FEBRUARY, 2007

 

Mythic Prelude:

 

Working in Paradise

Greetings, and welcome at the top of February to Imbolc, the great mid-winter festival that people in many strong-rooted cultures still celebrate as a time for cleansing hearth and soul of whatever has stiffened or rotted, and must be purged now for the welcoming of Spring. It is time now to drive out sorrow and invite joy, as the Japanese do at Setsubun on Feb. 3.

At the moment of crisis in the raucous ritual dance plays of Setsubun, dancers costumed as oni (devils) roar into the shrine and menace the people with fearsome-looking stage weapons until, at the climactic moment, children throw dried beans at the ogres and drive them away, shouting Oni wa soto, fuku was uchi! (Out with the bad, in with the good!) Thus fear and pain are defeated by childlike innocence armed with the latent vitality of the bean plant, and its miraculous power to send new shoots fast and high in no time, especially in a place as fecund as Japan.
Setsubun is a superb example of our ancient and current condition, and of what we will have to change through our conscious effort if we're to bring our planet and ourselves safely and happily through this year and the years beyond. The problem is always the same. It is so easy for us to see and hear what we don't want. The devils in the shrine have grotesque faces and horns, and long, matted black hair. They run heavy, like troublemakers. Their voices mock and bellow, and they swing clubs and halberds taller than a foreigner's father. When the oni come, we know right now who has really got those beans coming, and when to let them fly.
The harder part of the deal, though, as we all know, is that it's much harder for us to invite and attract the good because for many of us, it isn't here yet, and we have no idea what it looks, sounds and feels like. Yes, the Japanese do complete the Setsubun festival rite at home, when they've come back from the shrine, by swallowing a prescribed number of beans, thus taking into their bodies the same magic that drove the devils away. But really, eating the beans with your family is not nearly as heady, scary and fun as throwing them at a demon. And in the same way, the "bad" characters in our stories are sexy, funny and charismatic, so the cliche about them is that they're "deliciously e-word." The "good" characters are pale and tepid by comparison, which is why those who read Dante are moved by the Inferno and endure the Paradiso. Edmund gets all the ready girls in King Lear, while Gloucester gets blinded and Cordelia gets hanged. Satan steals Paradise Lost. Mozart had to write two superb arias for the virtuous Don Ottavio to give him a way to belong at all in the story of the sinuous, sinful Don Giovanni. And on and on.
It's worked the same way on our planet as a whole, for a very long time. The bad guys are always so fascinating that it was only a matter of time before some patriarch, some ancestor of the Wizard of Oz, would cook up the most vicious myth in our history -- a myth in the negative sense of a fake story invented to control people through fear, rather than a positive myth, which unites us in seeing the truth of our universal experience. It's always been easy for religious dreadheads to sell Hell, as we certainly know what it looks like. The oldest among us remember how deep and black the pit looked some 60 years ago, when they were young. We know what it looks like today, in the parched hells of Darfur and Iraq, and we will know it in an increasingly arid Australia, if an environmental report issued days ago is correct in predicting that Sydney will be unlivable by 2070. We know what hell looks like in the flooded horror of Bangladesh, the nation that suffers most from rising water levels on our planet. We can even see it in the glitzy, beeping, addiction-ridden hells of the "developed" countries. And Dante could have used Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo as source material for his Inferno. The only thing that would have puzzled him, as there was no idea of electricity yet, was why those damned souls in hoods and iron cuffs dance and writhe the way they do when those little wires don't even pierce them, but just touch them. And the poet would probably have drawn the line at having diavoli decapitate the doomed with saws. The image wouldn't ring true, as not even Satan could be that cruel.
Enough of that. It's time to reverse the energy current by proposing that instead of projecting the cruelties of human beings into a fantasy of ultimate horror and agony that we call "hell," we might remember the premise that we will get more of whatever we focus on and feed. It's in our interest, then, to direct our visioning instead to what we do want. If we want to create a happier and more peaceful planet, then it certainly can't hurt to imagine what Heaven on Earth might look like if we could indeed bring it into being.
