Slow Drought, Rapid Ascent

One thousand, four hundred miles in two days, from the rolling wooded hills of Ohio, through the dry tabletop flatland of Kansas, deep into the rapid ascent of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Matt has been a heroic driver. And because of the exhaustion of such an expedition, we have decided to spend an extra day in the idyllic beauty of Aspen, enjoying the sight of high green and red mountaintops, fluttering aspen leaves, and glittering hummingbirds feeding outside the window.

The much-needed rain began to descend as we departed Cincinnati Saturday morning, and we were met with a sudden downpour and pools of water on the poorly constructed Ohio highways. Traffic slowed immediately to a crawl as we appeared to be going through a car wash machine without soap. Soon, however, we left the shadow of the rain clouds and entered drier land. Meanwhile a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Reverend Al Sharpton, over the existence of God and the need or lack for religion, played out on the speakers. At many times they seemed to be having parallel but separate arguments, Hitchens focusing on the evils of religious interpretations, and Sharpton pushing the issue of the existence of God without religious trappings, a point which Hitchens seemed to generally avoid. From there we turned our attention to a lecture given by Chris Hedges, not to be in any way confused with Hitchens, who spoke of religious fundamentalism, the Christian Right in America, the economic despair that drives people to such extremist faith, and the “epistemology of television” which suppresses critical thinking. With his words reverberating in the car we passed large crucifixes in the cornfields, anti-abortion posters, and billboards with images of a pale white, effeminate Jesus blessing the drivers of I-70.

While passing through Indiana we listened to a rousing talk by Helen Caldecott given in 1982 on the threats of nuclear war; she drew an analogy between the state of our planet and the plight of a terminally ill cancer patient. The horrific images she painted of nuclear war, and the insanity that the governments who build these weapons have not thought of the ultimate consequences of their use, reminds me of the same delusional denial the world’s leaders take in regard to climate change and the ecological crisis. We stopped briefly at a gas station where I saw a woman dressed as a clown filling up her car—a perfect image to capture the direction in which this country is going. Not long after, we passed for the second time on this trip a concrete cross at least ten stories high, towering over the yellow straw of drought-ridden, eroded agricultural fields on the edge of desertification.

Matt and I returned to Lake Quivira near Kansas City for the night, the place we stayed ten days before on our outward journey. Early the next morning, we left the comforts of a familiar place to embark on the longest stretch of the entire trip: 782 miles from the eastern edge of Kansas up into the Rockies to Aspen, Colorado. Although we crossed just two states, unlike the day before when we had traversed five, the day totaled thirteen hours of driving.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

The long expanse of Kansas proved to be flatter than a pancake, with the largest fields of wheat and corn I have ever seen. It felt like an alien landscape, with a mile of corn suddenly giving way to gray dirt and clumps of yellow grass as suddenly as if a wall had been built to separate the two. The highest objects in sight for hours were the plastic signs advertising fast food joints and gas stations. Occasionally a stream would meander over the land, and an oasis of green followed the track of the water. When there was variation in the topography the road would occasionally dip into a cut in the soil, revealing red and white striations of earth layered like a cake beneath dry grass icing. Our own oasis was provided by a set of tapes recorded in 1992 of Robert McDermott, who gave a lecture series on spiritual masters while he was president of the California Institute of Integral Studies. We heard the first three of those lectures, on Martin Buber, C.G. Jung, and Simone Weil.

After leaving behind us the Oz Winery, a massive wind farm of white turbines, and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, we entered the tiny town of Hays and knew we needed to stop for lunch. It was 106°. As Matt put it, it felt like a breeze blowing straight out of Hell. It was not hard to believe the large billboard we had seen earlier that stated “Hell Is Real.” Hell is the havoc we have wrecked on the climate that is producing this massive drought and soaring temperatures. The small oil wells we had seen along the roadside, pumping oil up out of the barren fields, seemed like some kind of a mockery of the weather.

As we entered Hays I could not help but wonder what life was like in this small town. What is the primary form of income? What makes people happy? What do they dream about? To our delight we found a local brewery called Gella’s Liquid Bread, and were able to sample their award-winning oatmeal stout and American wheat ale with our afternoon meal. Here certainly was one expression of creativity in the town of Hays.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Hours after lunch was digested we crossed the chalky Colorado border. Feral sunflowers grew by the sides of the highway. Black calves followed their mothers through fields. Train tracks led to nowhere. Small houses from a bygone era stood alone, each with their own forgotten history. Who had once settled this piece of land in the name of freedom, so many decades ago? Still the land was flat.

