooks has been revealed in the concept of “desireable difficulty”, which is explained in the article I cited above. In short, the act of having to write something down in an analog fashion when doing something like taking notes, results in better learning and retention and enhanced creativity. Clearer perspective. A more relaxed state. As a woman interviewed in the article says “It’s this thing that is so intuitive. It’s between you and paper and a pen. It’s kind of meditative.”

I am convinced that the real cultural rebels of the future will not purposefully have much of a presence on the internet at all. It’s already starting to happen in dribs and drabs and it’s not all older people, either. We’ve had some 20 odd years of people just blaring out their lives and feelings in various social media—it’s like a great catharsis that had to happen, but now we get to move on. And, as the internet monetizes more and more and relies on the ever- present irritant of advertising and wilts under the pressure of government and corporate control,  some people will move on more quickly and thoroughly. The majority will still use social media, but there will be significant pockets of social-media-resisting people. And those people will be using the time they used to use on social media exploring their precious personal ciphers and sometimes sharing them with the people that matter most.

The Circle of Hollow Participation

I just finished Dave Eggers “The Circle”. This morning I listened to a story about how Google is changing their name—and how they have feelers into many aspects of our lives and our lives in the future. The new company name is supposedly “Alphabet”, a reference one commentator linked to Google’s desire to cover everything from A to Z.

Especially chilling, after having read “The Circle”.

“The Circle” does not require you to sift through hidden meanings—it is a bare-faced prediction of a future that is just around the corner. A future where a large, internet company will control every aspect of our lives, from large-scale issues, like politics, down to the micro aspects, the very way people spend each second of their days. After reading this book, words like “participation” and “transparency” take on new, ominous meanings. It is a world where a person can no longer choose what to share with the world and there is no space for solitude. It is a world where we are enslaved to an endless circle of hollow, time-sucking interactions—“smiles” and “frowns” in the book.

I had a little brush with this recently as the captains of the team I belong to on a commerce site sent out a memo to it’s members enforcing a mandatory commenting system. Since it is a team, I can understand the desire for more participation from its members—but mandatory commenting? How much time will be taken up with vapid comments, likes, etc, just so people can stay on the “team”?

In  “The Circle”, the central character, Mae, is taken to task soon after she is hired by the large internet company, about how much time she should be spending, in the eyes of the company, on mandatory social circles. She ends up having to stay for hours after work, adding useless comments, smiling and frowning on other comments, and answering pushy emails from social climbers, to meet the expectations of the company.

Mae accepts this, and other worse things, throughout the book, justifying it all as inevitable and as “worth it” for the benefits she perceives she is receiving. When the end comes, it comes with an absolute surrender to the company ideals that is terrifying.

Metahistory.org talks about two dystopian, futuristic novels “1984” by George Orwell and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. The author points out how Orwell may have gotten it wrong with his vision of grey, shuffling, chained masses forced into compliance. Instead, he thinks, we may be traveling towards the “Brave New World” vision where the masses, in essence, demand their own shackles through mass addiction (soma, in Brave New World). In my opinion, “The Circle”, which points out our society’s addiction to social media, illustrates this concept beautifully.

The Black Butterfly

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I recently returned from one of the great liminal zones—the Oregon Country Fair. Fairs and festivals have a long history of serving as a “space out of time”—a place where the rhythm of mundane, everyday life is suspended and turned upside down, and “real life” is left behind. I have often heard people say they wish they could live in that world all of the time. That wish, however, would destroy the basic idea of something like the Country Fair (or that other great liminal festival, Burning Man). The point is that it is temporary. Its liminality, and the often amazing things that happen within that space, is generated by its passing nature. Yes, you can bring some feelings and concepts with you back to the “real world”, but you can never live full-time in the Fair—that would obliterate its effect.

