Meditation and Empowerment

bright sun and clouds

There always seems to be a lot in the news that can lead to anger, desperation and a feeling of hopelessness in all of us. It seems that there is little we can do to make the changes that we know must be made in our world. We feel the frailty of our efforts, our inability to fully understand our responsibilities, and even the ultimate frailty of our physical bodies and our minds. It may bring up the feeling that the teachings of the Buddha, of the Bodhisattvas and many other spiritual teachers is true: that all life is suffering.

This is true when we are so enmeshed in our transient lives that we forget the bigger picture, the picture of the Unconditional Love of which we all are a part.

There is a way that we can find a deeper inner power and responsibility, and a connection with the ultimate power of love. With the appropriate serious effort we can take our suffering and make it opportunity for individual growth and a state of maturity that leads to an experience of total well-being. That simple conscious effort that we can use for the discovering of our own personal power and a new level of possibility is meditation.

Meditation can open us up to the vitality and the innate intelligence that animates our bodies, minds and energetic capacities, making our well-being constantly available.

We are not a “thing”. We are a process, an “event” if you will. Our bodies and minds connect us to our total environment. We absorb information, interact and change. We adapt so that we can effectively participate in our own lives. It is an endless process of exchange within and around us. This exchange is empowering. It morphs the feeling of frailty into a feeling of loving potential that transforms our reality.

Meditation can simply be about rediscovering this way of being in the world and in spirit. It simply brings us back to the reality that we so often forget, the reality that is pure joy, pure awe. The reality of Life Itself. In many meditation practices, nothing is rejected; everything is an avenue, everything is nourishment, everything is God. Including ourselves. In this light, we can think of our meditation, indeed our lives, as God (who has manifested as ourselves) giving and receiving God through the mechanism of God. There is no other.

In terms of “changing the world”, all those around us are affected by the Energy that is all things. This is the energy that changes us, that brings us home. The more of us that participate in this reality, the more change will happen.

Your Attentive Brain

wonderous reading child

Being attentive

Your brain really thrives on getting information and paying attention

Curiosity, wonder and play are three of many ways we inspire our brains to open to new information. We want to learn, and we want it to be fun!

Attention, also referred to as focus or concentration, must be lovingly nurtured to marshal the effort needed to improve your brain’s performance. Your brain and body are in this together; the relaxation and focus of one naturally informs the other.

Attention in the mental sphere is akin to endurance in the physical sphere. Like an athlete, you can learn to focus your mental energies, but to do that you need to train regularly. And as most of us know , it is often challenging to garner the discipline necessary to establish a routine that will lead to your goals. Learning to meditate, for example, is a discipline and a challenge, but can also be engaging and interesting, encouraging you to want to do it. And it serves to establish a strong ability to focus in an open and relaxed way. It can inspire curiosity, a very important component in any kind of endeavor: it can involve your whole brain and body and move you forward into deep exploration.

Being awakemove into spirit

To be fully attentive, we have to be awake!
This is a fairly commonsense idea: if we’re asleep, we’re not attending to anything. When we’re awake, our attention depends on the degree of wakefulness. If we’re drowsy, day dreaming or stressed, we have decreased focus and attention. We have to be in a narrow continuum where we have highly focused and relaxed attention to look at and experience something and get all the details about it.

Being youngchild in leaves

Attention can improve concentration, frontal brain functioning, I.Q., sequencing, context, drive and executive control.

And it can also bring wonder! When your brain is attentive and focuses in a relaxed and open way, you can develop the innocence, curiosity and wonder of a child. When you meditate, your mind will move into something truly interesting, and so finding  the enthusiasm to continue is a natural result.

There are many ways to enhance attention (look at the end of my blog). Meditation training is one wonderful to do this. Research has shown that structural changes occur in the brain’s circuitry that enhance relaxation, focus and curiosity, helping to relieve us of our “creaky” brains and, in a way, become like little kids again. Personally, I love this!

 

Inattention

As a rule, we don’t realize when we are being inattentive. You can think of it as a “psychic blindspot”. Road accidents, for example, are usually a result of an inattentive driver or pedestrian. We think that we see more than we do, and that has consequences. Attention failures are rampant in our current culture, dominated by fast-response technologies. You’re sitting there thinking about something, and you fire off an email before paying attention to the consequences. Or you reach for your cell phone while driving on the highway at 70 mph, leading to an accident.

Multitasking

The biggest impediment to sustained attention in our culture is multitasking. First of all, multitasking is mostly a myth: we’re actually doing things sequentially, not concurrently. Interference effects with the use of the same channel dictate that I can only listen to so many conversations at one time. However, I may be able to listen to a conversation and read something simultaneously, because they aren’t interfering with each other.

It has been found that the more people multitask the worse they actually do. They become more distracted, and they have trouble distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information. There’s also a loss of organization and of the ability to think for oneself. We need to slow down and pay attention to think most efficiently and creatively—in a word, contemplate. Again, in this respect, meditation is our friend.

One of the greatest challenges that we face in our culture may be trying to enrich our powers of attention while accommodating our society’s increasing demands for multitasking. We have to do some multitasking, but we don’t want to drive away our attentional powers!

Some cool games

Here are some techniques to keep in mind for attention games: focus; using as many senses as you can; and putting the information in the form of an image if you can (the more dramatic the better).

Visual game. Look at a series of pictures rapidly. Then close your eyes and try to describe them. This exercises both your attention and your memory.

