Sunday, May 6, 2012

Of black ducks and mystery teachings

A small dolmen in a park in Copenhagen. 

In this week we have seen two events that might in the future be seen as small way markers along the path in the direction we are heading. The first one, close to home, was the sudden bankruptcy and cessation of Denmark's de facto national airline Cimber Sterling. The news, when it appeared on Thursday morning, came like a small black swan (let's call it a black duck) and shocked passengers at the airport were duly interviewed, with most of them standing forlornly beside their luggage with 'what am I supposed to do now?' attitudes.

The second event was on the other side of the world in Japan where it has been reported that the last of the country's 50 nuclear reactors has now been taken offline, with no realistic prospect of being reconnected in a country still dealing with the legacy of the meltdown at Fukushima. Plan B, as far as the Japanese are concerned, involves importing huge amounts of oil and gas to make up for the electricity shortfall. This can hardly be seen as a long term strategy for any number of reasons and is a timely reminder that our menu of energy options boils down to no more than a few dishes of the day.

If, like me, you regard events such as these as ever-mounting evidence of a growing crisis in the industrial world for which we are wholly unprepared, then the next logical step would seemingly be to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Using the analogy of a large ship that is sailing towards an iceberg, we can either don our life jackets and stand ready by the lifeboats (having failed to convince the captain of the danger), or else pretend not to see the clearly visible icebergs looming in our path and instead carry on knocking back tequilas at the bar six decks below. Such measures, in the real world, might involve building as many useful skills as possible in order that we are not totally caught short when delicate supply chains shatter, or building greater community bonds so that you can take advantage of the division of labour when the energy slaves suddenly perish. There are certain practical things that you can do as well to ensure a relative degree of comfort for yourself and your family, such as planting a garden and insulating your house.

All of the above could be considered wise moves for those who, as Dmitry Orlov puts is, are not interested in sitting in the dark wearing dirty clothes wondering what went wrong. But taking the whole thing a stage further than the merely practical we could do ourselves a favour and build some resilience into our attitudes and the way we think about things and relate to the world. This makes sense from several perspectives. A problem, unless it is life threatening, is accorded a severity based on our perception of how serious it is. And in an age when problems are rushing towards us like an army of orcs in a Lord of the Rings movie, it would seem only prudent to adopt as many forms of defence against them as it is possible to muster.

It was with this in mind that I recently read a copy of John Michael Greer's latest book Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Now, I'm not going to say that this is a book review because a) I'm not at all qualified to review such a book and b) It could never be because to review a book you must at least maintain a fa├žade of detached objectivity and anyone who has read this blog would simply not believe me if claimed that to be so. Furthermore, the book is primarily concerned with the mystery teachings, which have been studied and practised by mankind down the ages, and as such they can't be 'analysed' as such in a purely intellectual manner. So, instead, 'll just say what the book is about and what I got from it.

My background is about as non-spiritual as the next average Joe. I wasn't raised as a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim. I wasn't even raised as an atheist, and can probably count on the fingers of both feet the number of times I have ever been in a church that wasn't a school trip, a funeral or a wedding. In fact, like the overwhelming majority of people in the UK, I was raised as a kind religion-less materialist and the only kind of salvation or goal worthy of pursuing that was ever suggested to me was to 'make it' in the City or somewhere.

Nevertheless, I wasn't entirely without the feeling that there must be more to life than two flat dimensions and I do remember at an early age having a strong feeling that purpose of life must be to gaze in awe at the wonders of the universe. If that sound pretentious, I'm sorry, but it's the only way I can describe it. I'm not sure where that feeling came from, but it could have had something to do with my mother, who was a quiet spiritualist with a firm conviction of there being 'something more' based on an out-of-body experience she had had a small girl when she had 'died' from middle ear disease and was able to watch her sobbing parents and the frantic doctor from somewhere up near the ceiling. This must have struck a chord with me and a latent spirituality manifested itself in me around the age of 30 when, having read practically everything Alan Watts had ever written, I found myself drifting towards Buddhism. But any progress on my path to Nirvana was halted when I met a visiting lama in Copenhagen and was revolted by the sycophancy of his acolytes and their 'holier than thou' attitude. Buddhism, it suddenly seemed, was all about amassing karma by giving silk scarves to important people and elbowing others out of your way to do so.

Nevertheless, there were many good and useful things in Buddhism that have stayed with me and one of them is the idea that true transformation comes from within – and that this requires a lot of work. This, it turns out, is one of the core messages of the mystery teachings, and John Michael Greer explains their Seven Laws using the language of the science of ecology. By doing so he is repeating a tradition of presenting their teachings in a language that people in the modern age can understand. In ancient Greece, Plato taught them using the language of geometry, which was the hip science of the age back then, so Greer is translating them to language that we can readily understand.

Greer is also interested in correcting what he sees as a gaudy over-commercialised and watered down version of the mystery teachings and spiritualism in general that has mushroomed in recent decades, taking particular issue with the idea that positive thinking can make you financially rich and/or have any other effect in the material world of our everyday lives. Similarly, he is not impressed by any New Age 'airy fairy' insistence that we are all heading into a new Age of Aquarius via some form of apocalypse or rapture or mass rebirth of consciousness. The kind of transformation he has in mind requires a lot of practice and is hard work but ultimately much more rewarding.

The book is split into two sections with the first being an explanation of the Seven Laws of the mystery teachings explained through the language of ecology and the second being about how to use these teachings in your everyday life as a kind of psychic defence against the kinds of predicaments I mentioned above and a way of making sense of the universe on a level deeper than a purely intellectually rationalising basis. At the end of each section is a meditation exercise, an affirmation and a theme for reflection.