Then, in the far western distance, clouds began to gather. A deep azure shadow blurred the once clear edge of the horizon. Rays of sunlight cut through the clouds to illuminate the land. Planes trafficked the air, criss-crossing the skies. Denver. A city, trees, hills, mountains, then thunderheads, each layered against the next. In a matter of minutes the plains were a mere memory.

I can barely begin to describe the feeling of ascending into the Rocky Mountains after hours upon hours and miles upon miles of flat grassland. It is like drinking in the sweetest draughts of color and texture, light and shadow, like paintings unfolding beneath the artist’s wrist of the Divine. The rapid incline was accompanied by flourishing conifers and carved red boulders. The foothills grow into mountains like seedlings into trees, children into adults. These ancient mountains are decaying; after millennia of shooting skyward with the pressure of tectonic upheaval, they now are slowly crumbling, their peaks rounding and smoothing under the centuries of rain and snowfall. Yet still they are great majesties.

It began to rain. Sunlight seared through the falling water creating a world of white and platinum, the road and trees cast silver in the shifting light. A tumbling river tore through the rock on the left of the road, sparkling in the sun’s rays. Then, without warning, we left the shadow of the rainstorm and entered a dry realm higher still. Red barns and soft meadows, indigo lakes and laughing streams. We crested over a pass between the mountains, then descended into a wide grassy plain, the High Plains filled with horses and foals, likely an ancient lakebed drained long ago. I saw a highland cow, a red, long haired, horned creature I had only ever seen in the Scottish Highlands. Yet here one was in the Rockies. We were taking an alternate route, along highway 285, because there was a sink hole in the usual road to Aspen on 24. Though it was 25 miles longer, we would never have encountered the High Plains if we had gone the normal route.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

After the plains we passed the town of Buena Vista, and saw several signs protesting a Colorado Springs plan to dam this valley for a reservoir. It was hard to imagine these canyons and valleys sunk below placid waves, a lake that would most likely surrender to silt build-up in less than a century. Our route turned on to 82, and we circled a still, blue lake, reflecting the high peaks in exact mirror image. The road climbed ever higher, making sharp turns on the mountain’s face, leaving the bottoms of my feet with that hollow tickle that accompanies a slight fear of heights. The evening sun rises and sets constantly in the mountains as new views open beyond each passing peak. Yet at last it set for good, and our road became ever dimmer.

Finally, no more mountains obstructed our view and we rose above the world at Independence Pass. We stepped into the crystal air at 12,095 feet. Immediately we were short of breath as we walked about a glass pool reflecting the dusk sky, the tundra foliage bedecked in miniscule wildflowers. The descent into Aspen grew ever darker, and the road twisted and turned beneath overhanging rocks and aspen branches. Moths flew continuously into our headlights. Then, out of nowhere, a pale brown bunny leapt into our path, so close to the car there was literally no way to avoid it. We hit it instantly and I prayed it had died quickly. I cried all the way into Aspen. There was literally nothing we could have done, yet I could find no way to justify it. I have seen many things on this trip that humanity cannot justify, and this one act I felt so personally.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

Rarely have I felt the kind of exhaustion we both felt upon arrival in Matt’s aunt’s beautiful home, decorated with exquisite relics from her world travels. We ate peaches and cherries, a sweet relief from American road trip food. I long to go on the kinds of adventures that I see captured as memories in every part of this house. But for now, my only adventure will be into the dreamworld of sleep.

Photo by Becca Tarnas

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A Long-Expected Journey

So it begins…

This is the first day of a long-awaited journey, one that is two years in planning, and will at last be embarked upon. Two people, a Ford Focus, 18 days, and 6,000 miles (at least!) This morning Matt and I depart upon our cross-country road trip from San Francisco, California to Bennington, Vermont and back. The purpose? To retrieve my belongings that have been languishing peacefully in my dear uncle and aunt’s basement. The true purpose? To have an adventure, a real one, by driving deep into the heart of the American continent, and emerging on the other side to inhale the breeze on the Atlantic coast.

