13 Crises: “Here Be Monsters”

George Monbiot has an article in today’s Guardian entitled “The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces” and I can’t resist commenting on it this morning, especially for the underlying paradox that subtly frames it.

Actually, George refers to this as “multiheaded” crisis, invoking thereby, perhaps unwittingly, the ancient image and meaning of the Lernaean Hydra. The hydra (and that name is associated with water) was a many-headed serpent. If you chopped off one head, it just grew more heads — the image of futility in that respect that recalls King Canute’s attacking the ocean with his sword, or the hubris of Xerxes who ordered the Bosphorus to be whipped when its turbulence impeded the passage of his army. Although Monbiot doesn’t say so explicitly, his essay on our “13 crises” is very much about the predicament of trying to slay the Lernaean Hydra, which is also associated with the gateway to Hell.

Monbiot’s essay ends on a despondent note, and also a contradictory one, which I think is quite revealing about the conscious attitude today. He concludes the following,

“One of the peculiarities of this complex, multiheaded crisis is that there appears to be no “other side” on to which we might emerge. It is hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which governments lose the capacity for total surveillance and drone strikes; in which billionaires forget how to manipulate public opinion; in which a broken EU reconvenes; in which climate breakdown unhappens, species return from extinction and the soil comes back to the land. These are not momentary crises, but appear to presage permanent collapse.”

And yet, in the very last line of the essay he writes,

“I write this not to depress you, though I know it will have that effect, but to concentrate our minds on the scale of the task.”

Yet, if there is no “out”, and no “other side” to our struggle with the Hydra of multiheaded crisis, it’s rather contradictory to suggest we “concentrate our minds on the scale of the task” in sorting it out. What “task” would that be that offered no exit and no promise of emerging on “the other side”? He sounds like Xerxes ordering the Bosphorus to be whipped, or closer to home, like King Canute attacking the ocean with his sword. There’s another parallel that I find quite endearing, when don Juan described Castaneda’s efforts to master sorcery by thinking as being like “attacking a lion with your farts”.

Attacking a lion with our farts is a pretty apt description of our merely rational efforts to squirm our way out of the predicament of Late Modernity. Monbiot has discovered the “ears of the wolf” dilemma and paradox and also can’t seem to handle the contradiction — there is no “other side” to chaotic transition/the crisis. It’s definitive and final as collapse. Yet, at the same time, we must apply ourselves to the task as if there were no finality to it, and that there was indeed hope of “the other side” and of reasoning our way out of Hell.

And, of course, there are many others who deny that we are in a predicament at all, or a dilemma, or a dichotomy, or stuck between a rock and a hard place — damned if you do and damned if you don’t — or between Scylla and Charybdis. I think we know why. To be stuck  on the horns of the dilemma, or holding the ears of the wolf, can be very stressful, like trying to slay the Hydra, too, and induces deep stress and anxiety. In those terms, denialism becomes a form of self-defence, even if it means clinging to lies, illusions and the delusional. And that’s pretty much the truth about “post-truth society”.

What we see in Monbiot’s apparent contradiction is the paralysis of logic and reason, or “mind at the end of its tether”, and the ears of the wolf dilemma is the image of that paralysis of logic. On the old medieval maps of the world, beyond the known world was inscribed the words “Here Be Monsters”, and beyond the limits of logic and rationality are inscribed the same words, ironically, only the “monsters” are monsters of paradox, self-contradiction, futility, and Nemesis.

Attacking a lion with your farts, or presuming to slay the Hydra, are both metaphors for the limits of logic, rationality, and the intelligible. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no “other side” to the disintegration of the Modern Era and its consciousness structure. We can’t avert that. We can only “outrun” it. That’s the theme, in any case, of Rosenstock-Huessy and Jean Gebser, too — how to outrun the breakdown of the “modern mind”. Like Rumi’s statement that “the cure for the disease is in the disease”, Rosenstock and Gebser embrace the tension of the paradoxical rather than seek to “resolve” it. The embrace of the paradoxical is called by Rosenstock “metanoia” and by Jean Gebser “the arational“.

