89 Chapters
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A Private History of Awe

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

When I rise from meditation each morning, I gaze through an uncurtained window at the waking world, and I bow. The gesture is plain enough—hands drawn to my chest, palms pressed together, a slight bend at the waist—but its meaning is elusive. If you asked me to explain my little ritual, to say whom or what I honor with my bow, I would be hard put to answer.

It’s a question I ask myself with increasing urgency as the years run by. The urgency is not the same as I felt at the age of ten or fifteen, when I prayed fervently each night, having been persuaded by preachers and Sunday School teachers that there was one and only one combination to the door opening from life into immortality. Nor is it the urgency I felt in my twenties, when the Vietnam War pressed me down to the roots of conscience as I struggled to choose between going into battle, exile, or jail. Nor is it the urgency I felt during my thirties and forties, when my children, still young, looked to me for guidance about ultimate things.

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Seven: The Many Faces of Divination

Felicitas D. Goodman Indiana University Press ePub

Divining is as old as humanity. The hunters developed it as a ritual to discover the location of game, a matter of vital importance to them. As other types of societies arose, divination was adapted to the changing circumstances, but it continued to serve important societal goals. It is regrettable that in the Western world divination has been decried as irrational, antirational, or a fraud perpetrated on the ignorant and the superstitious, because divination is not that at all. It is soothsaying, that is, revealing the truth. What the diviner does is uncover to his clients some hidden truth about themselves, or about what is going on around them. There are certainly situations in everyone’s life where such insights could be of overriding importance. This is why within and outside the Western orbit, divining continues to play an important role, exposing that which is hidden, soothing anxiety, and aiding in decision making.

In Western-type societies, ours among them, quasi-mechanical means such as tarot cards are frequently employed for “fortunetelling.” However, the repository of much of divinatory knowledge is the alternate reality, and access to that treasure trove can best be gained in trance, and in the appropriate posture.

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Honoring the Ordinary

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

For years, I could ignore the charges raised against the memoir, just as I could ignore the charges raised against burglary, because I had no intention of committing either offense. But then the circumstances of my life and the sad state of my country prompted me to write a book called A Private History of Awe, which I thought of as an extended essay about my lifelong spiritual search, but which my editor informed me was, indeed, a memoir. When the book was published in 2006, it bore that label on the jacket for all to see. And so, having joined the suspect company of memoirists, I began to take a personal interest in the accusations leveled against this literary form.

The most common accusations often appear in the guise of two blunt questions: How could you write a whole book about yourself? And how much of it did you make up? The questioners assume that a memoir must be an exercise in narcissism, and that it is likely to be dishonest to boot. One can easily find published examples that would justify either suspicion. There has never been a shortage of egotists or frauds, so it’s no wonder that some of them compose and peddle books. Although these two human failings often go together, for the sake of clarity I’m going to separate them, speaking first about the dangers of deceit and then about the dangers of narcissism.

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Staying Put

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

Two friends arrived at our house for supper one May evening along with the first rumblings of thunder. As my wife, Ruth, and I sat talking with them on our front porch, we had to keep raising our voices a notch to make ourselves heard above the gathering storm. The birds, more discreet, had already hushed. The huge elm beside our door began to sway, limbs creaking, leaves hissing. Black sponges of clouds blotted up the light, fooling the street lamps into coming on early. Above the trees and rooftops, the murky southern sky crackled with lightning. Now and again we heard the pop of a transformer as a bolt struck the power lines in our neighborhood. The pulses of thunder came faster and faster, until they merged into a continuous roar.

We gave up on talking. The four of us, all midwesterners teethed on thunderstorms, sat down there on the porch to our meal of lentil soup, cheddar cheese, bread warm from the oven, sliced apples and strawberries. We were lifting the first spoonfuls to our mouths when a stroke of lightning burst so nearby that it seemed to suck away the air, and the lights flickered out, plunging the whole street into darkness.

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One: The Call of the Old People

Felicitas D. Goodman Indiana University Press ePub

On the eve of my twelfth birthday I had a severe headache, and it startled me, for I had never had that kind of a headache before. The next morning, I bled for the first time. I went to my mother, and she showed me what to do. There was great trust between us, and because she was not upset, I was not either. When the shock came, it was in a different guise. My mother took a piece of chalk and drew a little cross on the bedroom door. “This means,” she said, “that we now have an adult daughter in our house.” I puzzled over what that might mean—sex education had not been invented yet—but did not ask her. I always kept the most disquieting questions to myself.