The first leg of the journey may indeed be the longest, as we leave the Bay Area and head east, aiming to arrive in Wendover, Utah by late evening. We will be camping out for our first two nights, before meeting up with family and friends for the remaining overnights of the trip. Our initial plan had been to drive through Colorado, but the wildfires blazing throughout the state have influenced us to reroute north. I am curious if we will see smoke along the way, or if we will be fully out of range. Climate change is indeed doing its damage, from the fires in the West, to the tornadoes in the Midwest and the East, and the 118° temperatures in Kansas. We will be experiencing the rapid changing of our planet first-hand on these travels.

Our planned route for the journey after Utah is to camp again in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then stay with my fraternal family in Kansas City, Kansas, Matt’s family in Cincinnati, Ohio, my paternal family in West Bloomfield, Michigan, before arriving in Bennington, Vermont to stay with more family and pack up my belongings. From the Green Mountain State we’ll drive to the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts, where I went to school at Mount Holyoke College, and we’ll stay with friends in the area. Our next destination is New York City to stay with another friend, and then we’ll turn our eyes homeward once more. Another pass through Cincinnati and Kansas city, and then a stay with Matt’s aunt in Aspen, Colorado if the pass there is unobstructed by wildfire. If it is, my desire is to turn southwards and see some desert-land before we cruise back into the chilly humidity of our fog-bound San Francisco home.

We are outfitted for the trip with few items of clothing, but a multitude of entertainment: dozens of podcasts of This American LifeFresh AirWait Wait Don’t Tell Me, as well as an obscure Tolkien podcast entitled An Unexpected Podcast. We will also have the treat to listen to Matthew Stelzner’s archetypal astrology podcast Correlations to help us stay attuned to the outer planets as we travel across the surface of our own home planet. Finally, we have the rare privilege of listening to a large collection of audio tapes I salvaged out of my father’s studio: lectures by Joseph Campbell, Rupert Sheldrake, Terrence McKenna, Bruno Barnhart, Robert McDermott, and several others. And lastly, if we can listen to the stereo no more, Matt will have his books on Schelling for his Ph.D. comprehensive exam, and I will have a few books of my own: The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and, if a copy stumbles into my hand soon, The Cosmic Game by Stan Grof.

May the stars smile down upon us as we begin this journey, may the unexpected adventures be merry, and the expected ones all the sweeter for occurring,may the road be swift and safe, and may the landscapes be the deep pool from which I’ll fill the cup of my imagination. To quote a great traveller in the wilds of the imaginary, let me conclude:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

At the Cosmic Midnight Hour: Karma and Rebirth in Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo

When one has an encounter in the world, be it a deep sense of familiarity or peace in an unknown landscape, an attraction to an area of study, or a strong desire to make a connection with a newly met individual, that experience of novelty can often be intermingled with a quality of memory. Yet, while this remembering may have no connection to one’s present life, it still has an inexplicable air of destiny; this may be no memory of the mind, but of the spirit. It is a reencountering of the result of one’s own actions, but the actions of a previous lifetime. It is a lesson learned by a former self, a fruit nourished and watered by one’s prior being, to be plucked and savored in this lifetime. It is a seed of the past, a representation of one’s karma.

The spiritual understanding of karma and reincarnation has been central to numerous cultures worldwide, and still flourishes in many religious and spiritual communities. Interpretations of both rebirth and karma differ greatly from tradition to tradition, and even person to person, as the fundamental questions of human existence are repeatedly asked by each generation. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of the universe? Are there spiritual realms? Who, or what, is divine? While many answers have been given, those of two of the great spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the turn of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo and Rudolf Steiner, speak not only to the unity of the divine in the universe, but also of the reality of the seeking and striving human individual.

For Steiner and Aurobindo the roles of karma and rebirth are central to their philosophies and spiritual practices. Although Steiner hailed from Europe, Aurobindo from India, their views of reincarnation were either contrary to or differentiated from the prevalent beliefs established in their regions, but also deeply resonant with each other’s perspectives. Aurobindo brought to India a more Western view of the reality of the individual, and Steiner was given the weighty task of reintroducing the ideas of karma and rebirth to the West, from which they had been absent following the widespread establishment of Christianity (NES, 6). They both saw the cycles of human reincarnation as an evolutionary process, an evolution of the individual and of the whole of humanity, the universe, and the divine.