Auditory attention game. Try a game called “Clap Your Name”. Let’s say your name is Richard. Spell it out, R-I-C-H-A-R-D, by slapping your thigh for each of the consonants and clapping your hands for each of the vowels. For an added challenge, do it with another person or a group of friends.

Sustained and selective attention game. Quickly dictate into a voice recorder a long string of randomly selected letters and numbers. Later on, listen to them and tally only the numbers or only the letters. This works even better if you get someone else to read them for you: you respond by signaling only when you’ve heard either a letter or a number.  

 Divided attention game. Practice attending to two tasks at once. Rapidly tap your finger while attending to a news story on the radio, for example.

Processing speed game. See how quickly you can shuffle a deck of cards and break the cards into suits and put them in order.

Enjoy!! Make them fun! Get smart(er)!

CREATIVITY AND YOUR PLAYFUL BRAIN

happy hands

We all agree about the value of creativity, but until recently we knew little about the brain processes underlying it.You may know that the two brain hemispheres are specialized: the left is important for verbal and symbolic processing; the right is important for visual-spatial information and is involved with emotional perception and expression. Your brain uses the most appropriate hemisphere for a specific task, with assistance from the other hemisphere.

Creativity is based on three thinking patterns: verbal language, in which unwarranted assumptions can trip us up; music and math, which require an understanding of fundamentals: and visual thinking, many optionswhich is often the key to creative thinking by envisioning and manipulating information.

Mind wandering (a.k.a. daydreaming) is the mind’s way of powering down. There’s nothing wrong with it: mind wanderers tend to score higher on creativity. When your mind wanders, your brain’s executive centers are activated along with a default network. The combination of these two networks may explain the link between mind wandering and creativity.

So let your mind putter around for a bit so your brain is free to wander productively. But don’t overdo it. It’s best in small doses. You need to allow your mind to wander if you want to be creative, but you daydreamingalso need to catch the creative idea. Important contributors to creativity are sleep (with or without dreams) and meditation. Meditation allows your brain to relax and stay focused at the same time, to allow for deeper insight and creativity in your life.

Both creativity and divergent thinking involve fluency, which means rapidly producing multiple possible solutions to a problem; elaboration, which means thinking through the details of the problem; flexibility, which means entertaining multiple approaches to the problem simultaneously; and originality, which means coming up with ideas that don’t occur to most people.

The goals for divergent thinking are 1) to achieve a spontaneous, random, unorganized and free-flowing manner of thinking and 2) to loosen control of the left hemisphere and allow the emergence of less structured, non-verbal material to emerge from the right hemisphere. Meditation gives you the capacity to make giant steps in these directions. Brainstorming, mind mapping and free writing are also avenues to pursue.

 

Another way to enhance brain function is through creative play. Puzzles, word games, and humor are marked by uncertainty and ambiguity, which test our brains in unaccustomed ways. We tend to resist not having answers to questions that we are asked, which leads to premature closure—reaching a conclusion or accepting an explanation before examining the facts and the logical conclusions flowing from these facts.

I suggest that you embrace ambiguity as a means of enhancing your brain. Puzzles are uniquely appropriate for this. Here’s one: What occurs twice in a moment, once every minute, yet never in a billion years? Think in terms of the words and letters; moment, minute, and a billion years. The answer is the letter “m”.

Develop an interest in word games. We are verbal creature, and out brains thrive on words. As we learn new words, we expand our mental horizons word puzzles call on our left hemisphere, which mediates words and language.

Here’s a fun word puzzle: have a friend cut the words from the caption of a cartoon and rearrange them. See if you can restore the punch line by putting the words back in their correct order. Puzzles involving cartoons strengthen the brain’s ability to switch points of view and think about things in unusual ways. They also challenge the brain to work with ambiguity and uncertainty. As another word challenge, have someone cut and scramble the frames of a comic strip, and then see is you can rearrange them into their correct order. This exercise tests your problem-solving ability, sense of timing, and logic.

So how should we approach solving puzzles? First, just try something! Getting started mat be the hardest step. Even a wild guess is fine, because figuring out why the guess doesn’t work helps you decide where to focus your efforts. Second, persist! The biggest reason for not solving puzzles is giving up. If you feel you can’t persist any longer, then look up the answer. It’s okay: looking up the answer isn’t cheating but simply helping your brain learn principles that will be useful in future. Understand why the answer was correct, and then imagine how you might have gotten the answer yourself. You can also try setting time limits. The brain can almost always work faster if you ask it to.

Puzzles, riddles, and jokes enhance the brain by encouraging reasoning, logic, visual imagination, spatial thinking, working memory, and creativity. Equally important, puzzles, riddles, brainteasers and jokes are just plain fun!

 Brain Teaser

 Brain teasers can help you enhance concentration, visual thinking, and creativity. Here is one of my favorites:

You are in a room with 3 light switches that turn on 3 light bulbs in another room. You can turn on only 2 of the switches, and you’re allowed only 1 trip into the room to check which 2 light bulbs are on. How do you decide which switch turns on which bulb?

There is an unwarranted assumption here—a premature closure. The terms “light bulb,” “lights,” and “turn on” suggest a visual approach, but think about what other senses might be even more helpful in solving the puzzle. Touch, the most primitive sense, will actually provide the solution.

Have you come to a solution yet? Turn 2 switches on for 10 or more minutes. Turn 1 of them off, and then go into the other room. The bulb that is still lit is controlled by the switch you left on. Now touch the other 2 bulbs. The switch you turned off controls the one that is warm. The third switch controls the other light bulb.

Cool…

You’ve Got Brains!

