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Insane and Inhumane

Theoretical Assumptions of Metahistory

Certain terms in applied metahistory call for clarification, so that they do not appear to be formulaic notions, rigidly and arbitrarily imposed. When these terms are explained, the primary assumptions of metahistory come to light. It might be objected that such "primary assumptions" are just more beliefs (of one sort or another), so metahistory, which purports to present a critique of beliefs, merely presents another set of beliefs.

    Ask a metahistorian what she or he believes and the answer will be: "As little as possible!" In metahistory we assume that the less you believe, the more clear you will be about what you believe. But it takes the intentional act of dissent — indeed, even a strong dose of ruthlessness — to hone belief to a keen, minimal edge.

There are some ideas that resemble belief in metahistory, but they are few. More properly defined as open hypotheses, these ideas are propositions to be tested. Metahistorical belief is not intended to be taken blindly, as a dogma or imposed doctrine, but to be valued for the insight it produces. A Wounded Species In applied metahistory, we must be acutely aware of the belief-like propositions we adopt to proceed effectively with inquiry, dissent and empowerment. The essay Tree and Well indicates the idea behind metahistory in a simple story-line: the shaman is wounded. Let’s take a moment to expand this story and interpret how it applies to the daunting task of assessing beliefs.

The Ancient Calling

The shaman, be it a man or woman, is the member of the human tribe who represents the earliest form of religious discipline (or spiritual practice, if you prefer). Identified by signs in childhood, he or she undergoes a process of initiation, the special training required to assume a sacred calling. Once the shaman has matured, his or her mission in life encompasses nine kinds of activities:

  • to preserve in poetic-visionary language, using ritual and dance, the living memory of the experience of the tribe
  • to heal (and, if necessary, harm and kill) by the use of medicinal plants and or supernatural methods
  • to venture into the Beyond (Otherworld) and discover secrets hidden from the ordinary world, which nonetheless are necessary for living in the optimal way in the ordinary world
  • to enter the Underworld and commune with the dead (accomplished by "magical flight" or working the Double)
  • to divine how the weather works and, when possible, to alter it for the good of the tribe
  • to teach and transmit the shamanic lore to younger generations
  • to translate the designs written in the ever-changing script of the cosmos, the code of sun, moon, planets and stars
  • to converse with other species (animals, reptiles, insects and plants) who may be helpers or adversaries of the tribe (interspecies communication)
  • to handle magical plants and stones for the purpose of altering consciousness

It is essential to realize that shamans of yore did not merely hold beliefs about these matters, but actually experienced them. They actively explored what we must relegate to pure speculation. Lucid dreaming was one shamanic practice used to access the Otherworld. Anyone who has had a lucid dream knows that the experience really occurs — you wake up in the dream, knowing that you are dreaming — and so it is not merely something one believes might happen. With lucid dreaming, out-of-body travel, and near-death experience (three shaman-like activities attested by millions of people), you do not have to believe these experiences can happen for them to happen.

Today the world is circumscribed and ruled largely by belief, but we, the human species, came into this blindered condition from a realm of open- ended experience beyond belief.

Wounded Healer

Mircea Eliade observed that "in primitive humanity, as with all humanity, the desire to enter into contact with the Sacred is counteracted by the fear of being obliged to renounce the simple human condition and become a more or less pliant instrument for some manifestation of the Sacred (gods, spirits, ancestors, etc)(S, 28)." Since departing from "the simple human condition" also entails shedding the self-concerned ego (at least temporarily), there is a strong deterrent factor in shamanic initiation. This explains the literal meaning of sorcery, a term often applied to shamans’ work: "leaving, departing" (French sortir); hence, taking a path away from the human condition.

It is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes of our species’ existence that people who cannot or will not depart from the simple human condition draw both guidance and inspiration from those individuals who can. As a conscious medium who keeps the human world in rapport with other species, and even with other dimensions, the shaman is the exception that secures the norm.

Anthropological and ethnological reports on shamanic initiation in many different racial, cultural and geographic settings reveal patterns of striking consistency. By far the best summary of this research is Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade, a comparative mythologist and historian of religions, widely recognized as the leading authority in shamanism in the 20th century.