The idea here is to “let happen” rather than “make happen”. The paradoxical is the transformative process itself. “Where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving power also” is the poet Hölderlin’s description of this, as well as Nietzsche’s “live dangerously!”. An example of this how certain creative people gravitate to earthquake zones. Many of the most intensely creative areas of the globe are connected with seismic activity — the Mediterranean, the West Coast of North America, or Japan. Nietzsche himself claimed that his own creativity and paradoxical wisdom came from having one foot in the grave and the other foot in life — from the polarity of eros and thanatos. And how much greater is the potential today when the whole world altogether now has one foot in the grave and the other in life?

For Nietzsche and Gebser, it is precisely this tension of the coincidence of opposites that provides the “spring” necessary for the “leap” — der Sprung. And the most vital and creative periods of human history, when there were such great leaps were also periods where the paradoxical and the coincidence of opposites were prominent.






10 responses to “13 Crises: “Here Be Monsters””

  1. donsalmon says :

    I’m meeting more and more people in the Asheville area who are understanding that the whole paradigm is breaking down. Thank God!! they see the reactive solutions of the Old and New Left of the 60s and 70s A lot of them are older folks like me (born circa 1952:>)) and were there and have lived long enough to realize the solutions cast in the same mold (consciousness structure) won’t work.

    Folks are surprisingly optimistic when they “get” that now, with everything falling apart, it’s clearer than ever that the only possible “solution” (though “Solution” even sounds too “mental”) is a profound transformation of consciousness.

    The problem remaining, is that we keep slipping into the mental structure of, “so, how do I transform consciousness?” you, my friend, keep quiet. Don’t try anything because anything you try is just more of the same old mess.

    But how do I keep quiet?

    I was just studying John Yates’ (also known as Culadasa) marvelous book on the “stages of the path” in traditional Buddhism (the book is ‘The Mind Illuminated”).

    I suddenly “got” how extraordinarily simple it is, in essence. Culadasa says that by following this guide (not necessarily his version; he’s not that self involved) it is possible for any diligent person to reach complete mental silence within a few years, perhaps even a few months.

    One of the keys is the distinction he makes between selective attention (very much McGilchrist’s ‘left mode”) and peripheral awareness (bottom up processing, non linear, holistic, etc; “right mode”).

    Most meditators – in modern times, that is – thrust themselves into the process brutally employing selective attention, and spend months or years fighting with their minds. Many teachers advise “relaxing’ but then, we moderns “relax’ with the same mode, and end up struggling with that like everything else.

    Culadasa has a description of a balanced process so brilliant that it is extraordinarily simple. We do engage with the meditative object – the breath, or whatever – with selective attention, but “mindfully” balance that with an open, gentle, soft peripheral awareness.

    He goes into tremendous detail – even explaining how the instinctive and ancient emotional programming (more closely associated with the archaic, magical and mythic structures) – originally served a very good purpose (“originally” meaning several hundred million years ago for our animal ancestors and 10s to 100s of thousand years ago for our human ancestors) but now serves primarily the apparently separate mental ego, which distorts the whole process.

    He portrays a process over the 10 stages of the Buddhist path toward “shamatha” – an effortless state of inner silence, peace, happiness, and utter contentment – as an increasing (and natural!) integration of attention and awareness, and by stage 8 or 9, a shift from effort to increasing effortlessness, as “something” takes over (something that is ever-present!).

    One of the most practical, immediately effective meditation manuals I’ve ever come across.

    It was particularly remarkable to me to compare it to Alan Wallace’s “Attention Revolution” (terrible title; the publisher’s choice, not his) which outlines the same path, but from a Tibetan Buddhist/Dzogchen perspective. Culadasa uses breath as the main object throughout all the 10 stages, though in subtler and subtler ways.

    Alan introduces “settling the mind in its natural state” at stage 5 (in stage 4, you’ve reached the point where every time you sit to meditate, you can fairly easily stay with the breath the whole 45 minute or hour session, though thoughts and other distractions still are very present). At stage 5, for Alan, you shift – now you simply rest in “the space of awareness” and observe rising and passing away phenomena in the mind. by stage 8, you shift to “awareness of awareness”, not even attending to the mental phenomena at all, and with this, thoughts begin to die out altogether, as they are not fed by attention.