How Your Brain Works
Never mind what I am actually saying here: just reading this will change your brain! This is not brainwashing: brains just do this! While you are reading these words, your brain is shaping  thoughts and images. You remember and associate what I’m saying with your experiences. Creative business concept  group of color speech balloons with questions isolated on white background
You’re forming new networks of ideas which are encoded in your brain’s circuitry. Right now!

 

Clear strategic solution for business leadership with a straight path to success choosing the right strategy path with yellow traffic signs cutting through a maze of tangled roads and highways.

There are many important processes of the brain that we can explore, each intricately connected to the others. We’ll stick to the three that are most commonly measured.
The first is Attention, the important gateway to many functions of the brain.
Attention is the coordinator of brain networks involving things like sensation, movement, emotions, and thinking. It is an extremely important part of our capacity for meditation, and therefore of ease and relaxation and a deeper level of consciousness in our everyday lives.
Our lives are filled with distractions and sensory overload, which makes it a real challenge to hold our attention steady on anything at all. But by focusing on one thing, as in meditation, getting in touch with the still yet dynamic center of all this competing stimuli, we can regain our personal experience of Life Itself. The practice of meditation offers simple techniques that lay the groundwork for this delicious connection to Spirit, in spite of what may feel like complete helplessness in the face of frenzy.

Further processes of the brain are only arbitrarily separated from Attention, and have far more scope than what we ordinarily think of as brain function.

Young business person working with a notebook

The second process of the brain is general memory. When we exercise our general memory, we activate and maintain widely scattered circuits throughout the brain. We might think of these circuits as being divided into three categories. The first is sub-personal (like sub-conscious and, in Jungian terms, the Collective Unconscious). The second is personal (ordinary,day-to-day memory and awareness), and the third is transpersonal     (the memory and awareness that happens “beyond our skin”).

The third process is a special kind of memory: working memory. This is often considered the most important mental operation carried out by the adult human brain. We use our working memory when we simultaneously keep multiple things “in mind” and mentally manipulate them. This is often equated with “ordinary reality”, but is activated in deeper states of awareness as well.

The act of attention and memory facilitates the formation, activation, and retention of circuits that contribute to the brain’s optimal functioning. In a way, we are the sum total all of our memories and attentions. Memory, both general and working, is a natural extension of attention and learning. All can be springboards to higher levels of function and awareness.

Properly done, the process of meditation can utilize all of these functions of the mind. When you meditate, your brain does not turn off. Rather, it becomes interested and curious. The mind doesn’t become “quiet”, it becomes “still” as it comes to be absorbed in a new level of the Source of all things, of Life Itself. The changes that happen in the brain during meditation create new, permanent pathways that inform your life, giving you resource and enhancing your personal power and freedom.

Whatever Dance, Whatever Game

move into spirit

If you will turn your attention inside yourself every day – if you will open your mind and heart to feel the flow of energy within you and to feel your awareness of it expand – then the issues in your life become no issue at all. Your notion of who is living your life and of who is motivating your body totally changes. Furthermore, your understanding and experience of the universal, creative power of Life in its highest sense brings you complete peace within yourself. It brings you a total acceptance of your life within the larger scheme of Life Itself, and a real appreciation for the opportunities you have to interact and communicate with this power in any form. Then, whatever dance you do, whatever game you play, becomes merely the arena in which you discover and express your interchange with this creative flow.

The Trickster: The Final Installment: Stories

african

West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit

by Erik Davis
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991

Of all European pagan deities, Hermes is the one most closely aligned with Eshu. Like Hermes, Eshu is the divine messenger, and relays information between the gods and between humans and the gods. A small, very dark man, he walks with a large staff, and is often sucking on a pipe, candies, or his fingers. He the “roadmaker;” he “sets the affairs of the earth in order,…is so swift that he can be the messenger for many,…[and] can circle the earth in an instant.” Eshu’s caprice, quickness, and agility of body and mind are all characteristics he shares with Hermes, perhaps reflecting the perennial spiritual characteristics of communication.

Because Eshu is the messenger, in orisha rituals (today performed from Nigeria to Rio to Montreal) one must “feed” or call him first, before any other gods are invoked. For the Fon people, the primacy of Eshu (whom they call Legba) comes about through his linguistic ability, his proficiency at communicating. In the beginning, Mawu, the female aspect of Mawu-Lisa, the androgynous high god of the Fon, gives her seven children different realms to rule—earth, sea, animals—and gives them a language separate from her own. But she allows Legba, her youngest and most spoiled child, to remain with her and to act as a relayer of information to her children.

So Legba knows all the languages known to his brothers, and he knows the language Mawu speaks, too. Legba is Mawu’s linguist. If one of the brothers wishes to speak, he must give the message to Legba, for none knows any longer how to address himself to Mawu-Lisa. That is why Legba is everywhere.

Legba knows the cosmic language as well as the earthly language. This is why humans must ritually acknowledge him before any other god. In our monotheisms, God’s information is distant, except for the occasional prophet, and the rest of us are lost in babble and books. But Legba is always traversing that region of babble, and embodies the hope and the peril of a more open channel: hope, because he allows us to speak with the gods and for them to speak with us; and peril, because he tends to play tricks with the information he has, to keep us perpetually aware that he oversees the network of exchange. His nickname is Aflakete, which means “I have tricked you.”