Before we go there, a brief note on February's celestial dynamics, and why they're so appropriate to this month's theme. The great recurring planet combination that dominates the year from mid-2006 to mid-2007, and first formed last August, comes into effect again this month, and is exact on Feb. 28. The opposition of Saturn in Leo and Neptune in Aquarius will again create a harmonious tension between long-established religious beliefs and practices (Saturn) and new ways of either perceiving the mystical union (Neptune) that connects us all in feeling the universal heart, or leads us into the wildest, most watery scams and delusions. For more on this, see the Astral Notes for Winter, 2006 - 2007.
So we travel now to heaven, already in progress. Our English paradise comes from the Persian paradeiz, a walled garden like the one at left, resplendent with
flowering trees and date palms. It's dry-looking because the image still comes, after all, from the Middle East. The picture at right shows the usual image as many male believers, at least, see it. "They shall wear fine and thick silk, (sitting) face to face," as the Holy Qur'an says. There will be music too, as we notice in the figure to the right of the pavilion. The usual hierarchy seems to apply in heaven as it did on earth, with the guests grouped like courtiers around the canopied dais in the center, under which are bags full of good things to eat. For all we can tell, the joys
of heaven will all be in the mouth, the mind and the ear, and will be shared only by males. But as the Qur'an also says, "We will wed them with Houris pure, beautiful ones" (Sura 44.51-54). Perhaps as many as each man wants. These heavenly maidens are said to be enticingly-shaped and perfectly complaisant, without bodily odor, unseemly sweat or any other imperfection that might trouble a fastidious man, and they seek only to delight the most pious of men. Many of us wonder, naturally, if a Middle Eastern woman has wondered now and then, over these many centuries, if the garden also has room for a discreet tent, or millions of them, where virtuous women get to enjoy bronzed, odorless young men who have only enough fat on them to fuel their boundless energy. If such thoughts have ever crossed a feminine mind, they are spoken, we imagine, only to other women who resonate with the same idea. They are never published, for obvious reasons.
The people of the crescent are not the only ones to imagine that heaven will have sexual bliss, and plenty of it. A Jesuit I knew once posited that heaven would be like one continuous orgasm. And while Hieronymus Bosch's celebrated painting The Garden of Earthly Delights is set right here on Earth, it shows how some ostensibly Christian believers have imagined heaven. The whole painting is not shown here because it would take you an eternity, while we're speaking of that, to download it. Better to view it online. A Virgo like the author will naturally notice some strategic details. The lower part of the painting shows that no matter how the most narrow-hearted among us may believe that heaven has many mansions, so one never has to mingle with people of colors other than his own, there is no separation of the "races" in paradise. The figures in the cave at the lower right corner are believed to be Adam and Eve. All over the garden, happy people of both sexes eat delectable giant fruits, play with birds and animals, dance and make merry. And everywhere in this mosch by Bosch, free human beings celebrate without guilt or shame the joys of love. No couples are shown in flagrante delicto -- we are still in the Europe of the late Middle Ages -- but those pairs of graceful feet that we see sticking up from the bushes here and there are probably those of women who are eagerly engaged in something other than calisthenics.
It turns out, as Gay Talese reported in Thy Neighbor's Wife, that Bosch was an important member of "the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, an erotic sect that considered itself directly descendant from Adam and Eve; they worshiped in the nude in secret churches they called Paradise, and while they indulged in group sex they regarded it as an experience in shared love rather than an impersonal orgy. . . . the freedom-seeking Brothers and Sisters, sometimes called Adamites, were eventually destroyed during the Inquisition, although a remembrance of their nude gatherings survives in [Bosch's] paintings." This was certainly not the first time, nor will it be the last, that those who seek Heaven on Earth can be put through Hell by those who believe that Paradise can'd possibly be here and now.
Painters as prosperous as Hieronymus Bosch, and others well-nourished enough not to fear starvation, could well have imagined heaven as sexy -- but for the peasants who endured lives of dismal poverty, the best imaginable place was the legendary Land of Cockaigne, depicted here by Pieter Brueghel the Elder as a marvelous realm where no one has to work, or even stay awake. And no one has to settle for quinces poached from the duke's forest
when joints of meat, loaves of bread and wheels of cheese grow from tree branches so low that surfeit-minded serfs don't even have to exert themselves by standing on tiptoe to pluck them. Slaves in the American south before the civil war dreamed of a similar heaven, where flapjacks already sweetened with cane sugar hung from the trees.
