Do not lose the spiritual dimension of this [coronavirus] crisis…There is a social demand in the crisis, but there is also a spiritual demand. The two go hand in hand. Without the social dimension, we fall into fanaticism. But without the spiritual dimension, we fall into pessimism and lack of meaning. You were prepared to go through this crisis. Take your toolbox and use all the tools at your disposal. Learn about resistance with indigenous and African peoples: we have been and continue to be exterminated. But we still haven’t stopped singing, dancing, lighting a fire and having fun….[Joy] is a resistance strategy.
– White Eagle, message posted online 3/16
Last week, seeing the number of covid cases in NYS compared with all others last week, I imagined people in other states being glad, and ashamed to be glad, they don’t live here! Just as I am glad, and ashamed to be glad, I live in Upstate NY, not in NYC. People who can financially do so, including two couples in my husband’s family, have deserted their beloved City for less covid-dense places. On the other hand, a sister of a friend, a nurse administrator for one of NYC’s private hospitals, retirement age, has refused to leave the city despite her family’s urgings; she became one of the frontline workers bravely fighting the scourge.
In one of his daily briefings in late March the Governor called us to see the doctors and nurses on the front lines, as the “troops” we support, the vanguard of an effort clearly we are called to unify behind. He has done, to my mind, a brilliant job of unifying New Yorkers – and all Americans – against a real terror. Indeed, the very thought of unity, of belonging within that larger whole, is reassuring and strengthening. This is what should have happened, but – tragically – did not after 9/11. Like 9/11, the pandemic has its epicenter in NYC, with the shock of fear felt throughout the nation. Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, we are being called to unity; the enemy – the great unifier – is the virus itself.
As I have written earlier, the reassurance and strength coming through the Governor in his words and presence has behind it the call to universal brother-and-sisterhood, the eternal truth of connection and Oneness. Thus far, the human race has proved incapable of being faithful to this call, prone to falling back into the illusion of separation, prey to weakness and divisiveness. Whether Cuomo’s calls for unity and love are because he is strategically smart or because he is truly coming from some real apprehension of “eternal things,” I cannot tell, and he does not owe it to us to divulge.
For the rest of us, who are not called to the front lines as medical professionals, or to leadership in a global crisis as Cuomo has been called, the problem of Covid-19 preparedness is only partly a problem of hospital logistics and political leadership, and even only partly a problem of social distancing, isolation, and closures (Stay safe! Contain the spread!). Those of us with eyes open to the horrors that will still be here when the pandemic has passed – the environmental toxification, the climate crisis, species extinctions, intense divisiveness and rising fascism – surely see when its over we ought not be able to cooperate any longer with the establishment reality that is destroying the commons – the earth and its ecosystems – all relationships and interdependencies that support life. The question posed to us by the pandemic is how may we undergo it in a way so that, when it is passed, we will not be the same people we are now.
Although secular liberal America is unprepared to think about spiritual change, though spiritual reality is inaccessible to most of us in “normal times,” it becomes accessible in crisis, and is a powerful agent for change. Spiritual reality opens up when consciousness is pierced by the virus’s real terrifying message – the indifference of pestilence to the lives of individual human beings. This awareness triggers another, even more terrifying than the first, having of necessity been deeply repressed by everyone who manages to persist in living “sanely” in a western consciousness. That is, the terrifying indifference of society predicated solely on what’s good for the economy, toward the worth of each individual human being. This is the original wounding of the soul to every person born in America, that must be forgotten in each person who must build her life in the only available reality. The weakest and most sensitive of course don’t get far. The next strongest may get so far as living hopelessly, with a reduced consciousness. The “strongest of all” – those who are most competent at repressing the memory of the wound – adapt well to capitalism and become its arch defenders.
Our social environment has no treatment for this wounding. The only recourse for we who are born in this captivity is to “make it,” to follow the solid advice of the schools, the successful, and try to make our place in an essentially heartless context. We can try to not be heartless ourselves – for example, the goodness characterizing “the best” of the liberal class – but our lives in western industrial, war-making, colonizing, class-structured society are premised in brutality. The fact that our souls know this, that our body memories carry this awareness, accounts for the stiff resistance to the only treatment for our sickness, which is to treat the soul.
In our souls the offense against our humanity is felt and remembered. In the soul’s imaginative function, the image of wholeness, unity and interdependence, denied by the ego, is retained even after centuries of increasing callousness and hardening. Our entire system and heritage of social beliefs and willful collective amnesia act as a wall against that disregarded, but persistent knowing. The individual soul is our interior commons, our indigenous teacher of the truth of interconnection and brother-and-sisterhood, the first commons to be reclaimed if we are to hope to restore a common good for all human beings.
Though the corona virus opening presents itself as fear, we must not be fooled or turned away. We who are not the frontline “troops” have that choice: either to refuse the opportunity and seek survival only, or take the gift of an opportunity to enter the “birth passage” that brings initiation, to flush out the fears still abiding in the bottom of one’s soul. Unseen and unrecognized, the fears remain our Masters, that keep individuals divided and weak in the face of evil on both micro- and macro-levels, such that matters of utmost importance are left up to the representatives in Washington and state governments who do not lead but serve the dictates of their Wall St. masters.