In many tales, Legba both causes and solves a power play among the orisha, and he does so by conveying information. In one, Sagbata, the lord of earth, and Hevioso, the lord of sky, are perpetually besting one another, though Hevioso is generally agreed to be superior. Legba lies and tells Mawu that there is no water in the sky, which allows Hevioso to cut off the rain, causing a horrible draught. Then Legba goes to Sagbata and tells him to build a huge fire on earth, which he does. Mawu becomes afraid that the flames will burn even heaven, and she orders Hevioso to make it rain, reducing his prominence and tentatively reconciling the brothers. Among the tales of the Yoruba gods, Eshu similarly propels the narratives of jealousy and power by occupying certain privileged places where he gives ideas and information—not the whole story, but just enough to make the story happen. At one point, Shango the thunder god asks him, “Why don’t you speak straightforwardly?” “I never do,” Eshu responds. “I like to make people think.”

Perhaps the most famous Yoruba story about Eshu concerns two inseparable friends who swore undying fidelity to one another but neglect to acknowledge Eshu. These two friends work on adjacent fields. One day Eshu walks on the dividing line between their fields, wearing a cap that is black on one side and red (or white) on the other. He saunters between the fields, exchanging pleasantries with both men. Afterwards, the two friends got to talking about the man with the cap, and fall to violent quarreling about the color of the man’s hat, calling each other blind and crazy. The neighbors gather about, and then Eshu arrives and stops the fight. The friends explain their disagreement, an Eshu shows them the two-sided hat—all this to chastise the friends for not putting him first in their doings. The lesson of the tale is obvious, but just as interesting is where it places the god. Moving along the seam between two different worldviews, he confuses communication, reveals the ambiguity of knowledge, and plays with perspective.

So Eshu is a master of exchange, or crossed purposes, of crossed speech. This is why his shrines are found both at crossroads and at the market, for he is master of such networks of desire. For example, he uses his magician’s knowledge to make serpents that bite people on the way to the market, and then sells them the cure.

The Fon have a wonderful way of imagining Legba’s mastery of crossings. Mawu tells the gods that whoever can come before her and simultaneously play a gong, a bell, a drum, and a flute while dancing to their music would be chief of the gods. All the macho gods attempt and fail, but Legba succeeds, not just demonstrating his agility, but his ability to maintain a balance of crossed or contrary forms and forces (and incidentally providing a window into the unique genius of African music and rhythm). Legba dances not only to the beat of a different drummer, but to the beats of many different drummers at the same time.

Garbling the Book of Fate

The Legba of the Fon cannot be correlated exactly with the Eshu of the Yoruba. For the Yoruba, Eshu can be a nastier, more malevolent being, though he still delights in contradictions, and, to a lesser extent, sex. Where there is confusion or arguments, he is there. The violence and lawlessness of Eshu’s desire is demonstrated in an a tale related by Robert Farris Thompson about Eshu-Yangi, the father of all Eshu. (Like most orisha, Eshu exists in a countless multiplicity of individual aspects.) Eshu’s mother offers him a bounty of fish and fowl, and Eshu eats it all, and, not sated, eats his mother as well. But Eshu’s father — in this tale Orunmila, the god of divination — is ready for his hungry son when he came for papa with slavering jaws agape. Orunmila hacks Eshu into little bits, which fall all over the earth, becoming individual shards of laterite stone. Orunmila catches the remaining spirit of Eshu, and to placate his father, Eshu promises that all the stones will become Eshu’s representatives. All Orunmila has to do is bless the stones, and they will do his mystic bidding. Eshu then coughs up his mother.

In this tale of cosmic give-and-take, reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic notion of the “shards” or “sparks” separated from the deity, Eshu demonstrates both his generosity and his caprice. For the Yoruba, Eshu is the god who has access to ashé (literally meaning “so be it”), the immanent (but morally neutral) power of creation which the supreme being gives to the earth, and which can be possessed by some people.

Eshu receives ashé when all the gods journey to the supreme god to find out who is the next most powerful. Each brings a huge sacrifice, carrying it on his or her head. But Eshu consults the oracle before he goes, and finds that all he needs to bring is a bright red feather set upright on his forehead. When the supreme being sees this he grants Eshu the power of ashé, because Eshu had shown his unwillingness to carry burdens, as well as his sensitivity to the power of information. (To this day, Eshu figurines often have a large phallic plume or nail on the head.) As Thompson says, Eshu shows us that one must “cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications…or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever effect their lives—will be lost.”

Of course, these moments of crisis, of significant communication, are oracular moments, and it is appropriate that Eshu has a subtle and complex relationship with the Yoruba (and, subsequently, Fon) system of divination, Ifa. The process of the divination itself is eerily similar to that of the I Ching: The babalawo, or diviner of the Yoruba, Eshu is the god who has access to ashé (literally meaning “so be it”), the immanent (but morally neutral) power of creation which the supreme being gives to the earth, and which can be possessed by some people.

Eshu receives ashé when all the gods journey to the supreme god to find out who is the next most powerful. Each brings a huge sacrifice, carrying it on his or her head. But Eshu consults the oracle before he goes, and finds that all he needs to bring is a bright red feather set upright on his forehead. When the supreme being sees this he grants Eshu the power of ashé, because Eshu had shown his unwillingness to carry burdens, as well as his sensitivity to the power of information. (To this day, Eshu figurines often have a large phallic plume or nail on the head.) As Thompson says, Eshu shows us that one must “cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications…or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever effect their lives—will be lost.”