The Seven Laws are explained at some length, each with the analogy of a meadow with its various populations of field mice, snakes, birds of prey and plant species. They are set out as follows – with the explanation of each being taken directly from the book:

1 – The Law of Wholeness. Everything that exists is part of a whole system and depends on the health of the whole system for its own existence. It thrives only if the whole system thrives and it cannot harm the whole system without harming itself.

2 – The Law of Flow. Everything that exists is created and sustained by flows of matter, energy and information that come from the whole system to which it belongs and that return to the whole system. Participating in these flows, without interfering with them, brings health and wholeness; blocking them, in an attempt to turn flows into accumulations, causes suffering and disruption to the whole system and all its parts.

3 – The Law of Balance. Everything that exists can continue to exist only by being in balance with itself, with other things, and with the whole system of which it is a part. That balance is not found by going to one extreme or the other way by remaining fixed at a static point; it is created by self-correcting movements to either side of a midpoint.

4 – The Law of Limits. Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself. Those limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and they provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.

5 – The Law of Cause and Effect. Everything that exists is the effect of causes at work in the whole system of which each thing is a part, and everything becomes, in turn, the cause of effects elsewhere in the whole system. In these workings of cause and effect, there must always be a similarity of kind between an effect and at least one of its causes, just as there must be a similarity of scale between an effect and the sum total of its causes.

6 – The Law of the Planes. Everything in existence exists and functions on one of several planes of being or is composed of things from more than one plane acting together as a whole system. These planes are discrete, not continuous, and the passage of influences from one plane to another can take place only under conditions defined by the relationship of the planes involved.

7 – The Law of Evolution. Everything that exists comes into being by a process of evolution. That process starts with adaption to changing conditions and ends with the establishment of a steady state of balance with its surroundings, following a threefold rhythm of challenge, response and reintegration. Evolution is gradual rather than sudden, and it works by increasing diversity and accumulating possibilities, rather than following a predetermined line of development.

Most of the above laws are easy enough to understand on a purely rational level for someone versed with popular science, with only the Law of Planes requiring some deep reflection to get grasp of. But the one perhaps of most interest unlocking the key of how to thrive (and I use that word cautiously …) in an age of industrial crises is the Law of Limits. This asserts that beauty and creativity can only flow when some concrete limit is placed on something. Given that everything has a concrete limit placed on it – but that modern though insists that this is otherwise – recognition of this fact allows for a blossoming of possibilities. Music is better when performed within the conventional limits of keys and scales placed on it, as is art. The implication is that life lived with the recognition of hard limits is in fact the opposite of restricting, and an acknowledgement of that fact opens up numerous possibilities.

The latter sections of the book deal with how to use the teachings in your own life and Greer admits that the book is not a definitive look at the mystery schools, but is more like a tempting morsel of bait that might attract those who are predisposed to study the teachings in greater depth to seek out their own mystery school teacher. As such it provided me with a great deal of insight into the nature of the disastrous ways in which industrial civilization has backed us into our current predicament and, more importantly, ways in which we can align ourselves better for a future more harmoniously in line with the natural systems that birthed us and of which we are a part of. I'd highly recommend the book to anyone with an even half-open mind to the idea that there might be something more to the universe than a great cosmic atomic game of billiards. What's more it is also an important addition to arsenal of anyone who considers that ecology matters in the ongoing fight to convince others that what we do to the environment we do to ourselves.


  1. I have most of Alan Watt's books too, and I feel similarly about Buddhism, that it is a kind of spiritual nihilism denigrating the material, like most of humanity's output the last 5,000 years, overly flavored by the paternalistic. I just ordered Greer's book, and should be reading it this week.

    The signs are all around us, the unraveling of everything we have come to take for granted. I'm hoping to retrofit my house before winter, but I might lose it too. A curious life, this. Surrendering to the flow of universal processes is one of the hardest things there is to do.

    1. Well, I hope you don't lose the house. Given that you've done so much work on it I'd reckon it is worth fighting for.

  2. Japan is an energy guzzling society that pretends to care for the environment. They're really big on "bring your own bag" to the grocery stores, which conveniently saves the cost of providing plastic bags to customers, meanwhile their meat consumption, the production of which is horrid to the environment, is rapidly increasingly (put all that red meat in your reusable bag!). They also have a mind boggling number of vending machines and other energy wasting and completely unnecessary electrical gizmos.

    So they citizenry are happy to do away with nuclear energy, but fail to realize they can't have their cake and eat it too without reducing consumption of everything if they want to avoid higher oil imports. In Japan though the major commercial enterprises control the populace and they won't have any serious reduction of consumption.

    Buddhism is a mixed bag, and I say this as a professional translator of Buddhist texts in Taiwan with a MA in the subject and many many long hours on meditation cushions. On the popular level you get something like "cultural Buddhism" which is just all the traditions and customs that come with a long-standing Buddhist tradition in a society. The practices are seen as a "sea of merit" from which you gain luck for worldly endeavours. This is why Thailand, a Buddhist nation, also hosts a huge meat market of exploited prostitutes while also having a massive sangha of renunciate monks. Feeding the monks erases the negative karma of dodgy behaviours.

    But it isn't all so contradictory. Personally I filter out a lot of nonsense and see the cultural manifestations for what they are. I'm not a revisionist either, because a lot of eminent natives of Buddhist cultures suggest doing the same.


I welcome comments that are relevant to the post and add to the debate about our current and future predicament. I'll try to reply to them all as time permits. You can post anonymously but I'm less likely to reply.