Rebirth, for Steiner and Aurobindo, could be defined as the joining of spirit to life and matter (EA, 92). Steiner called the moment when one karmic life ends and the new karmic life begins the “cosmic midnight hour” (NES, 47). Rebirth is a joining of the old with the new, the eternal spirit with a newly formed body, mind, and personality (EA, 265). Sculpting each life is one’s karma, one’s self-created destiny, which is formed by the prior actions of one’s spirit inhabiting other bodies during previous lifetimes (NES, 197). Our karma shapes not only the bodies, families, and cultures we are born into, but the road we travel and the obstacles and turns we will meet. How we will journey down this road, and interact with what and whom we meet upon it, is within our own freedom to choose, yet will lay the foundations for our future life’s karma as well. Both Aurobindo and Steiner emphasized the importance of one’s personal experience, how we choose to travel our path; it was through their own personal experiences that they each came to their spiritual understandings of karma and rebirth.

Aurobindo writes that “if the soul enters this life with a certain development of personality, it must have prepared it in other precedent lives here [on Earth] or elsewhere” (EA, 95). Each human comes into the world with a fully unique personality, which cannot be reduced merely to physical heredity or one’s familial upbringing. Such a materialist perspective implies that the only part of us that persists beyond death would be our genes in our descendents, and possibly the fading memory of our actions in the minds of others (EA, 93). While we inherit the shape of our physical bodies from our parents, according to Steiner we inherit the shape of our spirits from ourselves. Although Homo sapiens is one biological species of which we are a part, each human individual is a spiritual species of which we are the whole (NES, 186). For Steiner this spirit is called the “I,” for Aurobindo the “psychic being” and it is this part of us alone which reincarnates (NES, 48, EA, 265).

Unlike the Advaita Vedantist and Buddhist beliefs prevalent in India, Aurobindo held the understanding that the human individual spirit was truly real, just as Brahman, also called Satchitananda, the divinity that is everything, is also real. In Advaita Vedanta, while all is Brahman, the human self is merely an illusion created by Maya (EA, 101). Similarly, the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that there is no self; therefore rebirth, and also the karma that drives rebirth, must also be an illusion. A soul which is merely an illusion cannot be eternal (EA, 96). Yet, if all is Brahman and Brahman is real, how is it that each human being also can have an eternal soul that is real? Aurobindo writes, “If the soul is real and immortal, not a constructed being or figure of being, it must also be eternal, beginningless in the past even as endless in the future…” (EA, 95). Brahman and the individual self can both be real because all of existence is in a process of evolution. According to Aurobindo, Brahman, or Satchitananda, involved itself in Matter, and has been in evolution through the levels of Life, Mind and Spirit, a process that is only possible because of the reality of each individual who is evolving (EA, 109, 258). While the involution of Satchitananda may be regarded as the beginning of existence, it seems to be a beginning outside of time, therefore all souls can be “beginningless in the past” of time and “endless in the future.”

The reality of the individual spirit is as central to Steiner’s philosophy as it is to Aurobindo’s. The levels of Aurobindo––Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit––have many similarities to the four bodies of Steiner: the physical body; the etheric, or life, body; the astral, or soul, body; and the “I,” or spirit body (EA, 109, NES, 129). The bodies Steiner describes also relate to the levels of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. For both Steiner and Aurobindo each level carries with it the characteristics of the prior level, which are all ultimately divine. Each human being has a spirit body, or an “I,” which participates in a greater “I;” this greater “I” could be called the divine, God, Brahman, Satchitananda, or the universe, and it too is in a process of evolution, in part because of the evolution of the individual human “I”s.

Reincarnation of the human spirit is key to both Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding of evolution. The spirit is shaped by not only its life between birth and death, but between death and new birth as well. Steiner described the period between death and new life as like the period of sleep we enter into each night. During sleep the astral and “I” bodies depart the physical and etheric bodies to spend time in the spiritual realm (NES, 44). After death a similar departure from the physical takes place and, according to both Steiner and Aurobindo, the human spirit enters the spiritual world (EA, 100).

In his writings Steiner goes into far greater detail than Aurobindo on the journey of the human spirit, or the three non-physical bodies, after death occurs in the physical realm. The etheric body remains with the astral body and the “I” for three days after death to present the life that has just been lived to the astral body (NES, 44). The astral and “I” subsequently undergo the two-fold experience of kamaloca, in which first the astral body is purified by moving through the frustration of no longer experiencing the pleasures of earthly existence. Upon full purification, which takes up to one third the length of the life just ended, the astral body is able to dissolve (NES, 45). The second stage of kamaloca is the period in which only the “I,” or psychic being, remains, and relives its entire life in reverse from the perspectives of the recipients of all its actions (NES, 45). It is during this stage that the karma for the following life is laid, the final moments before the “cosmic midnight hour.”