Because Eshu is the ties between cosmic pattern and daily life, it is obvious why he would be associated with divination. Like the kabbalistic Tree of Life, Ifa is described as having “roads,” “pathways,” or “courses,” resonant linkages of images and meanings — obviously Eshu’s bag. For the Fon, whose system of Fa divination is very similar to the Yoruba’s Ifa, Fa is destiny, the pattern of the day, the individual and the cosmos. Each person has an individual Fa, just as each person has an individual Legba. Because Legba is the only god who knows the “alphabet of Mawu,” he is “sent by Mawu to bring to each individual his Fa, for it is necessary that a man should know the writing which Mawu has used to create him.”

Sometime before Ifa existed, a Yoruba myth goes, a declining human race had stopped sacrificing to their gods, and the gods were hungry. So Eshu decided to give humans something that would make them want to live. He journeyed to a palm tree, and there the monkeys gave him sixteen palm nuts and told him to go around the world so that he might hear “sixteen saying in each of the sixteen places.” He did so, and then gave the knowledge to men through Ifa, the “sixteen places” being the sixteen primary odu and the sixteen palm nuts. This myth again demonstrate the reciprocal relationship between man and gods; it is said that without Eshu, the gods would always go hungry, for he tricks men into disastrous defiance so that they will then need to sacrifice to win back the gods’ favor. But it also emphasizes Eshu’s character as a mediator and a speedy messenger, who places himself between different perspectives and collects messages.

Legba’s relationship with Fa, and Eshu’s with Ifa, shows an extremely subtle and lively understanding of divination and destiny. Eshu gives the world Ifa, and on the babalawo ‘s divining tray, twin Eshu statues stare out at each other (again, like Hermes, Eshu is linked to twins). But he is not Ifa’s master. In one Fon tale, Fa, the god of divination and fate, sneaks into Legba’s home and sleeps with his wife. Legba asks her why and she says that his penis wasn’t big enough for her. Challenged, Legba eats an enormous amount of food and swears to have sex with her until she tires, all the while calling out “the path of destiny is large, large like a large penis.” Legba then made Fa stay in the house, while Legba takes his wife and hits the road,vowing that he will always be first, and “will always be ready to fuck.”

As Pelton writes, “Fa keeps a certain dominion over destiny, or inner space, but Legba’s elasticity gives him mastery over destiny’s paths…Legba can roam as he chooses, going in and out to bring men to their destiny, but never ceasing to widen the path for them.” By knowing the whole system, Eshu can escape, slipping through the cracks of fate. Eshu’s Ifa odu is the seventeenth, the first one outside the system.

Why is Eshu/Legba linked to divination? Because, paradoxically, freedom is tied to divination, if only for the simple fact that oracles must always be interpreted, its messages decoded. As Eshu makes abundantly clear, such decodings are always ambiguous and partial. The literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose Signifying Monkey uses Eshu to establish a model of African-American textual analysis, says that at the crossroads “there is no direct access, or contact, with truth or meaning, because Eshu governs understanding.” And Eshu is a tricky governor, whose pathways of information are always surrounded by the mud of ambiguity.

New Wordly Wisdom

When the orisha were smuggled to the New World on slave ships, they changed their character as the concrete situations of their followers changed. Mixed together, cut off from traditional structures, surrounded by Christianity and the whip, New World Africans now had different spiritual needs. The world’s most vibrant form of syncretism emerged, where Catholic saints and the orisha blended into one another, and the worldly wisdom of West Africa continued disguised in song, drum, and celebration. Eshu himself went through many changes, and while different geographical groups of African descendents took him in opposite directions, all of his varied faces nonetheless further extend his peculiar multivalent being.

In Brazil, Exu—as his name is written in Portuguese—become a darker being. In condomble, Brazilian orisha worship, Exu rules over sexual intercourse and is still served before any other god is invoked. But this is not so much to open up a divine communications channel as to placate the irascible deity and make sure that he does not spread confusion.

Eshu’s emphasis on trickery and vengeance made him an ideal orisha for slaves, who imagined him as the saint of revenge against the whites. Under these conditions, his more malevolent aspects were emphasized, as his various aspects were multiplied to cover a range of nasty magical acts. In umbanda, the urban, highly eclectic revision of condomble that relies heavily on nineteenth-century spiritualism, Exu quite simply becomes the devil.vowing that he will always be first, and will always be ready to fuck.”

In Haiti, where the orisha are known as the loa and the practice is known as voudun, Legba went through drastic changes. He is still lord of the crossroads, the grand chemin, whose channel between earth and the gods is contained in the ritual house’s peristyle, or poteau-Legba. The crossroads is seen in Legba’s vévé (a complex cosmic diagram drawn with white flour that represents the loa). But in Haiti Legba has become an old, withered peasant, bent and crippled on his cane. In her superb Divine Horsemen, the American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren tells how terrible and twisted the possessions performed by Legba are. In Haiti Deren describes a Legba who comes full circle, like the answer to the riddle of the sphinx, no longer the virile child of the morning but the impotent old man of evening. He is still the omniscient observer—as one Haitian told Deren, “We do no see him, he sees us. All those who say the truth, he is there, he hears. All those who speak evil, He is there, he listens.” But his omniscience has become the knowledge of death.

As with Brazil, the Haitian Legba is known for his magic. One prayer goes “Sondé miroir, O Legba,” which means literally “fathom the mirror” and figuratively “uncover the secrets.”  As with most Haitian loa, Legba has two main aspects: a Rada and a Petro, the Petro being darker and more frightening. Legba’s Petro aspect is called Carrefour, the crossroads, and he is lord of black magic, linked to Ghédé and Baron Samedi, the fearsome baddies of death and the grave. Legba’s sacrifice is a white cock whose neck is twisted; Carrefour gets a black cock who is set on fire and allowed to run around in agony. While Legba’s vévé emphasizes the four distinct cardinal points of the metaphysical axis, Carrefour’s emphasizes all the wayward points in between. But Carrefour’s magic is for man to use, to ward of demons or run the risks of invoking and using them. Wisely, the West African tradition puts the onus on man, not some transcendent deity; as Deren points out, it is man who makes magic, not the loa.