We usually envision the bliss of heaven as some version of what we love most on Earth, even when our original belief system offered something much less thrilling. Greeks in the age of Homer saw the domain of Hades as a joyless place, a kind of steam room without heat where souls do little but wish they were still back up in the light and song of the world above. Among the shades Odysseus meets in the underworld is Achilles, who tells him (in W. H. D. Rouse's quaint rendering), "I would rather be a plowman for a yeoman farmer on a small holding than lord Paramount in the kingdom of the dead." But in the Hellenistic era a few centuries later, the Greeks idealized the afterlife as the balmy meadows of the Elysian Fields, where one could talk philosophy with Socrates, statecraft with Pericles and theatre with Sophocles, joke with Aristophanes or even drink unwatered wine with Alcibiades, assuming he got there somehow. The Romans liked the myth of the meadow too, and spread it so far and wide that Europeans have been trying to get to the Champs Elysees ever since. So even when a religion doesn't have a paradise at the top, as the ancient Greek religion didn't, it's likely to invent one sooner or later, simply because we want to believe in it.
Buddhism is another example. It has some paradises too, though the Buddha himself might have been surprised to know this. Nirvana, as he saw it, seems to have been not a place but a state of mind -- or no mind -- in which the illusion of ego consciousness is extinguished, and the soul that enters nirvana, if there is an individual soul and if it continues to exist, is freed from desire and the agony of another ride on the wheel of birth and betrayal, suffering and death. Yet sure enough, some Buddhists have dreamed up a heaven too, like Amida's Pure Land, where Japanese, some of them at least, hope to go. In the charming custom of Obon, artist-engineers build on mountains around Kyoto the unforgettable sight of huge bonfires in the shape of symbols such as the Boat of Salvation, and the Chinese kanji characters for Greatness, Heaven's Law and other divine ideas (picture at August 15). The people believe that some of the departed souls may get lost up there in the ether, and the fires below may help them get their bearings again, and wing their way home.
The Christian idea of paradise has always been something of a mystery. In funeral rites for the departed, believers of all denominations pray for much the same thing: Requiescant in pace, May they rest in peace. And while the Scriptures do say something about how the blest will get to heaven -- such as the popular rapture scenario about how they'll suddenly rise out of their clothes and up through the air -- the Holy Bible is silent about what the righteous will do once they win salvation. The best-known traditional belief is that they'll enter the pearly gates; and then, like the angels who "praise Allah with litanies," according to the Sufi poet Yunus Emre, they'll spend eternity singing hymns and playing harps.
The Lord surely empowers the saved, if it will truly happen that those who dreaded having to sing when they were flesh, and never quite had the eye-hand coordination of Pee Wee Reese, will now burst into Pavarotti and acquire the finger dexterity of Manal Mohei el Din. It is even more wondrous that they'll never get bored as they go on chanting and strumming forever and ever. Or -- it may happen that the Jesuit I knew was right. Being in the Divine Presence may free us altogether from any need to do anything. That's how Dante imagined it. In Gustave Dore's illustration of the climactic moment in the whole Commedia, Dante stands with Beatrice as they behold the blessed souls and angels all form the gigantic white rose of paradise as they surround the Ultimate Light that they are able to see at last.
It's a compelling vision, certainly the most spiritual of all the ones we've glanced at here. But whether the believers envision salvation as eternal bliss, or as an endless carnival of eating, drinking, sleeping and sex, they all agree on one thing: at last, nobody has to work in the afterlife. Not for one erg or one minute. Labor is one thing about life on Earth that we will leave behind for good once we get to the great beyond. Nobody, apparently, has envisioned the life after this one as a domain in which we'll ever have to punch a time card, meet a deadline or plow a single yard.