We must be on guard against a habit we have acquired as passive members of an ongoing conquering, exploitative, materially enriching, imperialist, colonialist enterprise, that of “appropriating” the strength of others, rather than finding our own, individually. Grateful as I am and other New Yorkers may be, that the Governor has led in this crisis, if we are to seize the opportunity for initiation, we must resist the impulse to make him into the new Covid-era savior. If we “appropriate” his strength in that way, we are repeating the mistake that has brought us to this terrible juncture in the history of human beings on the planet. The problem for individuals remains and cannot be honestly evaded: how do you find your strength in the face of fear, that being the only place where it can be found?
For the more spiritually-inclined, there is another appropriation to be resisted. For several decades, since the 60’s when young people were inducted into spiritual reality by means of LSD, many spiritual seekers have taken their spiritual authority from Eastern, Middle-Eastern, and indigenous sources, rather than from the religious heritage that is actually ours (for most of us). This makes sense, since these other traditions were more developed spiritually than we dam-and-sky-scraper-builders in the West. But the choice has its consequences. It is built on the illusion that we have risen above our (extremely painful) past. This evasion of our own heritage is significant; it makes our use of these other traditions a form of cultural appropriation which cannot be avoided unless one takes up consciously one’s own genuine initiation within the spiritual desert of bourgeois capitalism, so closely entwined with Christianity, in which spiritual integrity – wholeness – demands resistance to it.
Recently, in response to an email I’d written taking off from a book being read in our Anti-fascist Book Club – whose online meetings I have not been participating in – my friend Ruth sent me a marvelous quotation ascribed to an indigenous man named White Eagle. My note to the book club had indicated my interest in their choice of reading, Sacred Instructions by Sherri Mitchell, a Penobscot from Maine. In her introduction, Mitchell writes: “As we move through these challenging times, it is important to remember that none of us [are] here by accident. We entered this world with the express purpose of facilitating the changes that are manifesting during this time, and we brought with us the gifts needed to accomplish that task. None of us are out of time or out of place, though many of us remain out of step with our true path.”
Wonderful, I thought; I wholeheartedly agree. But instantly, I wanted to ask the book club people Do you know this, that you are not here by accident, or are you taking the author’s word for it?
For to claim this unverifiable “fact” to be true, in public, one will be dismissed as a nut by your fellows. In fact, as a white non-indigenous or non-practitioner of eastern wisdom, any speaking as if you have a knowledge claim other than empirically verifiable will be dismissed by your liberal friends; it can be authenticated only by yourself, within yourself, subjectively. It will be heard if at all – by others only if you reach those indigenous, poetic meanings in yourself, and then, likely you, too will be appropriated by those who are unwilling or clueless as to how to gain inward authority.
The plight for anarchists, in relation to genuine spiritual “otherness,” because they are aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation, is slightly different. The message from White Eagle was posted online by a “nihilist- anarchist” group that wants “to be open to indigenous thoughts and lifeways.” Their language (italics mine) removes them from the charge of appropriation. At the same time, my guess is that their reason for posting White Eagle’s message was for the powerful reassurance it contains, and that they, too received from it. Appropriation will not be avoided unless one attains authentic “otherness,” or individuality, the process for gaining which is a genuine, and genuinely arduous spiritual process (initiation), not merely being “open to it.”
Though I cannot authenticate White Eagle’s message, the power of the words themselves authenticate the message, just as the strength one perceives through Governor Cuomo’s streamed broadcasts authenticates his, regardless of his shortcomings, failures, unpopular decisions, etc, as a human being occupying a position of power. Hearing him in this way, it is unnecessary to raise him up to Obama-like “savior” status. One can still receive the gift of reassurance which is not really – or only – coming from the man himself but from “beyond” himself. The words are legitimated by the fact that they confirm a knowing within one’s own soul, i.e., the knowledge of the ultimate truth of oneness, unity, interdependence.
As long as we continue to appropriate the strength or wisdom of others, rather than find the spiritual bedrock within, we leave unchallenged the disabling fear we carry within us as members of a civilization predicated on separation and fear of “the other.” Stripped of access to the spiritual realm, taught to regard as unreal what our ancestors, and indigenous contemporaries understand as more real, we are helpless to to prevent the destruction of relationships and interconnectedness, the commons existing both internally and in the world, upon which human beings and all living beings mutually depend.
Others are more qualified than I to walk people through the fires of spiritual transformation. I’m no guru, not an indigenous shaman or medicine woman, possess no credentials as a spiritual adept, just a M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. At the time I received the degree, it was an entree to a profession, not to a spiritual initiation. I suppose one could say “God had other plans” for me which to this day do not allow me to return to pre-initiatory passivity! How can I point the way to a process fundamentally about life and death when I myself am half a coward? The answer as it has been coming to me through the flames of this process is I point the way only by means of my art as a writer. We who practice our art – use our tools – as if our lives depended upon it, find our way by making it.