In Haiti and Cuba, Legba is not the devil, but is syncretized with other saints, particularly St. Anthony, St. Lazarus (who is old and walks with a cane), and, sometimes St. Peter, the gate-keeper. Again, these correspondences are not fixed in stone, but seem to mutate as the context of the world changes. This ability to adapt shows the deeply pragmatic wisdom of orisha worship, for, as esotericists know, all great magicians are revisionists, not classicists. But for all his different aspects, forms, and Christian names, some followers of the orisha insist on the central unity of the Trickster figure. Molly Ahye insists there is no difference between Haiti’s Legba and the Trinidadian/Brazilian Eshu:

Eshu is Legba, Eshu-Elegbara. Legba is a contraction. Eshu is the connection, the spiritual connection between man and divinity….Eshu is a mirror of us. He embodies all the forces, positive and negative. Eshu is the one who guards the secrets. He whose neck is twisted; Carrefour gets a black cock who is set on fire and allowed to run around in agony. While Legba’s vévé emphasizes the four distinct cardinal points of the metaphysical axis, Carrefour’s emphasizes all the wayward points in between. But Carrefour’s magic is for man to use, to ward of demons or run the risks of invoking and using them. Wisely, the West African tradition puts the onus on man, not some transcendent deity; as Deren points out, it is man who makes magic, not the loa.

A Little Legba in Us All

As is probably apparent, I feel that in Eshu/Legba we meet one of the world’s most impressive gods. His lawlessness and tricks not only keep us on our toes, but point us towards the most creative components of destiny, the free zones of fate. In him, the Trickster becomes a kind of metaphysical principle. While never losing touch with the ground, he wanders perpetually, in search of information or sex. For Pelton, Legba embodies Jung’s synchronicity, and for Henry Louis Gates, he is the Logos. But Eshu is also the being of the network, of the immanent language of connection.

 

Trickster at the Crossroads, part 2

…Scroll down for part 1….

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West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit

by Erik Davis
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991

Because the West is such a text-oriented culture, there is an understandable tendency to equate civilization with the technology of writing, and the sort of reflective interior consciousness that that particular machine apparently constructs in human beings. West Africa did not possess writing as we know it, and the orisha disclose themselves not in books but in shrine, ritual, and memory. For today’s text-oriented seeker, there are no great Yoruba books to commune with, no Gita or Genesis. Though the Yoruba system of divination, Ifa, compares to the I Ching in terms of complexity, structure, and poetic sublimity, few know about it outside the tradition, partly for the simple reason that the “writing” of Ifa is carried in the heads of the diviners, the babalawo. (A complete edition of the Ifa has recently been published by Harper SanFrancisco).

But the images of West African spirituality that come most immediately to mind in Western culture are images of ritual possession. Though many esotericists have a sympathy for invocation and strong ritual, the performance of West African possession remains bracing, far different from the bloodless, “spiritualized” rituals of monotheisms, or from the almost literary rituals of modern, reconstructed Neo-Paganism. Possession by the orisha is a visceral fact. To the intensely exciting yet coolly controlled beating of drums, the possessed person (usually a dancer; in Haitian parlance, the “horse” who is to be “ridden”) shakes, falls on the ground, rolls his or her eyes, perhaps froths at the mouth, and speaks in different voices. The particular orisha is recognized by his or her mannerisms, is costumed appropriately in ritual rooms, and proceeds to prophesy, dance, ask for food or booze, and if it’s Eshu, may start pawing the ladies. I have attended Haitian voudun rituals, but even from photographs and film it is clear from the eyes of the possessed person that a qualitatively different order of consciousness and personality has momentarily annexed the everyday persona, which invariably recalls almost nothing of the experience.

In its rituals, the West African tradition has learned to plug people directly into the realm of archetypes, archetypes which are strengthened by interfacing with the “lower” traits of ordinary human personalities. One clue to the nature of this interchange lies in the fact that possession often seems to be triggered by the master drummer playing particular patterns within the complex web of polyrhythmic drumming. Haitians calls these jarring, rhythmically “dissonant” patterns cassés (or “breaks,” a phrase used in a similar musical sense in today’s hip-hop culture). Possession may result from the cognitive dissonance of the cassé, the alien beat that enters from another plane and shakes up up the rhythms of the everyday. In any case, possession is a magnificently strange act, a radically immanent embracing of spiritual being that is both magical (a worldly invocation of spirits) and religious (as a selfless release to godhead). Possession by the orisha concretizes spirit and ties it to the cycle of ancestors and blood and the rhythms of sex and family.

So too is blood sacrifice, the “feeding” of the orisha, an acute acknowledgement of the material dimension of spirit, of the fact that it is humans, not gods, that keep gods alive, and that our being is bound up with the excesses of mutual contract and exchange. Molly Ahye, an important scholar of Trinidadian dance as well as an orisha worshiper, speaks about how one “must have the blood, which is a life force, which spirit lives on. You think that spirit doesn’t need sustenance, but spirit needs sustenance” (Ahye admitted, however, that she did not kill animals herself).