As long as the shamanic model of spirituality operated in particular tribal and cultural settings, human communities were linked to the Sacred. All shamanic rites and exploits unfolded in intimate relation to Sacred Nature: the natural world, experienced as a theater of beauty and awe, the setting for sublime adventures. The shaman thus embodies the capacity of the human species to orient its way of living by the intelligence that participates in the full spectrum of Life with a capital L, Cosmic Life.

    For an introduction to what it means to live in participation with Cosmic Life, see Robert Lawlor, Voices of the First Day, suggested for reading under Sacred Nature in Themes. Ch. 14, "Dream, Earth and Identity" presents an especially good synopsis of the worldview and psychology typical of indigenous shamanic cultures. Laylor notes that the main characteristic of this mode of awareness is "beholding, not possessing."

The wounding of the shaman, an event recounted in world mythology, signifies a fateful break from this plenary connection. It indicates that our inborn intelligence was somehow disabled, so that direct participation in the grounding intelligence of Sacred Nature became scrambled, if not entirely disrupted. We lost our sense of how to survive with ease in our habitat. At the same time, we appear to have lost the sense of who we truly are as a species. The wounding of the shaman bespeaks our own fate, our alienation from the divine matrix that produced us.

And the rest, needless to say, is our cherished history of moral progress, material acquisition and technical achievement.

The Gaian Factor

    While we can say that hominization of the planet has been completed, we must now begin to speak of planetarization of human consciousness. This stage takes us beyond history, at least insofar as history is now defined. For it we do not go beyond history, there will be no future of which to speak.
    Jose Arguelles, cited in "OV Earth" from The Learning Party

To look beyond history is to look into our own depths for our original mode of participation, living in direct intercourse with Sacred Nature, but not to go back to it. Rather, it is to anticipate re-entering Cosmic Life in a new and exploratory way. For this immense feat of reorientation a story helps, and if the story is focused in a graphic mythological image, all the better. The image adopted in metahistory is the most ancient, most deeply revered and most enduring of all mythological figures: the Goddess who is Sacred Nature, Gaia, She who indwells the earth.

It could be said, then, that metahistory relies on a certain belief about Gaia, an act of confidence in that mysterious presence we encounter in the biosphere of the planet. This belief is, however, optional and open-ended. It is suggested, not required. You may reject it entirely and discard metahistory at the same time, if you are so inclined, or one could continue to investigate metahistory without adopting our Gaian orientation.

In order to assess beliefs, metahistory needs some standard by which it can measure the value of the beliefs considered and develop judgments concerning their viability. So what is the core theory of metahistory? It is best summarized by the double name of the Goddess: Gaia-Sophia. The Greek word Sophia means "wisdom, divine intelligence." Linked with Gaia this word presents an open definition of what makes us human: the wisdom (Sophia) innate to our species, endowed in us by the divine intelligence that plays through nature, our habitat (Gaia). This elementary statement of belief (if one chooses to call it so) is adopted in metahistory so that there is a standard against which belief can be assessed.

The Gaia-Sophia Principle assumes that the natural processes which produced the human species also endowed it with the capacity to know itself and understand its place in the cosmos. (Objections to this assumption by those who deny we have such an endowment will be treated in due course in various articles in the site.) The Gaian endowment in homo sapiens is comparable to the instinctive programs of all other species, from bee to bear to blue whale, but with a crucial difference: our evolutional mind-set carries capacities to play, discover and learn on a scale that exceeds other species. This is a fateful gift because it includes a wide margin of error, allowing us a deviance from what is innately right for us. We are endowed with the capacity to err, so that we can correct ourselves, and thus uniquely learn and innovate in ways not seen in species more closely bound to their instincts.

But if our errors go undetected and uncorrected, and accumulate in culture and civilization, we can deviate completely from the true potential of our endowment. Everything that is sane and humane in human experience arises from the species’ innate wisdom and accords with it. Everything that is insane and inhumane denies it, ignores it, works against it (or tries to).

Gaia-Sophia Navigator

Metahistory assumes that humans are no different from other animals in their being endowed with a species-specific intelligence potential. But in homo sapiens instinct is teleological, or goal-oriented. (In the Mystery Schools of Pagan religion, those who preserved exceptional awareness of the human endowment and transmitted it to others were called telestes, "those who know the goal.") The innate faculty for knowing what suits our species combines with our goal-seeking capacities, so that we have a high adaptive potential, but maladaptation occurs when errors in our conception of ourselves and nature are not corrected. Ideally, we could achieve full and harmonious adaptation to our habitat through symbiotic bonding with the entire realm of Life, in kinship with all species.