Nobody but one, that is. One surprising thing about the endlessly beguiling culture of ancient Khemt (aka Egypt) is that the virtuous expected to spend part of each day working in the afterlife, and even looked forward to it -- and not because they had to, but because work in the fields affirmed their union with the irrepressible life of nature. Egyptologists, as fixated as they normally are on their granite opinion that Khemt was nothing more than a materialistic, superstitious death culture, tend to stop at the Judgment before Ausar (Osiris), when the heart of the departed soul is weighed in the balance against the feather of truth. If the soul has any weight of violence or mendacity at all, it is immediately eaten by Ammit the monster. If it is light and pure, it is welcomed by Osiris, goes through the gate of the Duat, and does . . . what? Most "experts" have always assumed the soul will do what so many tomb reliefs show it doing when it was in a body: receive obeisance from staff and servants, eat duck, beef, bread and grapes, drink beer and enjoy music, dancing and love. But one brilliant Khemt scholar from a century ago, Gerald Massey, author of Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World, understood the scenario perfectly. He knew that images like this one from the "New Kingdom" are easy enough to find if one is only willing to look:
These are surely the unlikeliest-looking farmers that we might imagine at work anywhere in heaven or on Earth. The husband, at left, does not so much guide his plow as just follow it, as his cattle stroll with shoulders loose and heads high, not having to expend even one calorie to pull a plow that glides through soil as smooth and fine as palm oil. His wife needs no sickle to harvest the grain. Both are dressed in costumes that would be more fitting at a music soiree: long gossamer gowns, thin sandals, lotus flowers tucked in the front of their headbands and bright streamers hanging from the back, even cones of scented fat on their heads that melt as the work goes along, permeating the whole field with the fragrance of frankincense, jasmine and rose. The Sun above warms, but never burns. The Wind caresses, but never stirs the sand into dust. The River brings just enough water every day, and there is never drought or flood, pest or famine. The plant stalk in the man's hand never touches the haunches of his cattle. He holds it like a ceremonial staff, for he and his beloved are priest and priestess of the eternal green. Though the farmers hardly work at all, the harvest is always abundant, and the wheat grows taller than the farmers. Forever. Working in Paradise.
So two ideas are worth weighing now, as we see how our visions of paradise may ripen in the years that unfold from now. One is so obvious that it need hardly be stated. We have our work cut out for us, but you already know that. Only those who don't begin to get the opportunity for awakening that awaits us believe that we shall somehow be rescued by the extraterrestrials, angels or some new or returning savior, without making the effort ourselves to create the change. But one thing that may still not be clear, even to many who are already on the work force, is that the job will be easier than we imagine, if we hold the intention that it will be so.
The other idea is that Heaven on Earth is already here, though this may at times be hard to believe. It's been almost 2,000 years since Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is within you." We might have begun to locate it by now if so many human beings were not searching for the Divine and paradise in the sky, the afterlife and everywhere else but inside themselves. At long last, we may understand that it has always been within our reach, now that we know we can act together to actualize it. It's unstoppable, really, and there is no point in thinking on it too much with the brain alone. "The essence of reality is change," Henri Bergson wrote, "and it cannot be known by reason.” He also said, "The universe is a machine for making Gods.” And consider this, by Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov from his Daily Meditation at Prosveta Publishing:
"The kingdom of God has been established on high since the creation of the world. We must now make it a reality here on earth among humans, by learning to manifest the divine virtues. All the great masters and initiates know they have come to earth to work for the realization of the kingdom of God. This means that the spiritual teachings which encourage us to abandon the earth, claiming that it is a vale of tears and that our true homeland is elsewhere, do not conform to God’s plans. According to what we know and what the great initiates have taught us, it is God’s will and plan that we establish his kingdom on earth. Man must work on matter, making it sensitive and subtle, so that it can vibrate in harmony with the world of the spirit."
So how to begin attracting Paradise right now? Attune ourselves with it in sound, so that it will have to resonate with us. One excellent place to start is with World Sound Healing Day, organized again by sound healing master Jonathan Goldman on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. The premise that worldwide sound meditations create a global resonating field has already been proven. Now it is time to take it beyond Broadway with a cast that includes you, me, dolphins, whales, angels, everybody who wants to rise and sing. All together now: and a one, and a two, and a whole new world. Keep Holding That Frequency.
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Copyright 2007 Dan Furst. All Rights Reserved.