Even if we cannot accept possession or animal sacrifice, we err in seeing the orisha as being merely superstitious products of animism, or as folk heroes elevated to the level of gods. The orisha are highly evolved archetypal patterns, and they work out metaphysical problems in the heart of life. They form a network, a living and evolving system of forms and forces that from certain angles resonates deeply with the perennial philosophy of the West.

And at the interstices of this network is the Yoruba deity Eshu-Elegbara (or Eshu for short), perhaps the world’s most sophisticated Trickster figure (a very similar figure, Legba, exists among the Fon in neighboring Benin). More than a well-hung culture hero (though he’s that too), Eshu is a divine mediator of fate and information, a linguist, a crafty metaphysician. Eshu is a trickster not just because he fools people and creates chaos, but more profoundly because he’s always escaping the codes of the he simultaneously reinforces. He gives the world the divination system of Ifa, but does not rule over its poetic prophecies, because he is always flowing through the cracks of fate. Eshu fully embodies the sophisticated metaphysics of West Africa, a metaphysics of change and communication, of the copulation between being and world, of the complex power of the crossroads. Eshu expresses a spiritual principle of connection, and the chaos and trickiness of exchange. That he is a god, with stories and moods and lusts, only shows that in the West African tradition, spiritual principles are most real when they’re brought into the fabric of daily life, of the recognizably human patterns of money, family, sex, power, and language.

Trickster at the Crossroads

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This is a really interesting article on West African spirituality, still alive and well there. I’m breaking the article into 2-3 segments over the next few weeks, simply because it is so long….If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to overstuff your brain! If you have come here from the email you received, scroll down a bit to pick up where you left off.

West Africa’s God of Messages, Sex and Deceit

by Erik Davis
Originally appeared in Gnosis, Spring, 1991

When we think of tricksters, we generally imagine folk characters and culture heroes, not gods. Tricksters either tend to be associated with animal spirits (such as Coyote), or are Promethean figures, archetypal “humans” who interact with and upset the world of the gods. But one of the world’s greatest and most interesting trickster figures is not only a god, but a god of high metaphysical content. He is Eshu-Elegbara, one of the orisha, the West African deities that are worshiped in many related forms across African and the African diaspora in the New World.

While he embodies many obvious trickster elements— deceit, humor, lawlessness, sexuality—Eshu-Elegbara is also the god of communication and spiritual language. He is the gatekeeper between the realms of man and gods, the tangled lines of force that make up the cosmic interface, and his sign is the crossroads. In the figure of Eshu-Elegbara, the West African tradition makes a profound argument about the relationship among spiritual communication, divination, and the peculiar chaotic qualities of the trickster. But before we investigate Eshu-Elegbara’s character, we must first place him in the general context of orisha worship.

Meet the Living Gods.

The orisha, the gods of the Fon and Yoruba peoples of West Africa, are some of the most vital and intriguing beings ever to pass through the minds of men and women. The orisha are profoundly “living” gods, if by this we means archetypes, or constellations of images and forces, that actively permeate the psychic lives of living humans. On the simplest level they are alive because they are worshiped: orisha are prayed to, invoked, and ritually “fed” by many millions of people in both Africa and the Americas. Not only are the gods alive, but they are long-lived; unlike contemporary Neo-Pagan deities, which have basically been reconstructed from the inquisitional ashes of history, the orisha have been passed through countless generations of worshipers with little interruption.

More profoundly, the very nature of the orisha is to be alive in the most fundamental sense we know — though our own human lives. Though they possess godlike powers, the orisha are not transcendent beings, but are immanent in this life, bound up with ritual, practice, and human community. They are accessible to people, combining elements of both mythological characters and ancestral ghosts. Like both of these groups of entities, the orisha are composed of immaterial but idiosyncratic personalities that eat, drink, lie, and sleep with each other’s mates. Though West African tradition does posit a central creator god, he/she is generally quite distant, and the orisha are, like us, left in a world they did not create, a world of nature and culture, of sex, war, rivers, thunder, magic, and divination. The orisha are regularly “fed” with animal blood, food, and gifts, and during rituals the gods frequently possess the bodies of the faithful. Their behavior draws from the full range of human experience, including sexuality, mockery, and intoxication.

That the orisha remain outside the scope of many Western students of esotericism and even polytheism is understandable, given the historical domination of Africans by the Europeans of the New World. Black Americans were forced to hide their deities or dress them up in Catholic garb, while whites cut themselves off from all but the most superficial appreciations of those African cultural values that managed to survive. To even graze the heart of the orisha, white Westerners must overcome two obstacles: the storehouse of Hollywood’s cartoon representations we carry in our subconscious, and the more pernicious underlying Western prejudices against traditional African worship, which run the gamut from the denigration of blood sacrifice to the absurd notion that polyrhythm is somehow less sophisticated and more primitive than European musical forms.

But why bother? As one esotericist I spoke to put it, “Why be interested in these grotesque and parasitic deities?” One could answer that these gods are fascinating, vibrant, and unique, and serve as a window onto the spirit and culture of Africa and the black traditions that have had a major influence on New World culture. More to the point, however, they are not grotesque but rich in character; they are not parasites, but entities deeply and reciprocally bound up with the daily lives of their worshipers. When we look on West Africa, we must keep in mind that our “instinctive” sense that these alien practices are primitive, savage, and even demonic is the lingering afterimage of thoroughly European and colonialist images of tribal Others dancing in the hot jungles of sexuality, atavism, and perversion. Looking toward Africa, the first thing the West encounters is its own dark mirror.

