Friday, December 3, 2010

Culture, Religion and Healing Plants

History begins with the written word; before the written word is “pre-history”.
Particularly over the last 2000 years with the rise and spread of Christianity and Islam we have become a “People of the Book”. This worldview has led to a general suppression of direct religious experience, substituting Gnostic awareness with book knowledge and ecstatic experience with legalisms.  There have been exceptions within this stream but the dominant Western religious trend has been a legalistic duality that places the relationship to God into the hands of experts and the direct experience outside of the realm of the common man.
Do we change reality by writing about it? Is history what happened or is it what we read about what happened? There is a Jewish tradition that God created the universe with the Alphabet. Our understanding of human culture is deeply rooted in the written word. Truly written language has provided us with a great boon. We have the ability to maintain records, share information and learn and teach each other. The written word has a positive power, but unfortunately we tend to miss out on the knowledge available through a more direct connection.
Growing out of this way of understanding is the Western view of medicine. The world and all that is in it can be defined, labeled and identified. Western medicine tends to see the mind and body as being separate, not interconnected, and spirit as something either belonging to the realm of the religious professionals or merely as superstition. The view of mind, body and spirit all being interdependent is not a common viewpoint and is perceived as being alternative, New Age or otherwise foreign.
As a result of this way of viewing the world, Western medicine has moved away from the use of plants as medicine. While many medications are originally derived from plant substances, scientists have concentrated the aspects that they perceive to be useful. The development of heroin and cocaine are “advancements” developed from this logical scientific perspective. Heroin has come a long way from the poppy flower and cocaine is quite different than the coca leaf. In our search for scientific perfection, we created Frankenstein.
From the beginning of time man has used a wide variety of psychoactive plants for both medicinal value and religious experience. The use of plant induced changes in consciousness  have been consistently suppressed by all three of the dominant monotheistic faiths with the exception of sacramental wine that has been used by Jews and to a lesser extent by Christians. Europe has been dominated by Christianity. The ancient cultic use of plants have all been suppressed and generally purged from European history.
Beyond the Western world, in the unconquered jungles of Africa and the Americas and the inhospitable deserts of the Americas as well, the Gnostic traditions continued. Three psychoactive healing plants with some similar properties are peyote (from the American desert), ayahuasca (from the South American jungles) and Iboga (from the jungles of Western Central Africa).
All three substances have likely been used from the early mists of time. However, the cultures that use these plants have no traditional written language and therefore no “history” of their own. History is written by the victors and the victors have the power of the written word.  The oral traditions that surround the religious and therapeutic use of these plants are fluid and change with time. The conquering Western worldview based in the written word is in direct juxtaposition to the unwritten traditions of indigenous peoples.
The shamanistic oral traditions and the use of psychoactive plants were considered “demonic” by the invading political and religious culture. Interestingly enough however, the religious use of all three of these substances have grown as a direct result of European conquest and the attempted suppression of indigenous culture. The use of peyote spread well beyond the Mexican and Texan deserts and developed into a central aspect of a broad religious experience that transcended the tribal differences in the Americas. Likewise, over the last 300 years the religious use of iboga has spread, making Bwiti the fastest growing religion in Africa. The rise of the Santo Daime religion follows a similar, though more recent, pattern.
The use of these substances for both medicine and religion reflects a worldview that sees mind, body and spirit as being of one cloth. The spread of these practices as a result of contact with Western influences can be seen as a natural attempt to heal from the damaging affects of domination by outside forces.
Literate and intelligent, Western man sees himself as rational. After giving up the spiritual world to religious professionals, he gave the healing arts to medical professionals. Freedom from these responsibilities however leaves a void. Alcoholism and drug dependence result from this unnatural dichotomy and unhealthy relationship with our inner selves. This may explain why iboga, peyote and ayahuasca – ancient indigenous religious and healing plants - have use in breaking the dependencies on the dominant drugs of Western culture.
We will see how it works out. The final chapter has yet to be written.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making The Connections

Inescapably linked are the global dependency on petroleum, water quality issues, soil depletion and the effects of the dominant industrial and farming methods.
We must develop programs that simultaneously wean the most developed nations from the disastrous over consumption and the self-destructive dependence on petro-chemicals while bringing impoverished communities the opportunities of self sufficiency.  There is a need for an integrated approach to dealing with the issues of ecological degradation and poverty. The two issues cannot be dealt with separately.
Historically, changes in human culture and the technologies that we use have been made without the ability to foresee the long term effects of the new techniques. When we learned to control fire, tame and domesticate animals or plant seeds we could not have even considered the possibilities of coal burning power plants and the internal combustion engine or the deforestation and soil depletion as effects of overgrazing and agriculture.
For the first time in human history, we can now make important collective decisions about the direction of our planetary culture and choose the direction of its development. We have a greater access to the world of knowledge than at any time in our past. With a few keystrokes we can now share a wealth of information. That power necessitates greater responsibility. We must choose wisely.
It is most important to move forward in the implication of a post-industrial society. The more developed nations need to now choose practices that avert disaster and nourish sustainable culture. The undeveloped countries and those living at a pre-industrial level can now choose to essentially skip the intermediate steps and make the jump to a post-industrial society.
We must now recognize the interconnectedness of all human cultures and of all human endeavors. What we each choose affects us all. We have a common mission.
Our mission is threefold.
  1. Education and training in transitional technologies: This involves new construction methods, non-polluting energy sources and improved food production using an organic permaculture model. The new technologies are available and it is time to implement them quickly throughout the world.
  1. Direct material aid to communities in need: Extreme poverty anywhere in the world affects us all. Those of us with greater access to resources need to foster programs that gather and ship equipment to communities in need focusing on appropriate technology such as solar panels, low impact technology such as bicycles, improved agricultural technology such as drip irrigation and computers to help close the “information divide”.
  1. Establishing sustainable programs: We must work with local groups worldwide to assist in setting up sustainable, transformative programs in communities of need. Each community should certainly act independently in their own self interest. Where we have greater strengths, we have a responsibility to share and have a great opportunity to learn from each other.
There are more important choices available to us than paper or plastic, Coke or Pepsi. We have before us the choice to create a future worth handing to the next generation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