    We are human only in relation to, and in conviviality with, all that is not human. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous.

The record of history shows how we have strayed from optimal adaptation due to focusing our goal-oriented efforts in exclusively human terms. This tendency is powerfully enforced by religious belief-systems that state that humanity, made in the image of God the Creator, enjoys a "most favored species" status, including dominion over the natural world: i.e., the right to exploit and consume natural resources for purely human ends. History is a record of domination, written by the dominators, and intended to legitimate what it recounts. Patriarchal narrative, the official script of the Abrahamic religions, has driven the human species so far into addiction and insanity that we must ask if survival is possible as long as this story runs the world.

According to the Gaia-Sophia Principle, and in accordance with the teachings of many indigenous religions, humanity is co-creative with nature but not superior to it. The ability to recognize and access the wisdom innate to our species inheres in each one of us, and may well play an essential role in what used to be known as "the call of conscience," but that ability can be hampered or even destroyed by beliefs that assert human superiority and alienate us from vital contact with Gaia. Our wisdom endowment includes, and may even be founded on, the capacity to recognize and revere the Other.

Knowing Gaia

Metahistory investigates the wide array of human beliefs to determine which are compatible with the wisdom of our species and which are not. Needless to say, without a basic sense of our wisdom endowment, we would be severely hampered in this venture.

Gaia-Sophia is a mythological cue that reconnects us to that primal endowment so we can realize what has happened to it due to our immersion in the all-too-human complexities of history. Even if we do not quite grasp what our species-specific wisdom is, and even if we do not or cannot at first believe we could actually enjoy such a wonderful gift, the numinous power held in the image of the Goddess Gaia-Sophia will draw us into Her knowing, the very essence of compassionate intelligence that beats in our hearts.

There is a kind of faith operating here, certainly, a faith felt in the evocative language that arises from encountering the Goddess. Among the Gnostics who taught goal orientation in the Mystery Schools, this faith was called Pistis Sophia, "confidence in the innate wisdom." This is not, however, doctrinal faith, but an intuition of the heart, the deep matrix of conscience, where wisdom resides and error is seen and corrected.

Now let’s consider how this core theory — or general orientation -- grounds and guides the process of metahistorical inquiry. How We Would Know Let’s suppose that some beliefs held by human beings are insane and inhumane. No one has to agree that this is so, or to insist that it is not so. All the conflict over conflicting beliefs — "Yes, I believe it is so" versus "No, I don’t believe it is so" -- detracts from the path of inquiry that must pierce the heart of cognitive duality, like the arrows of Saraha. The crucial question is, if some beliefs are insane and humane, how would we know, how would we be able to detect them?

And the counter-question is: If some beliefs are insane and inhumane and we are unable to detect them, where will they take us? Or where have they already taken us?

The answer to this question can be seen each day on the round-the-clock news, CBS, NBC, ABC, BBC, MTV, CNN…

Here is a crucial point: no belief is inhuman, because beliefs of all kinds whatsoever, are products of the human mind. No belief is inhuman, but some beliefs can be assessed as inhumane if they drive human beings to behavior that violates our innate sense of humanity. In metahistory we assume that the best way to assess a belief is to look at the behavior it produces.

The Gnomen

The record of history seems to indicate that inhumane behaviour is indeed possible for our species. This is an understatement, of course. The record of history is manifestly an account of the progressive and ever-escalating perpetration of inhumane behavior. In some manner that has never been adequately addressed, religious scripts are invariably involved in the inhumane behavior that drenches the chronicle of history in blood.

For instance, according to the conventional belief held by Christians (but not by Jews or Muslims), the shedding of blood in one instance was the most wonderful, blessed event that ever occurred on earth. This was not human blood, however. The belief says that the blood of a divine being, shed for the love of humanity, has the effect of washing away our sins. Is this belief benevolent, or merely neutral, or could it in some manner be injurious, pathological? In metahistory we ardently wish not to be stumped by this kind of question. It is urgent to press on to the core of beliefs, either to confirm them or to transcend them once and for all. The way to the core is always cued by a particular syntax, a phrasing of words: If it were so, how would we know?

