Archive for September 27, 2010


FOREWORD

“We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows,” Robert Frost wrote, looking in from the outside. Looking out from the inside, Chuang-tzu wrote, “When we understand, we are at the center of the circle, and there we sit while Yes and No chase each other around the circumference.” This anonymous center—which is called God in Jewish, Christian, and Moslem cultures, and Tao, Self, or Buddha in the great Eastern Traditions—is the realest of realities.

Self is everywhere, shining forth from all beings,
vaster than the vast, subtler than the most subtle,
unreachable, yet nearer than breath, than heartbeat.
Eye cannot see it, ear cannot hear it nor tongue
utter it; only in deep absorption can the mind,
grown pure and silent, merge with the formless truth.
As soon as you find it, you are free; you have found
yourself;
you have solved the great riddle; your heart forever is
at peace.
Whole, you enter the Whole. Your personal self
returns to its radiant, intimate, deathless source.

(Mundaka Upanishad)

Most of what we call religious poetry is the poetry of longing: for God, for the mother’s face. But the poems in The Enlightened Heart are poems of fulfillment. They were written by the Secret, who has many aliases. Sitting or dancing, all these poets have found themselves inside the circle—some of them a step within the circumference, some far in, some at dead center. Looking out from the center, you can talk about the circumference. But really, there is no circumference. Everyone, everything, is joyfully included.

Biography

Stephen Mitchell was educated at Amherst College, the University of Paris, and Yale University. He is widely known for his translations and adaptations of ancient and modern classics of poetry and wisdom. Languages that Mitchell has translated from include German, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, and Danish. He has also adapted classics from languages he doesn’t know, including Chinese (Tao Te Ching, The Second Book of the Tao), Sanskrit (Bhagavad Gita), and Akkadian or ancient Babylonian (Gilgamesh). He has written a book of poems, two books of fiction, and the nonfiction book The Gospel According to Jesus, and co-wrote two books with Byron Katie, Loving What Is and A Thousand Names for Joy. Currently he is working on a verse translation of Homer’s Iliad, which is due to be published by Free Press in the fall of 2011. When he is not writing, he likes to—in no particular order—think about writing, think about not writing, not think about writing, and not think about not writing. His favorite color is blue, which happens to be the color of his wife’s eyes. You can read extensive excerpts from all his books on his website.

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Tank, a bulldog with a heart as loyal as a soldier, and Bojangles, a rambunctiously sweet rescue dog, were two of the loves of my life. Inseparable, they died within a year of each other. Believing that they had souls, I gave them as good a passage from this world as possible, at home and surrounded by family.

Yet after my dogs’ deaths I found myself feeling oddly shy talking about their loss, even as I choked back tears. Why, I wondered, did I feel so self-conscious — and why did I have only the fuzziest notions about the afterlife of my animal companions?

In search of insight, I turned to Ptolemy Tompkins’ new book, “The Divine Life of Animals: One Man’s Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On.” In it, Tompkins undertakes an exploration into the myths and beliefs across time that have defined animals’ place in the metaphysical scheme of things. In the following interview, I share the highlights of our conversation.

Pythia: In your book you range from prehistoric cultures that viewed animals as spiritual beings, to Buddhist beliefs around the reincarnation of animals, and figures like Saint Augustine, who believed that animals would not be found in heaven. What was your purpose in laying out all these and other scenarios?

Ptolemy: In our modern culture, where people are skittish about talking about whether humans have souls, you can’t just immediately jump to the animal soul. So I saw myself as having to go back through history and see when the idea of the soul began. I wanted to address why we sense that the soul is real, but feel out of touch with what it really is.

Whether a 12th century Sufi mystic or an Australian aborigine, people used to have a much more specific idea of the soul. But we live in an age of metaphysical timidity: people don’t want to ask serious questions about the soul and the afterlife because they’re afraid that they’re being naive — and all this goes triply for asking about your dead dog. But if an animal or someone I know dies, where is that specific personality that I knew? Did it melt back into some kind of larger consciousness? Does it still exist in another dimension? These are completely valid existential questions.

Pythia: I was fascinated by your description of the “Fall” — the narrative of a golden era when animals and humans lived together in harmony until dropping out of it into conflict — that you say is one of our oldest stories. Why does this myth have such significance?

Ptolemy: Whether in the Brazilian rain forest or the story of Adam and Eve there is this recurring theme that in the past animals and humans lived in more fluid accord with each other. What a lot of thinkers believe this myth means is that life on the physical level was preceded by a spiritualized existence that we “fell” out of. But it’s also understood that at some point in the future things will return to their true essences and that the journey of life, while difficult, has something good about it.