There's Nothing New Under The Sun

There is a tendency for each generation to think that they created something new, for each culture to believe that they developed on their own and for each nation to believe that they are unique beyond words. Around 2000 years ago Jesus said “There is nothing new under the sun” – and he was quoting someone else!

The ideas, technologies and practices that take us forward will come out of our shared experiences and shared knowledge. We are all in this together and we have a lot to learn from each other.  As we move forward into our collective future, it’s a good idea to at least occasionally reflect on our collective past.

Any innovation in thought or practice, whether in science, religion, culture or enterprise either grew out of, developed from or heavily borrowed from something that came before. There is no shame in that. In fact, the best we have in human culture comes when we are not afraid to share. The greatest jumps forward in civilization come when we are most tolerant and open to the ideas of other cultures. Stagnation happens during periods of intolerance and fear.

When we use the World Wide Web, we may think we are doing something incredibly cutting edge and new, but we are merely following in the footsteps of our ancestors sitting around the fire telling stories – or perhaps when the first person showed another how to make fire. It is the sharing of information that enriches us.

Paper may well have been a technological advancement of importance equal to the internet today. When combined with the genius of movable typeface a revolution in communications became possible. Paper was introduced to Europe by way of the Arab world. The Arabs learned about it from the Chinese. Also introduced around the same time were Arabic numerals (the numbers we use today instead of X’s and V’s and I’s in complicated combinations) and the concept of zero.

We have to give credit to the Islamic world as well for continuing to study the Greek Classics while Christian Europe suppressed all pre-Christian knowledge as Pagan. When Europe once again opened itself up to the Classics, the Renaissance was made possible. Of course, the works then needed to be translated from the Arabic. Some Jewish scholars helped out with that little project!

We may think of South America when we drink our morning coffee, but Juan Valdez wasn’t the first to cultivate it. Coffee comes from Africa. “Chinese” tea originated in India. Irish potatoes came from the Americas. Hot and spicy peppers in Indian and Chinese foods also came from the Americas. And did the Italians learn about spaghetti from the Chinese and pizza from the Arab pita? Food for thought, eh?

More than just recipes were also exchanged along the trade routes and in the marketplaces of our predecessors. The direct relationship between the three biggies of Monotheistic religions should be fairly obvious. There may be more subtle examples of religious cross pollinating that haven’t crossed your mind.

For instance, one may see that Buddhist understanding of Tantra comes from the Hindu Kama Sutra. Have you considered that the same source may have influenced the Jewish development of Kabala with its erotic imagery? Other aspects of Kabalistic thought seem to greatly parallel a Buddhist worldview. While we are at it, did early Christians pick up a thing or two from the Buddhists? Christian monasteries are likely rooted in Buddhism as there is no Jewish historical precedent. The Devil may be in the details but my guess is that the Apocalyptic elements that found their way into Jewish thought and later became so central in Christianity with the powerful, Deity threatening  Satan taking a central role developed from Hebrew contact with the dualistic Zoroastrians during the first exile.

Hindu Indians and Sephardic Jews share the custom of henna painting of brides before the wedding. Moslems and Jews share the use of the hamsa to ward off the evil eye. The tam that Rastafarians wear comes from Scotland. The cowboy of American western lore is largely born from Mexico. Of course the horse he rode and the indigenous peoples of the continent adapted to so well is not native to the Americas, only first arriving with the Spanish. Yet, the horse seems as at home on the American Plain as the camel is at home in the Sahara. The North African Berbers used camels for centuries as the “Ships of the Desert” but camels are from Asia and were introduced to Africa by the Arabs.

Part of American cultural mythology is that Columbus convinced the Spanish Monarchy on the idea of financing his voyage while most people believed the world to be flat. Hard to say how widespread that idea was, but educated folks certainly knew otherwise for centuries. Columbus indeed took on a significant enterprise, but he probably had a much better idea of what he was heading into than our elementary school teachers let on. He had the maps and travel records of the Vikings.