Very soon I discovered all on my own what being an adult apparently meant, and confided it to my diary: “The magic time is over.” For all of a sudden and without the slightest warning, I realized that I could no longer effortlessly call up what in my terms was magic: that change in me that was so deliciously exciting and as if I were opening a door, imparting a special hue to whatever I chose. I noticed the curious impediment first with the fresh, crunchy snow which fell right after my birthday. It was nice, but I could not make it glow. Bewildered, I began paying more attention to my seeming disability. The orange glow of dawn streaming through the bedroom window was the same as before; so was the smell of the horses on the market. But I had changed.

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Looking at Women

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

On that sizzling July afternoon, the girl who crossed at the stoplight in front of our car looked, as my mother would say, as though she had been poured into her pink shorts. The girl’s matching pink halter bared her stomach and clung to her nubbin breasts, leaving little to the imagination, as my mother would also say. Until that moment, it had never made any difference to me how much or little a girl’s clothing revealed, for my imagination had been entirely devoted to other mysteries. I was eleven. The girl was about fourteen, the age of my buddy Norman who lounged in the back seat with me. Staring after her, Norman elbowed me in the ribs and murmured, “Check out that chassis.”

His mother glared around from the driver’s seat. “Hush your mouth.”

“I was talking about that sweet Chevy,” said Norman, pointing out a souped-up jalopy at the curb.

“I know what you were talking about,” his mother snapped.

No doubt she did know, since mothers could read minds, but at first I myself did not have a clue. Chassis? I knew what it meant for a car, an airplane, a radio, or even a cannon to have a chassis. But could a girl have one as well? I glanced after the retreating figure, and suddenly noticed with a sympathetic twitching in my belly the way her long raven ponytail swayed in rhythm to her walk and the way her fanny jostled in those pink shorts. In July’s dazzle of sun, her swinging legs and arms beamed at me a semaphore I could almost read.

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The Singular First Person

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

The first soapbox orator I ever saw was haranguing a crowd beside the Greyhound station in Providence, Rhode Island, about the evils of fluoridated water. What the man stood on was actually an up-turned milk crate, all the genuine soapboxes presumably having been snapped up by antique dealers. He wore an orange plaid sport coat and matching bow tie and held aloft a bottle filled with mossy green liquid. I don’t remember the details of his spiel, except his warning that fluoride was an invention of the Communists designed to weaken our bones and thereby make us pushovers for a Red invasion. What amazed me, as a tongue-tied kid of seventeen newly arrived in the city from the boondocks, was not his message but his courage in delivering it to a mob of strangers. I figured it would have been easier for me to jump straight over the Greyhound station than to stand there on that milk crate and utter my thoughts.

To this day, when I read or when I compose one of those curious monologues we call the personal essay, I often think of that soapbox orator. Nobody had asked him for his two cents’ worth, but there he was declaring it with all the eloquence he could muster. The essay, although enacted in private, is no less arrogant a performance. Unlike novelists and playwrights, who lurk behind the scenes while distracting our attention with the puppet show of imaginary characters; unlike scholars and journalists, who quote the opinions of others and shelter behind the hedges of neutrality, the essayist has nowhere to hide. While the poet can lean back on a several-thousand-year-old legacy of ecstatic speech, the essayist inherits a much briefer and skimpier tradition. The poet is allowed to quit after a few lines, but the essayist must hold our attention for pages and pages. It is a brash and foolhardy form, this one-man or one-woman circus, which relies on the tricks of anecdote, conjecture, memory, and wit to enthrall us.

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Six: The Fifth Limb: Withdrawal of the Senses (Pratyahara)

Showkeir, Maren S. Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

The world within and the world without are
two entirely separate realities.
The external world dissipates energy,
but the internal world showers blessings
that fill the vacuum created by the world
.

Swami Rama

 

In the meditation hall, where hundreds of people sit in reflective silence, a woman begins to cry. The soft gulps of emotion soon escalate into deep, piercing sobs. The room begins to vibrate with bright tension as the outburst diverts others from their inward journeys, an unwitting and unwilling audience to the woman’s sensational drama. After a few moments, the person assigned to “hold space” for those meditating quietly but firmly says, “Please. Be quiet.”

Almost immediately, she is, and the room melts into silence.