The “I” relives its life in the presence of the greater spiritual beings of the universe. It is with the help of these beings that our lives are guided, as they whisper wisdom to us during sleep, and help us shape the karma of our future lives after death (NES, 46). “We first become aware of what our last evil or good deeds signify for the world. Our experience of them while on Earth is now eliminated; what we now experience is their significance for the world” (NES, 45). Although in some passages Steiner writes of the effect of our deeds only upon other human beings, in the previously quoted sentence he broadens that view to encompass the world. This holds particular significance for the karmic structures being laid down by humanity today, as the destruction many human beings have been unleashing upon the earth becomes rapidly more apparent.

The spiritual beings in whose presence we re-experience our lives “rain down their sympathies and antipathies” upon our actions. We release our good deeds into the universe to further its evolution, but we retain our evil deeds as the new work for our future life (NES, 46). Thus it is that we take our progressive steps from one lifetime to the next, building upon the lessons we learned that will guide us toward new ones.

The new life begins with the formation of our astral and etheric bodies, which are created with the help of spiritual beings and planetary forces. These bodies are formed as the “I” passes the spheres of the Sun and the stars, and are determined by the limitations and attainments of the former life (NES, 47). These three bodies join the physical body, which, like the parents, has also been karmically chosen, in the womb a few weeks after conception. Similar to Steiner, Aurobindo writes, “The human birth in this world is on its spiritual side a complex of two elements, a spiritual Person and a soul of personality; the former is man’s eternal being, the latter is his cosmic and mutable being” (EA, 109). For Aurobindo, even the form of the physical body is dependent on the condition of the human soul, and Steiner writes that what is unique about our physical bodies––rather than what is inherited from our ancestors––is shaped by our soul body (EA, 92, NES, 189).

Upon emerging once again into earthly existence we find it is much like awakening from a long night’s sleep. The results of our previous life actions have the effect of memory upon us, unrolling our karmic destiny before us (NES, 187). We even reencounter the same human individuals from one life to the next, as our actions throughout our lives connect us to each other (NES, 196). We do not do our work upon the earth alone. During the life between birth and death the astral body, which is the carrier of memory, “receives impressions from the outer world and carries them to the spirit, which extracts and preserves their fruits” (NES, 193). It is the spirit that carries the attainments of these fruits from lifetime to lifetime, which furthers not only the evolution of the individual but the evolution of humanity and the universe (NES, 191).

This work is far beyond the span of a single lifetime, which is the reason that many human lives on earth are needed for this process (EA, 112). However, although the spirit of the individual is real and eternal, the complete human born each lifetime is unique, and work done in one life cannot be achieved in the same way in another. The imminence of death is as real as the eternal spirit, and can serve as a powerful impetus to do the work and learn the lessons this particular life has to offer.

Because the divine involved itself in matter and is in a process of evolution, every rebirth is a unique expression of the divine (EA, 259). In each human being the divine is born with the inner qualities of that person. Therefore, every action is an action of both the human and the divine, and it is those divine actions which forge our karma. For karma to be real, the individual, and the divine that is the individual, must both be real as well. Through the individual the divine is thus able to come to consciousness (EA, 105). Aurobindo writes that “A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge––this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity” (EA, 259). Existence has a true purpose if reincarnation is seen as an evolutionary process, in which the human spirit and the world evolve together toward consciousness, and ultimately, toward bliss (EA, 267, 268).

Aurobindo and Steiner both developed spiritual practices with which to accomplish our tasks during our lifetimes; for Aurobindo this was Integral Yoga, for Steiner it was Spiritual Science, also called Anthroposophy. Steiner said that our task was to connect to our life before birth through free thinking; for Aurobindo our task was to know our previous lives and to connect to the unity of which we are a part (NES, 48, EA, 265). Both of them are offering spiritual practices that can connect us as individuals to the spirit realm in which we exist between lifetimes, the realm in which we can understand our unity with the whole. The spiritual practices of both these great thinkers are ultimately actions of love through freedom, and love can only be real when it emerges between entities that are real beings. As such, the evolution of the divine through the evolution of the universe is a process of love, as the real individuals that are each unique expressions of the divine are reborn again and again, and learn to come into true loving relationship with the whole.

Works Cited

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987.

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The New Essential Steiner. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2009.