Solstice Prayer from Dec. 21st, 2014

The photo is from last summer’s Burning Man festival, taken by Zipporah on Sunday morning while I sat in the Temple of Grace contemplating my life’s loves and losses. Later that night, the Temple collapsed in upon itself like a curtsying ballerina after burning for fifteen short minutes.

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…….

I read the following prayer at the opening of a small medicine ceremony I participated in the night of the Winter Solstice. The Solstice prayer and the Temple photo seem to me to share a similar archetypal character.

Tonight we celebrate one of the deepest celestial mysteries to stir the sacred senses of our still youthful species. We watch in wonder as the Sun’s southward journey comes to a standstill. We honor the darkness this provides on this, the longest night in the history of the Earth. Tonight the Sun dies so that in three days it may be reborn to travel north again toward Spring. We give thanks for the balancing of Light and Dark, a mixture from out of which all Life springs forth. We trust in the Great Cosmic Cycle of Death and Rebirth, in the eternal rotation of the spheres of Heaven and Earth.

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Day and night sides of Earth at the instant of the December 2014 solstice (2014 December 21 at 23:03 Universal Time). Note that the north polar region of Earth must endure 24 hours of night, while the south polar region gets to bask in 24 hours of daylight. Image credit: Earth and Moon Viewer

We trust that the Sun will return to shorten the night and to warm the Earth. We give thanks to the earth for faithfully receiving the luminous breath of the Sun, for giving birth through its sacred chemical kiss with the Sun to all plants and bacteria, fungi and animals. We honor the Earth’s sister, Luna, the Moon, who tonight will go down with the Sun on his journey through the underworld , granting us an even deeper plunge into darkness.

This is the longest night in Earth’s history because of the tidal deceleration caused by the Moon’s gravitational influence. As Earth’s rotation slows, she drifts ever so slightly further away from us, her longing unable to overcome the momentum flinging her away. It is symbolic of  the tragic beauty giving meaning to all change, to all time. As the Sun enters Capricorn, we honor Saturn, Father Time, who rules over all finite things. Adrift amidst these great cosmic cycles, we gather together to give praise to our ancestors: to the stars overhead whose sacrificial deaths made our lives possible; to all the Earth-beings underfoot, who feed and clothe us; to the first human inhabitants of this land, the Ohlone indians, whose remains dated to 5,000 years ago can still be found buried beneath the pavement of Berkeley just west of this ceremony; and we thank the future beings who will be here after us. We thank them for continuing the evolutionary journey despite our generation’s disrespect for and childish treatment of Earth and her creatures.

We ask forgiveness for our forgetfulness, our irresponsibility, our misguided pride. We humble ourselves before all beings, past, present, and future. We plant ourselves as seeds in the soil of time and look ahead, guided by the Great Mystery toward which all beings are called. We offer ourselves for this Great Work. May we be partners with Levity/Light and Gravity/Darkness in their sacred marriage.

Money, Ecology, and Burning Man: Inquiries into the Thermodynamics of Capitalism

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I’m headed back to Black Rock City for the 3rd time in 4 years later this week. I’ll be camping with Cosmicopia at 7:15 J if you want to stop by. I’ll be giving a brief talk on the need to ecologize economics on Tuesday at 11am. The title of the talk is actually a set of related questions: “Why is the sky blue? Why is money green?” The sky is blue because of the way Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light streaming in from the Sun during the day. At night, the sky turns black to reveal the swarm of distant suns populating the Milky Way. All the energy powering the human economy, and the greater part of the intelligence engineering it, originated in the sky. The daytime Sun is the most important source of free energy for all living things, while for one species in particular (ours) the rhythmic revolutions of the nighttime stars served as the catalyst for the evolution of symbolic consciousness (some of the earliest known forms of writing, for example, are marks carved into bone, apparently to count the phase cycle of the moon). Gazing at the stars and planets circling overhead night after night taught us how to keep track of time and how to travel long distances over land or sea. Our ability to plan months and years in advance, to draw maps and send satellites into orbit: we owe it all to the stars. And to the Sun we owe our very life, our vitality, our source of absolutely free energy. The original biotic economy of Earth (here long before the emergence of the human economy) consists of two main economic actors: the Sun and the photosynthesizing plants. This cosmic economy is the original gift society. The Sun is slowing burning itself up to release the warmth and light necessary for life on Earth. It asks for nothing in exchange for its exuberance. Plants absorb this free energy, transforming themselves into food for the rest of the biosphere all the way up the trophic ladder to Earth’s apex predator, the human being.

