Table of Contents
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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven tells the story of George Orr, who discovers that each morning when he wakes some usually rather random aspect of his previous night’s dream has become incorporated into general reality, though he alone recognizes the change. Should George dream, for instance, that he takes from President Kennedy’s hand the umbrella he has been carrying, saying, “You won’t be needing this anymore, Mr. President,” he might wake to find that the weather in his native Portland, Oregon, is warm and sunny. Only he recalls that for years the greenhouse effect caused by air pollution has resulted in heavy overcast and a constant dreary rainfall.
For a while he tries to suppress his dreaming with medication, because he fears he is losing his mind. After getting into difficulties with the authorities for his overuse of prescription drugs, he is forced into therapy with a psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. The psychiatrist, having learned of the problem, experiments with hypnotic suggestion and quickly discovers that he can gain conscious control over George’s ability and can also experience the changes. At first he proposes to use the power to correct the world’s major problems.
The difficulty with the power—reminiscent of the fable of “the monkey’s paw” or the 1967 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore film Bedazzled—is that of course one can never be exactly certain what solution the dream consciousness will provide, consistent with the suggestion. Dr. Haber tells George to dream that racial prejudice is overcome, expecting that this will mean that people will appreciate and value one another’s distinctive features. George wakes to find that everyone’s skin has turned to a uniform shade of gray.
The psychiatrist—a type of the “mad scientist,” a Frankenstein (which Theodore Roszak has called the truly modern mythological figure) overcome by the capabilities of his technology—is not satisfied with using George as the instrument for changing the future (and the past, since the new world created is always consistent with its own history). He wants the power himself. He attempts to isolate the effective EEG pattern in George’s brain, so that when he wants to make an alteration, he can feed it back into his own brain. As he gets closer and closer to success, the prospect of the power intoxicates him and he begins using George to put him in positions of greater and greater esteem and political and social power.
One of the unexpected results of an attempt to program world peace has been the arrival of extraterrestrial visitors, who, after going through a phase of warlike invasion that unites earth against them, end up as simple merchants, operating “junk shops.” One of these great turtle-like creatures who has taken a liking to George reveals to him the secret of “effective dreaming,” something intrinsic to the aliens’ experience of the universe. That secret, he tells him, is contained in an idiom in the aliens’ native language, Er’ perrehnne, which he urges George to invoke before falling asleep. The alien responds to George’s request for translation by producing, from among the items in his junk shop, a then-antique copy of a 45 rpm recording by the Beatles, “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
The secret—known by these beings that live within the dreamtime, a fact signified by their operating junk shops, where old memories are gathered together and made available—is, of course, that the power of intentionality must be used in cooperation with all other sentient beings.
The power is dangerous when it is used for individual gain or when it is used unconsciously—as it is, the story suggests, by ordinary people; then the results come back into reality muddled and confused. Individual men and women, with no awareness of themselves as part of a great whole, using their power unconsciously, for self-serving ends, have brought about the wars, poverty, and suffering that mar human history. The power, as expected, destroys the psychiatrist and introduces chaos into the world, until George is able to reach Haber and, through the mastery he has attained by invoking the mantra Er’ perrehnne, stop Haber’s world-destroying dream.
Le Guin describes her protagonist, George Orr, in words that echo the classical description of a bodhisattva:
He never spoke with any bitterness at all, no matter how terrible the things he said. Are there really people without resentment, without hate…? People who never go cross-grained to the universe? Who recognize evil, and resist evil, and yet are utterly unaffected by it?
The point of this myth of “effective dreaming” is that conscious use of the power of intentionality can produce a utopian world, but only when it is directed by motives of compassion and cooperation. Unconscious use results in dilution of the power (the state of the present world); and self-serving use, uninformed with wisdom and virtue, results in chaos, suffering, and a dystopian nightmare.
Ursula Le Guin’s tale of effective dreaming warned against the deliberate use of intentionality to create changes in one’s destiny. For the ego that would muster its powers to make such a deliberate effort is blinded by its own limited perspective. Compassion not intention, is the key. Compassion is the virtue of taking on another point of view, of “passing over” into the experience of another. The image of "passing over" comes from John S. Dunne’s The Way of All the Earth. For through compassion the blindness of ego begins to be overcome.
Research with biofeedback techniques has shown that a person can gain a degree of control over so-called autonomic functions of the body, such as blood pressure and pulse, blood supply distribution, gastric acidity, brain activity, and pH factors of mucous secretions. Even hormone production and immunological response seem to be “controllable.” What has proven to be the key to such autonomic mastery is the practice of “passive awareness,” relaxed attention that observes processes changing without trying to change them. Willful effort tends to bring about exactly what was unwanted. This was what the was meant by the aphorism that what you resist persists. "You can't push the river," as the Zen saying goes. Perhaps what is true of the autonomic functions of the body is true of the “autonomic functions” of the mind.
After all, our perceptions—if not actual sensations—and certainly our ideas and opinions, seem “involuntary,” as if they were functions of the brain and nervous system. Even the thought of exercising volition seems to happen involuntarily: It is impossible to decide to think about something one is not already thinking about at least enough to make the decision. Perhaps passive awareness is what would allow us access to the world-creating intentionality—effective dreaming—without plunging us into the chaos of our own confused desires and ulterior motivations.
Passive awareness is, after all, what compassion means: seeing and recognizing others’ experience and, changing nothing, holding it as though it were our own. And passive awareness is what was admonished by Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: renouncing the fruits of action.