I have been attending/working at the Fair for years, and every year is different. Each year has its own revelations, its own lessons to teach, and they can be very intense.  Often there is a concept that its all rainbows and unicorns out at the Fair, but let me tell you, sometimes the unicorns have blood on their horns. This year, just a couple of weeks before the Fair, one of the core individuals in our Fair family died suddenly of a heart attack. He was young, in his early 40s. The news was jolting. Everyone dies, but somehow it is always a surprise when someone you know does. The shock of it followed us into the Fair and hung in the air. On the second day we were out there, I was taking a break in the back of the booth (we do food out there) when I saw a dark shadow enter the booth under the roof. For a moment I was taken aback—then I realized what it was. A huge black butterfly was flitting about inside the booth.  I pointed it out to my booth mate, a person who was very close to the individual who had died. The butterfly covered the entire footprint of the booth, taking its time, then fluttered out the way it came in.

Quite the omen, I must say. Butterflies have long been associated with the souls of the dead, and their passage to the under/otherworld. They are a classic and powerful liminal symbol. At the time that we saw it, no one expressed aloud the thought that it was our deceased friend. Later on however, the person who was closest to him spoke his name and said that the butterfly was him, checking in on us at the Fair. This is one of those experiences that is all the more crystalline for having occurred in the “space out of time”.

Edgework and Access to Everything

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I just finished Bradley Garrett’s book “Explore Everything—Place Hacking the City.”  Written partly as a straightforward account of his time spent “urban hacking” with extreme explorers, and partly in what I like to call “ivory tower speak” (he is a researcher at Oxford), the book is a very interesting look at the psychogeography of exploring areas of cities not usually visited by citizens. Garrett and the explorers start with predictable dereliction visits (abandoned buildings and the like) and ultimately advance to things like cracking security on construction sites, metros and even military areas, alienating themselves from other urban explorers in the process and bringing themselves to the attention of the “authorities”. The book ends with Mr Garrett being dragged off a plane flight in Britain and being detained, jailed and questioned. It’s a fascinating look at a subculture that seems to thrive on adrenaline and the ever pressing of boundaries.

The book is heavy on the ivory tower terms and one of the more fascinating moments comes near the end when Garrett is talking to an explorer, telling him how happy he, Garrett, was about having access to this culture and its experiences. The explorer retorted that Garrett himself had actually created this “culture” so that he could have something to write about. A very pointed encapsulation of the “anthropologist’s dilemma”. But not entirely accurate—there does seem to exist a culture amongst these extreme explorers. They have their own terminologies, heroes and legendary exploits and they share/compare their experiences across a variety of internet forums, and did so before Garrett came along. Still, you can see how Garrett’s involvement could viewed as a gentrification of sorts of a sub-cultural terrain.

Garrett doesn’t seem to try to tackle the possibility of a spiritual angle to extreme urban exploring, though he does mention the term “edgework” (coined first apparently by Hunter S Thompson). My feeling is that under the frankly macho posturing of the scene, there are probably some individuals who derive a spiritual benefit from these actions—extreme urban exploring smacks of a “Neverwhere” sort of hero’s journey.

20 some odd years ago, before widespread use of the internet and things like Facebook and Twitter, I had a brush with extreme exploring. A group of aquaintances came by and asked if I wanted to go to a “cool place”. It was down by the river, near a bridge. They brought candles. Turned out to be a large overflow sewer, where runoff is directed into the river.  We lit the candles and walked back, farther and farther. It seemed to take forever and I kept thinking that any moment a rush of water was going to come down the concrete tube and drown us. Finally we reached a square chamber, what my friends (many of whom were musicians) referred to as an “echo chamber”. We circled around it, singing and making noise. The experience is fresh in my memory over these many years and I do not need photos or Facebook to bring it back or to validate it. At the time I did not realize it fully, but looking back now I see it as an offering to the gods of the underworld. One that was, on my part at least, spontaneous, and the more powerful for it being so.  This is where the world of extreme urban exploring and my own world of spirituality through liminal spaces intersects—a use of place that is outside its usual mundane function,  a use that creates a portal of sorts to a different dimension, and an alternate reality. Whether a person is coming at it from the angle expressed in Garrett’s “Explore Everything”, or from a more spiritual position, it is a practice that can certainly be life-changing.