The Waste Land

 

From time to time, when my mind is not occupied by this, that or the other, my awareness flips a switch to disconnect from the programmed routine of daily life. All of a sudden I am looking at the world through the eyes of a complete stranger, seeing it for the first time without the filter of my personal burdens or any socially conditioned meaning or value. Like sparks flying from a campfire, these moments of absolute clarity live for only a few seconds but long enough to raise a specter that lies suppressed in the back of my mind. It is the specter of a waste land that pervades our modern life. Its sublime shadow stretches out before me in a perfect pattern from every backyard of the typical suburban home to the strip malls down the street and the outer edges of civilization. This pattern is woven intricately through our daily lives like a well-knit cap worn tightly around our skulls. But it cuts off the circulation in our brains so that we see the world through a design that does not breathe, lacking in life-sustaining oxygen. It is a distorted vision, an intoxication that does not wear off with time. Rather, we go from one hallucination to the next, like drug addicts, searching for a way to prolong it and take refuge in it.

In the waste land, everything is upside down. Wars are waged in the name of peace. Countries are governed by the ungovernable and gods are created by men. At their hands and under the banner of righteousness and liberty, many are terrorized, tortured and imprisoned. Simple truths are hidden in plain sight while lying words are crafted and massaged in such a cunning way as to disguise their real meaning before entire nations. And while the idea of freedom of speech is publicly revered, those who actually proclaim the truth are often silenced and even secretly put away. Meanwhile, average citizens are content to learn "the truth" about the outside world from inside their homes, behind a flickering, two-dimensional screen of virtual images, framed in synthetic light. They are informed by the clueless and entertained by the talentless. Their food is manufactured by machines that have little regard for nourishment. And when they fall ill, they are treated and given medications by institutions that are least interested in their health. Their children are dumbed down by a costly higher education system and herded into a dizzying labyrinth of knowledge that teaches no wisdom. Those who are healthy and sane enough to recognize the madness of the maze and take leave of their wits are shunned, put into insane asylums or locked up in prisons, while the "well-adjusted" are rewarded with wealth and the highest positions of power.

Some ideas are compelling in every respect, able to lift up humanity and to sustain and prolong life. But they can also cast a shadow, enslave and even kill. The shadow of ideas is upon us now in the form of this waste land that permeates the world. It is a symptom and a symbol of our current mental and spiritual disposition that values the idea or concept more than the reality which it represents. The description has become more important than the described. We are increasingly basing our lives on a feeble sketch of reality. When we think of the word "tree", for example, a basic image comes to mind. It is usually a very thin representation of the actual, living and complex organism. "Tree" has become a quick reference and a substitute for this living process because our modern language simply cannot efficiently encapsulate the full aspect or effect that is the organism. In reality, "tree" is a multidimensional, kaleidoscopic, fractal-based happening with roots that extend deep beneath the earth and branches and leaves that reach out into the sky with varying textures, resins, and designs. It grows as if magically from very tiny seeds or fruits. And this is only the visible part of the organism. There are other invisible happenings, from the tiny cells in the leaves that convert light into chlorophyll to the sap that runs through its "veins." We must also consider the organism as part of an interconnected process comprising of its environment including creatures, great and small, and other types of plants or growth such as moss, ferns and fungus. Even with this description or our current scientific knowledge, we cannot fully grasp the reality of "tree." In our modern world, we repeatedly substitute concepts or images for the real thing. Simply put, the cardboard menu with its tempting images of scrumptious entrees and desserts has become our food, lacking in flavor and nourishment.

Our gorging on menus is leaving us quite ill with empty stomachs as we seek to consume more images or ideas: the idea of the perfect body or mate; the idea of winning the lottery; the idea of freedom; the idea of justice, democracy, god, heaven, etc. But in our efforts to chase the perfect mate, we are often left alienated. In our efforts to acquire wealth, we often enter into bankruptcy. In our efforts to be virtuous, we oftentimes commit evil. In our efforts to free the world, we oftentimes enslave ourselves. And in our efforts to reach heaven, we instead create a hell for all the world. Even when we think we have accomplished our goal and arrived at the place we so desperately sought, we are still left with an insatiable hunger, a hollow sense of satisfaction and perhaps meaninglessness. When we attempt to live up to our chosen, preconceived image of life, we are really trying to bend reality to our will. That is a form of violence. Our attempt to control is usually rewarded with an equal and opposite reaction. We become enslaved by the very idea we wish to manipulate. Moreover, the reality is never congruent with that idea. Reality is fluid, dynamic, multidimensional, interconnected and alive while the idea of reality is a one-dimensional, rigid, isolated, fragmentary and lifeless abstraction. When we come to identify with an image, we believe that with its potential destruction we will also be annihilated. As we begin to fail in our struggle for control against the ever-shifting, natural currents of life, fear awakens and violence comes to permeate everything that we think, say and do.