American money (at least for a little while longer the world economy’s gold standard), like plants, is green. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but if we consider the capitalist world system as a form of sorcery (as Isabelle Stengers does), then this choice of color reflects the extent to which money has been fetishized, as though the symbolic power of green paper was somehow a replacement for the photosynthetic energy captured by the leaves of plants. General purpose money truly is the life blood of global capitalism; but plant-like it is not. It should be printed red, instead. That would remind us how much blood has been spilled on its behalf.

Political ecologist Alf Hornborg (author of “The Power of the Machine”) describes general purpose money as an “algorithm of destruction” because of the way it systematically cancels the living diversity of both culture and nature by converting usable energy (labor, soil, minerals, trees, rivers, etc.) into disposable products sold in order to make more copies of itself. For this reason, an increasing GDP is typically a great indicator of decreasing societal and ecological well-being. Global capitalism is converting more and more of the free energy brought into the biosphere by plants into money. To date, geneticist David Suzuki estimates that the global economy has re-directed about 40% of the net energy intake of plants to serve its higher purposes (i.e., accumulating money). Its no wonder the planet is entering the 6th mass extinction.

In my talk at Burning Man, I hope to make apparent how incongruent the human economy currently is with the earth ecology. I also want to begin a discussion about the role of Burning Man in all this. According to the festival’s founder, Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. He’s not entirely off the mark. I’d agree that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism… I’ll be trying to dig deeper into these and other internal contradictions.

…Click here for more posts related to Burning Man…

“Spark” – A Documentary about Burning Man

Spark, a new documentary on Burning Man, premires in Austin, Texas on March 10.

Some psychonautical friends and I from CIIS will be traveling to Black Rock City this August to (re)create our archetypal-astrological theme camp called Cosmicopia (maybe you visited us in 2011?).

 

Follow me to the desert, my soul.

Follow me to the desert,

My soul.

 

Sing with me

Until I lose my mind;

Dance with me,

Until my body unwinds,

And my feet no longer touch the ground,

And all that’s left of time

Is the sound of wind shaping sand.

 

Build with me a temple,

My soul.

 

Share with me your sacred,

Shuddering secrets,

And conceive within me

The meaning of the stars above.

 

I can taste the sky

In your smile,

My soul.

 

Will you hold me?

Will you make me whole?

 

Who are you,

My soul?

 

From how high have you come down

To this earth,

And to what heights will we go

when I die?

 

Help me to remember the smell of grace,

The incense of eternity

That guides the faithful home from their fallenness.

 

I have forgotten your name,

My soul.

 

I cannot see the color of your eyes

In the darkness of this sightless night.

Show me your glory

In the warmth of other faces.

Reveal to me the angel of God

In every voice I live to hear.

 

Let me be burnt to dust,

My soul.

 

Let my embers rain down

To rejoin the earth,

And release my spirit

To the heavens.

The Democratization of Initiation at Burning Man

As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis normally associated with traditional forms of religion. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being “self-centered” and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality. The continual growth of Burning Man (the festival sold out for the first time in 2011), defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.

Gilmore argues that this annual pilgrimage to the desert, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is forcing academics to

“reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience” (Burning Man Blog).

After returning from my second journey to Black Rock City earlier this week, I can say with some degree of certainty that Burning Man represents the emergence of new, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and science into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful intelligence. Its gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world.” Its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the environmental crises of the coming century.

2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change, representing Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of existence. No longer simply about burning the Man to revel in the destruction of the shackles of the patriarchal status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly recognize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace it. 2011 also marks the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after the young festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being perceived as a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee recently welcomed the BMP back to the city of the movement’s birth.

Despite its encouraging expansion back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in the movement are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, engineers, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a landing pad or interdimensional portal for a new kind of intelligence to incarnate upon the earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future is being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.