Pratyahara combines the Sanskrit words prati, meaning against or away, and ahara, translated as food. This is a practice for gaining mastery over your senses and helps to develop the peaceful mind needed to achieve a deep, meditative state. Like the physical postures and breathing (asana and pranayama), it is a stepping stone. Many masters say that pratyahara is the most neglected limb of yoga, and yet it cannot be skipped on the way to meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi). In the Heart of Yoga, T. K. V. Desikachar says pratyahara is when “our senses stop living off the things that stimulate.” In Western society, it is a particularly challenging practice, since our environment has evolved into a state of perpetual sensory overload. David Frawley, founding director of the American Institute for Vedic Studies, says, “Pratyahara is the key between the outer and inner aspects of yoga. It shows us how to move from one to the other.”

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Speaking for the Land

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

At the dedication ceremony for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in June 1934, the pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold began his remarks by declaring: “For twenty centuries and longer, all civilized thought has rested upon one basic premise: that it is the destiny of man to exploit and enslave the earth. The biblical injunction to ‘go forth and multiply’ is merely one of many dogmas which imply this attitude of philosophical imperialism.”

Leopold was not shy about making such grand claims, especially when, as in this brief talk, he wished to distill a complex argument into a few words. One could cite many examples of “civilized thought,” including the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American cultures, that do not advocate enslavement of the Earth. And one could cite biblical injunctions that urge us to be caretakers rather than exploiters of the creation. Still, there was ample evidence in Leopold’s time that the majority of his fellow citizens regarded the Earth as purely a source of raw materials, to be mined, dammed, deforested, plowed, paved, and otherwise manipulated to suit human needs, without regard for the needs of other species and with scant regard for the needs of future generations. This attitude of “philosophical imperialism,” which wrought so much damage in the Dust Bowl years, remains powerful in our day, and is now wreaking havoc on a global scale.

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Mountain Music

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

On a June morning high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, snowy peaks rose before me like the promise of a world without grief. A creek brimful of meltwater roiled along to my left, and to my right an aspen grove shimmered with freshly minted leaves. Bluebirds kept darting in and out of holes in the aspen trunks. Butterflies flickered beside every puddle, tasting the succulent mud. Sun glazed the new grass and licked a silver sheen along the boughs of pines.

With all of that to look at, I gazed instead at my son’s broad back, as he stalked away from me up the trail. Sweat had darkened his gray T-shirt in patches the color of bruises. His shoulders were stiff with anger that would weight his tongue and keep his face turned from me for hours. Anger also made him quicken his stride, gear after gear, until I could no longer keep up. I had forty-nine years on my legs and heart and lungs, while Jesse had only seventeen on his. My left foot ached from old bone breaks and my right knee creaked from recent surgery. Used to breathing among the low muggy hills of Indiana, I was gasping up here in the alpine air, a mile and a half above sea level. Jesse would not stop, would not even slow down unless I asked; and I was in no mood to ask. So I slumped against a boulder beside the trail and let him rush on ahead.

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Chapter 9. The City Dwellers

Felicitas D. Goodman Indiana University Press ePub

Humans have lived in cities almost as long as they have in villages. But cities have probably been different from villages from the start. Since this point may not be generally accepted, and since what happens with respect to religious behavior in the city as the last of the human adaptations to emerge is of special interest to us as urbanites, I will include some references to ancient cities here as well. The difficulty is, of course, that no outsider, such as a foreign anthropologist, did any participant observation in the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, and what written records we have are for the most part boastings of the rulers, so I cannot quote any ethnographic material. But historians have made some educated guesses, which might be at least of some value within a comparative framework. We are better off with ancient Rome, where we have a wealth of manuscripts, political speeches, essays, personal letters, and literary creations that give us a pretty good idea about those topics that interest us here.

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A Maya Whistle

Felicitas D. Goodman Indiana University Press ePub

In tomb 23 on the Rio Azul in Guatemala, archeologists came across a figurine representing a young man (pl. 65). He is sitting cross-legged and has his arms folded over his chest. The posture is also seen in a warrior from a classical Maya site at Jaina, on the western coast of the peninsula of Yucatán. Two features, however, distinguish the Rio Azul figurine from the Jaina one. The man from the Rio Azul has his tongue between his lips, and the figurine is a whistle.