Pythia: Another theme in your book is the ongoing question of which species is more important — animals or humans. Where did you come out on that debate?

Ptolemy:
There are two arguments in myth and religion that go back and forth. In one, humans are at the center of everything. Or, humans are just arrogant beings who think they’re special when they’re not. I decided that both these ideas are extremes. Along with other thinkers, I believe that there is something about human beings that sets us apart from the rest of nature, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t a part of nature. Very often in myths of the Fall, for instance, it’s a human being who causes the problem. What this says to me is that our humanness is a special part of creation, but that we ruin our uniqueness when we cut ourselves off from nature.

Pythia
: How does what you’re saying fit in with this other idea that you write about, the “Great Chain of Being?”

Ptolemy:
In esoteric philosophy you find this idea that the cosmos is hierarchically structured. In this Great Chain of Being, animals are below and angels are above, with human beings dead center in the middle. Some say this is a humanist-centric idea and that it denigrates animals. But I think that at it’s best it means that something more is demanded of us. In all the traditional cultures it’s the responsibility of human beings to oversee the interactions of the different species, and to honor nature through ritual activities.

Pythia: At the end of your book, you seem to indicate that we’re coming full circle, and entering a new era.

Ptolemy: I think we’re in a time when a new overarching narrative needs to come into play. We don’t know exactly what that is yet: it has something to do with science and religion meeting, and with Eastern and Western faiths. The New Age drives me nuts, even though I’m kind of a New Age person because my dad raised me in it. (Tompkins’ father, Peter Tompkins, was the author of “The Secret Life of Plants.”) But there is a core intuition at its heart that is correct, which is that there is a new story about to come together out of this huge mix of different perspectives. Something is about to change, but it hasn’t happened yet and that’s why there’s so much confusion.

Pythia
: Does this circling around to a different story that is both old and new also include integrating the values of prehistoric and indigenous cultures, especially with regard to animals?

Ptolemy: We are as cut off from nature and our true spiritual identities as it’s possible to be without going crazy. What we’ve done to the planet is a symptom of that. No traditional culture would look at a human being without the context of the natural world. But if we’re going to move out of that state of alienation and back into a state of genuine connection with the universe, we have to do it with animals. We fell out of Paradise together, and we’ll fall back into it together.

Pythia: Indeed in your book you write that, “Whenever humans forge a truly spiritual connection with animals the space separating earth from heaven becomes just a little smaller.” In this sense is the way we relate to animals an important spiritual practice?

Ptolemy:
Anytime you have a feeling of compassion for an animal you’re connecting to the entire physical and spiritual universe. It’s a tiny keyhole to this whole lost world of connection. You can still be a realist and know that physical life is tough. But you can also feel that connection to an animal and its existential plight, and realize that it’s a brutal world for animals marked by suffering. In the course of this conversation, how many pigs have been slaughtered in South Carolina?

Pythia: At the end of your book, you arrive at your own synthesis of ideas about the next world as a kind of transcendent earth where the individual personality, animal or human, lives on.

Ptolemy: To me, there’s no question that there is another world. Although it’s beyond our present capacity to imagine, the physical world in the afterlife isn’t erased, as much as it is completed, an “earth above the earth.” The bigger world above this one, which this world is on its way back into, will somehow resolve the ghastliness of this world. T.S. Eliot expressed something of what I’m trying to say in a line from “The Four Quartets”: “The completion of partial ecstasies, the resolution of its partial horrors.”

Pythia Peay got her start as a writer in 1968, when her weekly column “Wildflowers” ran in the Oak Grove, Missouri High School newspaper. After a decade in the San Francisco area at the height of the spiritual renaissance, where she studied with the Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, she began her career writing about spiritual and psychological themes.

Her trademark down-to-earth articles about matters of the soul – whether the soul of the city, the messages in our nightly dreams, deep politics, or finding our calling – have appeared in media such as Washingtonian, Beliefnet, George, New Woman, Common Boundary, Ode, and Utne magazine.

Her columns for Religion News Service have appeared in newspapers around the country, from The Cleveland Plain Dealer, to The Kansas City Star and The Salt Lake Tribune. The author of Soul Sisters: The Five Sacred Qualities of a Woman’s Soul, Peay also lectures and offers workshops on women’s spirituality.

For the last six years, she has worked to complete a psychological memoir, American Icarus, a deeply researched book into the life and times of her father, and their turbulent father-daughter relationship. She makes her home in the Washington, D.C. area.

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