Cosmopolitical Reflections upon leaving for Black Rock City

Since the dominant narratives bringing forth the ongoing misadventure of industrial capitalism fail to properly situate the human soul in its actual time and place, any serious inquiry into the nature of our individual and collective situation must begin with an act of counter memory: we must ask afresh in each generation, who are we, and where did we come from? As Emerson suggested in his lecture on the American Scholar, we must discover an original relationship with the universe.

This does not mean we should jettison tradition. The “chronological snobbery” (Owen Barfield‘s phrase) of the progress-obsessed modern world is nothing to be emulated; rather, tradition must be consciously integrated instead of reactively rejected or habitually assumed.

In a cosmological sense, we are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of earth’s systems. Ecological entropy now threatens to destroy the monetary meaning that has replaced culture with commodities and nature with machines. Absent this monetary meaning, many of us no longer know how to eat or how to sleep, nor how to love, and especially not how to die.

Life on earth in 2011 is precarious, even doomed. And yet, isn’t this message of doom now also woven into our official narrative? Isn’t apocalypse the best selling plot in today’s mass media market? Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this reality is too much to take responsibility for, the majority of us sit on the couch and pretend it is all just another form of entertainment. Fantasy has replaced forthrightness, and imagination has withered to make way for shallow ideological affiliation with merely symbolic causes.

Of course, symbolism is no mere trifle: our sense of meaning is precisely what is at stake. How are we to conceive of the human presence on the planet? Are we a cancerous growth, or the incarnation of God on earth? Are we to become once again a spiritual instead of a consumptive and pleasure-driven species? Are we to replace industrial with initiatory cosmology? Is our role to worship, celebrate, and create, or to use, abuse, and destroy?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we inhabit the earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its material reality: the mechanistic and disenchanted imaginary of industrial cosmology, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. Clearly, such a cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the sun that produces and sustains all life on earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes Alf Hornborg,

“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, The Power of the Machine).

Modern industrial cosmology has lead to the dissociation of the human economy and the earth economy. Earth is a diverse community of organisms delicately balanced by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Capitalism seeks to homogenize culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. It has entirely transformed Gaia too quickly for Her species, including the human, to adapt. We are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values profitability (the replication of money) over productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, says Hornborg,

“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project” (p. 236, ibid.).

In my presentation at Burning Man this year (2pm on Tuesday, Aug 30th @ Camp Cosmicopia located ~ 8 A), I want to suggest that ancient cosmology, specifically that emerging out of the Platonic tradition, has much to teach the modern mind about what it means to be human on planet earth. Modern cosmology is disenchanted, which is to say that it no longer integrates the reality of soul, whether that of the individual or that of the universe. Each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of tragic identity lost in an immense storm of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrialism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue its own selfish ends in the hope that its sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

Platonic cosmology, in contrast, situates the human being in a living and intelligent universe. The life of the individual soul is understood to participate in the life of the World Soul. Though the trauma of birth makes it forgetful, the individual soul is said to be capable of remembering its origin in the everlasting Soul of the World by looking skyward and contemplating the holy rhythms of the circling stars above. The movements of the heavenly bodies are the visible signs of the World Soul’s invisible formative power. The heavenly motions reflect the earthly soul’s emotions, mirroring (not determining) its inner life.

Plato’s vision of the universe is initiatory, since it is a cosmology –a way of speaking the cosmos– that goes beyond mere secondhand description to direct participation in the meaning of the world. Modern cosmology tends to speak at or about the universe, while Plato sought to speak to and with the universe. The earth and the other planets are not merely chunks of rock, but ensouled creatures — gods, even. It is my opinion that we are approaching a crisis in scientific cosmology not seen since the time of Copernicus. We are on the verge of a new consciousness of a new cosmos, a transformation in our fundamental image of the world no less profound and earth-shaking than the emergence of the heliocentric theory. With this new cosmology will come a new culture, a new way of being human, based not on work and the replication of money, but on play and the recreation of life. Perhaps Burning Man provides a small a preview of the possibilities…

[Update: Sam Mickey over at Becoming Integral has recently posted on the religious significance and ecological impact of Burning Man]