When we did the posture for the first time in Cuyamungue in the summer of 1986, one participant was advised to heal a split in her body, another one was to guard something, and Isi was told, rather severely, “If you don’t have any questions now, come back when you do.” Although there were also other kinds of visions, of a hammock, of finely decorated pots, “as if from Mimbres,” of potsherds scattered about, we still decided mainly because of Isi’s report that the posture was intended for divining. However, when we did the posture once more in Columbus in November 1986 with a rather large group, Belinda was informed emphatically that divination was not what the Spirits had in mind: “No—that won’t happen here.”

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Mind in the Forest

Scott Russell Sanders Indiana University Press ePub

I touch trees, as others might stroke the fenders of automobiles or finger silk I fabrics or fondle cats. Trees do not purr, do not flatter, do not inspire a craving for ownership or power. They stand their ground, immune to merely human urges. Saplings yield under the weight of a hand and then spring back when the hand lifts away, but mature trees accept one’s touch without so much as a shiver. While I am drawn to all ages and kinds, from maple sprouts barely tall enough to hold their leaves off the ground to towering sequoias with their crowns wreathed in fog, I am especially drawn to the ancient, battered ones, the survivors.

Recently I spent a week in the company of ancient trees. The season was October and the site was the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, a 15,800-acre research area defined by the drainage basin of Lookout Creek, within Willamette National Forest, on the western slope of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. It’s a wet place. At higher elevations, annual precipitation averages 140 inches, and even the lower elevations receive 90 inches, twice the amount that falls on my well-watered home region of southern Indiana. Back in Indiana the trees are hardwoods—maples and beeches and oaks, hickories and sycamores—and few are allowed to grow for as long as a century without being felled by ax or saw. Here in Andrews Forest, the ruling trees are Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars, and Pacific yews, the oldest of them ranging in age from five hundred to eight hundred years, veterans of countless fires, windstorms, landslides, insect infestations, and floods.

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Ten: Changing Shape—The Shimmering Game

Felicitas D. Goodman Indiana University Press ePub

In a tale of Rabelaisian abandon related by Indian fishermen of the Northwest Coast,1 their culture hero, the Raven, changes himself into a fisherman in order to make merry with the latter’s wife. When the fisherman unexpectedly returns and begins beating the intruder into a pulp, the Raven is constrained to revert to his original shape. The incensed husband ties him up and throws him into the pit of the outhouse. But the Raven, being immortal, eventually frees himself of his bonds and lives to see another day and more adventures of a similar nature.

Traces of such “softness,” as one anthropologist calls it,2 of the boundaries between humans and animals, when matters were in a state of flux between the species, are all about. Egyptian and Celtic and Hindu gods have animal heads or shapes. Echoes of the same tradition abound in the myths of every society of the world. They are known among the Australian aborigines and on the other end of the spectrum among the nineteenth-century Germans who were the consultants of the Grimm Brothers. And they are, of course, equally familiar to the Indian societies of our continent. There is a story current among the same Indian fishermen of the Northwest Coast, according to which a hunter once heard laughter coming from a cave. When he sneaked up to the entrance and peeked in, there were the animals hilariously playing at turning into people. In fact, the Haida Indians of the region recount that in those early times animals used to have both human and animal forms. As the Navajo singers put it, “In those times all the animals were like people. The four-footed beasts, the flying birds, the coiling snakes, and the crawling insects behaved the way that earth-surface people who occupy the world today behave” (Zolbrod 1984:98).

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Four: The Third Limb: Postures (Asana)

Showkeir, Maren S. Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

You must learn to be still in the midst of activity
and to be vibrantly alive in repose
.

Indira Gandhi

 

In the last stage of my journalism career, I was lucky enough to work for a newspaper that provided space in the office building for a weekly, hour-long yoga class and paid for a teacher. At 6 P.M. on Tuesday evenings, a dozen or so of us met in a designated conference room, then moved the furniture to create space for our mats.

The class was always in danger of being canceled if our numbers dropped too low. When I would troll my coworkers to look for recruits, I always emphasized the physical and mental benefits of practicing yoga postures. Knowing they were a cynical bunch, I would add, “Mark [Roberts, our teacher] sometimes talks a little woo-woo, but you don’t really have to pay attention to that part. Just let it wash over you.”

In actuality, I had no idea how thoroughly I was being soaked. I loved listening to Mark, most especially when he prepared us for savasana. He used exotic terms that I didn’t fully understand, such as pranayama and pratyahara and samadhi. The strange words fascinated me.

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