Perhaps if we each pay close attention to our lives and to the lives of those around us, without trying hard and pushing up against each other to change things, “self regulatory” processes in consciousness—not unlike the self-regulatory processes in our bodies—can heal the problems around us.
Perhaps the secret to changing destiny and overcoming karma is not intention, but attention. It does not require esoteric mystical principles to explain this. Everything we do, from catching a ball to driving a car to writing a book, is done most easily when we pay attention to what we’re doing. This, of course, is the point of discovering patterns in our lives. It causes us to pay attention to movements in our lives beyond the day-to-day passing of time, and to experience time as the gradual molding of our consciousness by the “self-regulatory processes” that are manifested in and as the myths we inherit.
The title of Le Guin’s book comes from a quotation from Chuang-Tse:
“Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”
A lathe, of course, is a device on which wood is carved, on which rough edges are smoothed and delicate designs created. The lathe of heaven is time. Those who pay attention and move through their lives will find that their interaction with other beings smoothes the rough edges of personality and creates patterns of grace and beauty in their lives. Those who cannot cooperate with their experience, who resist life as it comes to them, will be destroyed. And the blade with which both the fine carving and the destruction are accomplished is the experience of emptiness, attention, and compassion.
To bend to the lathe, to cooperate with life, is to discover oneself in the center of experience as the raw material being worked on the lathe, as the focus for which all happens, and as the cause of all phenomena. As Meister Eckhart said, “In bursting forth [into emptiness], I discover that God and I are One. Now I am what I was and I neither add to nor subtract from anything, for I am the Unmoved Mover, that moves all things.” All events, including the experience of self, that occur to such a central focus can be understood as happening for that focus, in order to reveal itself to itself, to bring the central consciousness to full enlightenment.
Such thinking, interpreted pedestrianly, seems solipsistic, megalomaniacal, and egocentric. But taken radically, literally, it is none of these. For then even the “ego” of the central focus is seen to be but an illusion, a touch of the lathe.
The notion is hardly solipsist in any of the usual senses, for it denies the real existence of an ipse that is solus, a self that is alone.
The problem is not solipsism but the superficiality of most understandings of the idea. The problem with what is called narcissism is actually the failure of the so-called narcissists to take seriously the implications of their narcissism.
For if one sees oneself as the only being that is in any way real (and that way is only analogous), then one must assume responsibility for the whole world of one’s experience and there is no room left for pettiness or egotism. The true solipsist sees that his or her own happiness is only limited by egotism, for the ego creates barriers that, when we try to protect them, limit and curtail our experience of life. The ego, living in a world of other egos, all trying desperately to save face and defend themselves against possible assault is a horror.
The problem with superficial solipsism is that it might allow my ego to cling to the notion that it is real. But truly radical solipsism leaves nothing for an ego to cling to. It reveals that I am God and that that doesn’t mean anything. For being God is being empty. And so I am most like God, as Eckhart also said, when I am empty and least concerned with myself.
When in such a solipsism I rise above my ego and all the world seems a part of me, I see that I am not cut off from the others. All of you are aspects of me, as I am an aspect of each of you. And all of us together comprise the Self which each of us “really” is. From that perspective, which is timeless and spaceless, the Buddha is an aspect of me—that aspect which has seen beyond desire into the emptiness. Jesus is an aspect of me—that aspect which renounced divinity to become human and in so doing was restored to divinity, taking the human with him. Avalokiteshvara is an aspect of me—that aspect which identifies itself with the central Self as it manifests in each and every sentient being.
From that perspective, Krishna, too, and Mohammed, Nagarjuna, Meister Eckhart, and Saint John of the Cross —all are aspects of me, all of them influencing my life, shaping my thoughts, guiding my path. And just as all the saints are aspects of me, so are all the great sinners: Caligula, Judas, Hitler, Stalin. And so are the characters of fiction and fantasy that influence me sometimes as much as the characters of history: Odysseus, Arthur Pendragon, Hamlet, Herman Melville’s Ishmael, Arthur C. Clarke’s Alvin and Karellen, C. S. Lewis’s Ransom, even Superman and the Incredible Hulk.
Indeed, for all the uniqueness, each person is, as well, part of the whole, no island apart. For each is constituted by the interactions with all others whereby they jointly construct the universe and whereby they are constructed.
In the prologue of Demian, Hermann Hesse observes that
Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again… Each represents a gamble on the part of nature in the creation of the human. We all share the same origin, our mothers; all of us come in at the same door. But each of us—experiments of the depths—strives towards his own destiny. We can understand one another; but each of us is able to interpret himself to himself alone. Demian
I have my own story. It is special, just as all the others are special. Yet I am also more than that story. I am more than just my limited perspective. The task that faces each and every one of us is to live somehow both as each and as every one: to know that he or she is confined to this space and time and to live it well, and at the same time to know that he or she is composed of every person who has ever lived.
I, Edwin, Toby, Peregrine, will never be a Lamed Vovnik dying at Auschwitz, one of the thirty-six Just Men for whose sake God keeps the world in being. I will never be a Zenman, sitting hour after hour for a lifetime of meditation. I will never be a Cleopatra, Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, or modern day Alcibiades, sought after by men and women for my youth and beauty. And yet I am also all of them. There is nothing that is human from which I stand apart.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth
of the Great Secret III tells the story of Johnson's learning the
real nature of religion and myth and discovering the spiritual
qualities of gay male consciousness.
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