    This is the stage when effortless begins to be predominant. Something else begins to guide the whole process, and beyond stage 10, a self-perpetuating inquiry occurs which reveals the ever-present Origin, and ultimately, results in the non-dual realization of “One Taste.” Beyond that, Sri Aurobindo observes a Divine, Intelligent “Force” or Shakti which profoundly transforms every aspect of our mental, vital and physical consciousness, resulting ultimately in a perfect integration.

    • donsalmon says :

      just added this when i reposted it on the Auroville site:

      One thing that particularly struck me was Alan’s description of the effects of increasingly stable concentration from stages 5 to 10. As i was reading, something seemed very familiar. I took a break, looked at Sri Aurobindo’s Bases of Yoga, and I realized the description, not only of “settling the mind in its natural state” but of the effects of concetnration was almost exactly the same as Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of the “quiet mind.”

      In fact, the instructions Sri Aurobindo gives for developing the quiet mind are in some cases identical as Alan’s guide to “settling the mind in its natural state.” I found this fascinating because Dzogchen is not actually a Buddhist practice, but a meditative tradition indigenous to Tibet that predates the 7th century introduction by the Indian Padmasambhava. Furthermore, the qualities that emerge, as described by Alan, from stages 5 to 10, sound very much like Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of quiet, calm, peace and silence (I don’t have the page here but it’s early in Bases of Yoga – free online at Auro e-books).

      Sri Aurobindo has many times written that it is in the silent mind that one finds the conditions most favorable for surrender, which speaks to me of the vital importance of the understanding of the (non linear, of course) “progression” from the quiet to the silent mind.

      I know there’s a lot of ambivalence about getting inspiration from “other paths,” (though Mother herself found the Dhammapada useful enough to offer commentary on it in the early 1960s), but being rooted in itnegral yoga, I find that it can be extraordinarily helpful to get insights like this that have very down-to-earth, practical ramifications.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes. Achieving inner silence (or “emptiness” in Rumi’s terms) or “not-doing” in Castaneda, or “letting go” is the key. That was also evident even in Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience, although that came unbidden. Sometimes it just happens spontaneously in some people. For others it’s had work, and I certainly haven’t mastered it fully yet myself. I’m a pretty wordy guy, as you may have noted.

      • donsalmon says :

        If you’re up for it, I strongly recommend Culadasa’s book. You can get a taste of it over on his site (just search “Culadasa”). Also, the companion Dharma Treasure site. And you don’t have to be Buddhist!

  2. donsalmon says :

    Scott, I keep seeing references to Blake, McGilchrist and Gebserian themes from a Guardian poster named “Fourfold vision” – is that you?

  3. Scott Preston says :

    The big winner in all this current mayhem with Brexit, Trump ,and now seemingly Fillon in France, is Vladimir Putin. Is this going to be “the Slavic Century” after all?


  4. abdulmonem says :

    We are not here for happy reading, we are in an arena of strife, searching for restraint, balance, empathy,knowing truth and be just. It is paradoxography indeed. It strikes me, the omission of lies and hypocrisy behind these crises. The road to god is filled with difficulties and thorny obstacles and meditation is our only door through which we enter his space providing we know that he is there and he is the only force that makes our contact possible when he finds the sincerity and honest devotion of the seeker to want to know and understand not for his personal gain but to serve the community he is in. It is a time of disclosure where the humans are no longer shy to express their evil intentions. Yes it is both an outlet for those who are seeking the right path and an inlet to hell for those who are seeking the crooked path. Thank you Scott but the link for king canute need fixing because when I wanted to read it it took me to the hydra link . thank you again.

  5. Dwig says :

    Canute as a symbol is interesting. In the original story by Henry of Huntingdon (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Canute_and_the_waves), Canute is a wise ruler who uses a dramatic illustration to show that he has only mortal powers. I wonder whether the shift in the story is an example of an efficient symbol devolving into a deficient one.

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