The fact that people tend to simplify images of pre-colonialist Africa — for example, imagining simple villages where there were vast, cosmopolitan city-states replete with bureaucrats, poets, and sewer systems — is only one indication of the lingering tendency to see Africa as the repository of the primitive. Even when looking seriously at West African spiritual traditions, white Westerners run into two potential traps: the error of seeing such systems as purely traditional and not historically dynamic; and the temptation to idealize tribal peoples and project onto them some prelapsarian harmony with Nature, a condescending and overly romantic error rampant, for example, in the New Age embrace of Native American spirituality.

A Look at the Nature of Our Minds

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The nature of the mind might be considered to be like the jumbled static you hear on a radio. Or the sounds of a lot of people talking at once, loudly, on the bus or in a frenzied day in your office. Or a crazy day in traffic. A lot of input, a lot of distraction, not much direction.

When you are influenced by that, and it’s hard not to be, you can become distracted, agitated and annoyed. It becomes difficult for you to concentrate. Try getting jostled around in traffic while you are trying to work out some intricate problem in your head. Not so easy.

This is the state that many people are in when they come into my meditation class. Their minds are scattered and all over the place. Most come in afraid that they will never be able to quiet their minds and meditate because they are pulled in by the cacophony in their heads.

But it is actually okay to have that static going on. It is a normal state for most of us, most of the time. But it is extremely hard to “quiet” the mind. It is like wrestling with a demon if we try to hit the issue head on. It only makes the challenge more difficult, because it draws our attention to exactly that which we are trying to get rid of. Energy follows thought, and what you see is what you get!

A better way to approach this situation is to thinking about “stilling” the mind. Think about the time you were in a noisy room, and you became involved in your really interesting task. When you are doing something interesting, the noise disappears and the mind calms and becomes attentive. Or think about being at a really engrossing movie: the distractions of life disappear into the story line. All your senses are filled and it is as if nothing more existed. It is effortless.

As you move into meditation, you will find that it is interesting and your mind will follow it and eventually become still. Notice. Be curious. It really doesn’t matter what state your mind is in when you begin your meditation. It’s just so much noise. Trying to fight that and make yourself quiet is like trying to tame a tiger. Don’t feed that beast. Paying attention to the breath or the mantra you are doing draws you into a dynamic stillness and gives your brain a rest that is easy to stay with. You are not trying to quiet anything. You are fully present, allowing your attention to follow something much more interesting than static and noise.

S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G

move into spirit

“Common wisdom is generally neither common nor wise”

–John Kenneth Galbraith

“Justifying improved practice on scientific evidence is a dynamic process. With new evidence, the foundation will change…Be prepared to challenge current thoughts and rethink currently accepted practices.”

–Stuart McGill

Over the past several years, there has been an increasing level of controversy regarding stretching and its role in health, athletics, injury prevention, rehabilitation and back health. The amount of information out there is vast and often conflicting.

Some of the most recent controlled studies have found that passive (“static”) stretching—which requires no voluntary muscle activity—prior to training does not reduce or prevent injuries. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. It has been shown that less force is needed to rupture “stretchy” muscle than “stiff” muscle. (Voluntary muscles, also called skeletal muscles, are the ones that require some level of intent to move them: they move the bones, as in moving the arms or legs. These are different from involuntary muscles, which are primarily stabilizing, as in the postural muscles of the spine, which keep you upright and stable).

This does not mean that “stiff” muscles are good, and that we shouldn’t implement stretching into our routines. What it does mean is that we need to pay attention to “dynamic flexibility”, the ability to move joints through a range of motion during active movement with strength as a key component requiring voluntary muscle involvement.

Another very important piece is that we need to pay attention to the fact that we are not a conglomeration of distinct and separate segments, that flexibility and strength is a whole body, continuous necessity, from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads. Each part of our body has a part in supporting the body as a whole. Any part of our bodies that do not have flexibility and strength is a weak link in the chain, and can be injured or cause injury in some related part of the body.

In every sport, indeed, in every movement, mobility is a requirement, but loose joints without precisely controlled strength are unstable. This decreases such things as strength, balance and reaction time and increases the likelihood of subsequent injury. A reduction in strength or performance is clearly not what most people are looking for be they athlete, laborer, or weekend gardener.

Studies have shown that skeletal muscle damage can occur when stretched only 20% beyond its resting length. There is evidence of this damage hours after a bout of stretching, which has led scientists to conclude that stretching causes delayed-onset muscle soreness.

Dr. Ben Benjamin presents an explanation as to why prolonged periods of static stretching (60 seconds) are problematic. This is that it initiates what is called the “stretch reflex”, a defensive mechanism designed to prevent muscles from stretching too far. In response to over-stretching the muscle reflexively contracts, which creates tension and pulling on the tendons and ligaments at the joints which can reduce the stiffness they must have in order to stabilize the joints.

One of the major issues people face is maintaining and/or regaining back health. According to Stuart McGill, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers of spinal mechanics and spinal health, there are no studies that have shown that working to increase back flexibility increases performance or healing. He goes on to explain that back flexibility is prescriptive on an individual basis, but not as a general prescriptive requirement to rehabilitate a bad back or maintain good back health. But strength endurance training is necessary for both.

In conclusion, the commonly assumed wisdom and perception of stretching as a panacea for pain and injury reduction, back health issues and performance improvement does not meet scientific reality. Dynamic warm-ups and strength building using ranges of motion, as well as whole body exercises that connect and work through the whole body to develop functional ranges of motion, will substantially contribute to function, performance and injury reduction.

–with thanks to Michael Reams, of the Rolf Institute of Structural Integration