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A few thoughts

March 3, 2009

I ran across an excellent quote from Paula Gunn Allen, here. It’s from Genocide of the Mind, but I don’t remember reading this essay before.

On the face of it, given the level of American misapprehension of the actual bases of various spiritual systems, this sentence may sound perfectly lucid. However, it is exactly wrong when placed withing the context of Native thought. No Native who has given much thought to tribal spiritual systems — in all their aspects and multiplicity —would agree that life is all a dream. We think that life is all real — all of it. The personal, the spiritual, the supernatural, the “cosmic,” the political, the economic, the sacred, the profane, the tragic, the comic, the ordinary, the boring, the annoying, the infuriating. Our tradition tells us that when someone meets a supernatural on the road (or in the kitchen), that is real. And when someone meets a BIA official at a meeting, that is real. We are neither dreaming it nor making it up. Nor is the numinous (or the Great Mystery) a psychic territory peopled by split-off fragments of our unconscious, a split occasioned by represion, failure to mature in a timely fashion, or massive trauma. (Now “trauma” does mean dream!)

To Native thinkers, the mythic is not a trick of the human mind but a pulsating fact of existence as real as a village, a trailer court, a horse, a spouse, or a tradition is real. Native people of the Americas are aware, as were pre-Renaissance peoples of the British Isles and on the Continent (and as are many of their modern descendants) that the numinous may be different from the “mundane,” separated from it by a kind of penetrable psychic barrier, but it is no less real for all that.

Just earlier today, I was thinking about the similarities and differences between Buddhist philosophy–at least as it has mostly developed–and Native ways of thinking. Allen’s quote sums up a major perceived difference, from what I’ve seen.

I refer to the way Buddhist thought has developed, because once you get to the base of things–as discussed in Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, getting past some of that book’s Western interpretations–the ways of thinking work together fairly well. Siddhartha Gautama seems to have been most concerned with seeing what’s really there, and what actually works. Recognizing how you’re getting in your own way and actively harming yourself with the illusions you’ve thrown up out of your own mind is difficult, but necessary if you want any kind of peace or balance. You need to be able to see what’s real.

Which leads me to a point which is not so popular with some Western rationalists: deciding what you can possibly be seeing or experiencing, based on necessarily limited information and perception, is leaning on yet another illusion. These assumptions should also be examined. Yep, that can be as painful as looking at anything else you prefer to believe. But, if you really want to be honest with yourself and the reality that surrounds you, that process never ends.

As Barbara Mann put it, in Iroquoian Women:

First, ongoing western scholarship portrays Iroquoian (and all Native) medicine as magical thinking. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the sanctioned western view of Native spirituality pares it down into officially manageable chunks of “psychological” urges, which western observers are then free to analyze and dismiss.110. . . Although colonialism may have lost its cachet among the intelligentsia, its impulse to define, hence control, all stories remains strong. Western thought first debunks what it seeks to control. Ridicule is not a value-free assessment, but an act of cultural rivalry masquerading as objective scholarship. Such terms as myth, superstition, wish fulfillment, magical thinking, ambiguity, irrationality–all so freely applied to Native spirituality–must be understood as the arsenal of a western power play, not as impartial evaluation. As Arthur Parker so rightly observed in 1908, “the term ‘medicine’ means a mystic potence” and is not equivalent to the western concept of magic. In fact, there “is no English equivalent.”112 Medicine must be grasped on its own terms.

That does not only apply to Native spirituality. Totally dismissing an idea because you don’t understand it–and have made no reasonable effort to do so, nor to understand other concepts required to make sense of the initial one–is not true skepticism, it’s defensive snottiness. A lot of people confuse them.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious there. It just continues to amaze me!

Moving back to Allen’s piece–and at the risk of verging on postmodernism–things which need to be examined include cultural bias and tendencies toward projection. As Barbara Mann aptly put it in Iroquoian Women:

Combing is not just an academic chore; it is a nasty challenge to the ego as well. Few are up to the ordeal. On a personal level, most folks are reluctant to recognize that cultural bias is precisely the stuff that feels so doggone comfy when they snuggle up to it. Discovering that their mattress stuffing is really a web of lies means that, to correct the situation, the stuffing must be knocked out of their comfort zone. An honest examination requires them to endure the personal discomfort of living without a buffer, while their new cultural mattress is on order.

This serves to underpin a lot of Western projection. It also causes an enormous amount of grief, on a more personal level.

I’m not claiming that I’m exempt. But, I have apparently learned to function without as much of a buffer, for various reasons. Still, some of the things that I find lurking in a mattress I thought was empty can be truly amazing!

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