Contrary to popular thinking, the opposite of life is not death; rather, it is fear, specifically psychological fear as opposed to primal fear. All creatures, including human beings, have the ability to react to primal fear, which is a natural defense mechanism. It bubbles up in situations when one's life is in imminent, physical danger. It arises in the present moment. We experience such fear when, for example, we are spotted by a hungry grizzly bear in close proximity or we are on the fiftieth floor of a building during a strong earthquake. Primal fear prompts us to flee to safety. Once the threat is gone, the fear also subsides. Psychological fear on the other hand builds on itself and seems to be unique to human beings, to creatures with self-reflecting consciousness. Its stimuli is in the brain, in a thought, and not in the external world. It has nothing to do with the present moment or imminent danger but has everything to do with a preconceived idea. A thought or a memory is powerful enough to trigger the same physical reactions of primal fear: a dry mouth, a rapid heart rate, a sense of anxiety, etc. While we may have plenty to eat today, we worry about having enough tomorrow. While we are perfectly healthy now, we can be instantly filled with panic about potential illness, disability and eventual death.

Our ability to reflect on the past and project into the future is simultaneously a blessing and curse. On one hand, it has allowed us to generate ideas, make plans, facilitate our survival and in some cases extend our life expectancy. But in exchange for those things, it has opened the door to psychological fear, the source of which is the dimension of time. While primal fear aims to alert and protect the physical organism from harm, psychological fear looks to preserve a rigid self-image into the future. This image is a concept of ourselves and today it drives almost everything in our world. Advertised products are no longer marketed for their utility but for their ability to enhance the perception of oneself. Plastic surgery, sports cars, fashionable clothes and whiter teeth are all designed to target the idea of ourselves by playing upon our insecurities and fears. Even mainstream religions participate in this charade, promising to forever preserve our self-image in the hereafter. Distracted by these activities, we become trapped by time and caught in a cycle of illusion that distances us from the real world and always projects us into the future as we forgo the great abundance and potentialities of the present moment. In the end, many of us retreat with bitterness and regret into the twilight of our days as we are forced to painfully witness the widening chasm between reality and our failing self-image.

We often hear people remark that time seems to be moving faster, especially as they age. This I believe is due to our growing psychological fears and the importance of our self-image. Our sense of time is really a function of psychological fear. We are constantly developing new ways to protect ourselves against increasing threats from the world including terrorism, aging, salmonella poisoning, potholes on the freeway, bedbugs in our mattresses and so forth. Incidentally, psychological fear is also as much a foundation of technology and a driver of industry as unfettered human curiosity and creativity. While we can trumpet technology's seemingly miraculous gifts, there is always a dark, enslaving aspect to it. Its source is the shadow of ideas. In a sense, our advancement in technology is a measure of our psychological fears and of the growing gap between ourselves and the sense of mystery and awe and reverence that we once had for all life.

The shadow of ideas has blanketed the world since the dawn of civilization and has been growing consistently over time. For ages, entire cultures lived under the shadow of the idea of divine rule which granted kings and queens, as supposed descendants of the gods, the power to reign over them. People also lived under the shadow of the idea of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity who can witness their every move and cast souls into hell for eternity or grant passes to heavenly banquets. Today, all creatures and even the earth itself live and die under the shadow and oppression of another idea: monetary value. It decides who eats and who starves, which trees are chopped down and which mountains are mined. Because of this idea, green meadows and fields have been turned into long stretches of dark, gray asphalt and mountains, which once rose mightily from the earth to touch the heavens and extend their range from sea to shining sea, have been humbled and broken by our powerful machines. Still many among us deny the pain and wounds that we are inflicting on this living planet and on ourselves. The shadow of ideas is so powerful that it can anesthetize us and drive us to ignore the horror of the waste land. Truly, it is impossible to see through the shadow of ideas because the very eyes we now use to look at the world have become adjusted to the darkness of that shadow. Our eyes are covered with scales.

It is quite an understatement to say that we have gone blind. Furthermore, there is no hope for the future precisely because the future is itself the problem. It allows us time to put off confronting our psychological fears as life continues to be usurped by the shadow of ideas. We are essentially trapped in a very sticky situation where step-by-step methods and ideas that take time to implement can be of no help; their darkness always lurks in every solution we find. While ideas can be useful in practical matters like building a shelter or storing food for the winter, they can be of no use in confronting our distorted perception of ourselves and the world. Certainly, science and technology cannot save us in this matter. Even philosophical discourse leaves us buried in complex ideas.

It is clear that time, psychological fear, and our self-image are all different expressions or functions of each other. This triad was born from the shadow of ideas and is the foundation of the waste land. But if any one member of this triad should fail, then the entire structure collapses. If there is a “way out”, it cannot be found in the confines of time and in the rigid, linear and static nature of concepts. This is the great message of esoteric undercurrents in mainstream religions. This message is expressed through symbols that go past static ideas. Symbols are dynamic and have the ability to reach beyond time and to resonate with and become transparent to the source and grounding of one's life. They are like multidimensional mirrors that reflect reality from different angles or perspectives. They inform our limited, linear-based conscious minds. In essence symbols, often presented through myths, are a bridge between time and timelessness, between our conscious minds and our ever-unfolding, fractal-like psyche. Every mythological tale recounts the crossing of that bridge. It is in many ways a paradoxical journey because it does not require time. Moreover, words cannot speak of what lies on the other side of the bridge. Any attempt to do so would require descriptive ideas, images and concepts that will always be haunted by the specter of the waste land and the shadow of ideas.

Thought is content and life cannot be contained.