If it were insane or inhumane to believe that the blood shed by Jesus Christ redeems the world, how would we know?

Facing this question, or a hundred others that might be formulated, we may realize how metahistorical core theory works. The Gaian factor produces a gnomen, cognitive rule: failing to apply its innate wisdom to assess belief, the human species will be dependent upon belief that might deviate it from that very wisdom. The rule teaches a hard truth: we, the human species, could be deviated from our sense of humanity and not know we are. The gnomen warns that belief, in cases where it is indeed insane and inhumane, is both the evidence and instrument of this deviation.

In short, there is absolutely no point in looking into belief at all if we do not have a standard for assessing it. Without such a standard metahistorical inquiry is pointless and, in any case, would be impossible to develop as a means of disciplined inquiry into the human condition. If we assume for a standard, a given, our Gaian endowment of innate compassionate intelligence, we are not alone with this proposition. The wisdom that bonds us to Sacred Nature is revered in indigenous cultures around the world. In Buddhism, the moral intuition of humanity is recognized as "the supreme heart insight" (Sanskrit prajna — paramita - hydraya ), a capacity we all possess that needs to be fully awakened, activated.

These and other parallels, including the Gnostic Sophia, demonstrate that the wisdom potential proposed in metahistory has some solid credentials behind it. This proposition is experimental, not doctrinal. It will be instructive, even if we do not fully understand how the heart-mind works, or what happened to partially disable it (the shaman’s wound).

Sacred Bond

We are powerless against the compulsions of belief if we cannot at least admit that we possess an innate wisdom potential that allow us to assess belief, and perhaps surpass it. Since there have always been a vast number of people who cannot admit this potential, religion and religious systems of belief have been the dominant motivating forces in human history and morality. Wilhelm Reich argued that our wisdom potential is one with our biological potential, our somatic make-up. The same intelligence that works in digesting your food segregates a part of itself into a conscious thinking mode that allows you to make intelligent choices about what you eat. For Reich the unconscious digestion of food and the conscious act of selecting food were rooted in the same matrix. These two functions, one involuntary and the other voluntary, were both expressions of a single, natural endowment.

Like Reich, D. H. Lawrence maintained that the basis for moral and ethical behavior was somatic, grounded in Gaia. In his essays Lawrence critiqued religious beliefs about unprovable matters, and in some of his novels, such as the notorious (for it’s time) Lady Chatterly’s Lover, he portrayed honest and healthy sexual life, fully "orgasmic" in Reichian terms. These "neo-pagan" views were condemned as obscene and immoral by the society of Lawrence’s time.

The continuity from animal body to human sexuality to the divine aura of Sacred Nature was fundamental to Pagan spirituality. In The Way, his sober and ingenious proposal for "an ecological world-view," Edward Goldsmith argued that the ethical and ecological skills of our species are not acquired from without but "built up by the organizing knowledge in the mind" (i.e., our wisdom endowment. JLL). Goldsmith makes an excellent case for the Pagan view that the adaptive genius we are given to survive in our habitat is also the source of our ethical learning. Blow the one and we blow the other. This again confirms the Gaian factor: the way we come to understand which behavior is correct for human beings is through our bond to Nature and the Other. If that sacred bond of mutual participation is disrupted, our sense of humanity can be lost — utterly and entirely.

What would we, the human species, divested of our sense of humanity look like? How would we behave? What belief-systems would such a phantom humanity produce and how would it enforce them?

These are questions to be framed and explored by the methods of applied metahistory. The aim is to inquire into all that appears to be insane and inhumane in what we believe. Such inquiry leads to dissent, the rejection of what is not right for us because it ignores or betrays our Gaian endowment, the wisdom potential of our species. Dissent in turn supports empowerment, because seeing the error of our ways restores, releases and re-enables our most precious potential, our sapience, our capacity to live wisely.

This inquiry proposes that it is fair play to ask if a belief could be insane, but it does not require, and in fact rigorously avoids, the blind assertion that the belief considered is or is not so. In the discipline of metahistorical inquiry syntax is decisive. The method is not to insist that any belief is insane, or not insane, but to discern how it could be one or the other, and discover what makes it so.


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.