There has certainly been a long history of struggles and competitions, battles and wars, but there has also been centuries of exchange and learning, sharing and growth. If we are as adaptable as I think we are, we can choose to a future that skips the xenophobia and the bloodletting. We can find in our histories much common ground. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting Over The Post Election Blues

There has been quite a bit of buzz on the activist websites, starting even before election day, to put the best face on the fact that we very well may (and indeed, we did) lose a very important campaign in California. (Arizona, as of this morning is still too close to call.)

The essence of the positive spin is that we have moved the nature of the debate forward in some very important ways and we are ready to start again and work on 2012. I know that it is important to put your best game face on and we certainly have a lot to be proud of. I don’t want to be a spoil sport, or seem overly whiny and I’ll certainly try to hold back that inclination.

Nonetheless, let me state the obvious: We lost where we should have won. Almost winning an electoral campaign is like almost eating or almost getting laid or almost crossing the street before the bus hits you.

Yes, we can dust ourselves off and start again. Indeed, we must. But let’s take a hard look at ourselves and our movement, analyze our weaknesses as well as our strengths and get our act together!

There is a tendency among our base to believe that change is inevitable and logic or cultural shifts will eventually correct matters. I heard that noise 35 years ago. We need to be clear. In politics, nothing is inevitable. Change happens when we make it happen. It does not happen on its own. We need to counter the tendency to just wait and let things sort out own their own.

There is also a tendency to not take the issue very seriously. Support for marijuana is a mile wide but only inches deep. Amongst our general supporters there is a feeling that other issues are more important. After all, there is war, hunger, pollution, etc. We need to show how all these issues link together and how changing marijuana policy is part of solving these other “more important” problems.

Marijuana has been so infused into pop culture in so many ways that there is a general sense that the game is already won and marijuana is virtually legal. What’s the fuss?

We need to bring the issues home. The nearly a million people a year arrested for marijuana in the USA count. The hundreds of thousands of people sitting in jails and prisons for marijuana count. The thousands of victims of our nation’s drug policy killed just across our border in Mexico count.  

But none of the above explains why we lost in California and while we are still counting votes in Arizona, which should have been a slam dunk.

What killed us is a lack of unity and focus, political immaturity, and a foot dragging. Too many so-called activists took themselves too seriously and the politics too lightly. We split hairs, let egos get in the way and held back support for the “less than perfect”.
All politics is compromise. All politics is coalition building. There is no such thing as a perfect campaign, but there is such a thing as a winning campaign.

We need to grow up and act on our common interests. When we put forward a program, we must work together to present the clearest and best winnable bill we can. We need to bring together our core base. Once the wording is decided upon, we must put aside hairsplitting over any reservations we may have and present a united front.

I sat in Federal Prison during the Presidential election. During the two years that followed, I watched a lot of positive change take place concerning marijuana policy. I am now on Federal Probation for the next 6 years. My right to vote has been stripped as a result of the enforcement of prohibition. Every vote counts. How many of our constituency is forbidden from voting? How many more will have their voting rights stripped before the next election.  

It is a good idea to evaluate the where we stand. And winning feels much better than losing. Yea, you win some and you lose some. That doesn’t make me feel much better. How about you? Let’s get our act together.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Human culture is at an important juncture

Human culture is at an important juncture. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution – and over the last 100 years of so in particular – we have generated and used more and more energy, primarily petroleum.

This has allowed us to make some incredible things happen for us in a historically speaking very short time. For better or worse, this can’t go on forever. While experts may disagree on the details – when our oil supplies run out, the effects of oil consumption in regards of potential global warming – there is no doubt that continued dependence on petro-chemicals is unsustainable. Frankly, it probably can’t go on much longer and certainly shouldn’t.

So while on the one hand we grapple with the issues of how to feed, house and educate every human on Planet Earth, we must simultaneously grapple with the reality that the strategies we have used until now are not going to carry us forward. We need a new approach.

True wealth – sustainable wealth – is the energy of the sun and the fertility of the Earth. The sun shines eternally but the Earth must be nourished to maintain its fertility. We can’t continue to take out more than we put back. We must reverse that trend.

We have today the tools, expertise and growing collective willpower to end poverty, resolve our environmental challenges and transform our culture to one that satisfies everyone’s needs.

There has been some tremendously creative work accomplished over recent years by forward thinking people worldwide. We have learned to build homes that consume no energy and live off the land in a way that actually enriches rather than depletes resources.

When we develop programs to assist the world’s poorest citizens become truly independent we are making great strides for the whole of humanity and not just the individuals immediately concerned. Each community can strive to reach the point of supplying their own needs through successfully managed organic gardens, rooftop water harvesting and solar and wind electric generation. 

With access to the world of ideas as well as global markets through the internet even the remotest village or hamlet can now be on the one hand independent and on the other hand be well connected. By having access to the tools of communication, education and connectivity we can now share and learn from each other across boundaries that once were insurmountable.

With the growing economic and ecological security, matters of public health will certainly improve as well. Much illness in our most desperate communities is the direct result of malnutrition. Insufficient food makes one increasingly susceptible to disease. Additionally, extreme poverty leads to conditions were even the simplest preventative measures are unaffordable and inexpensive treatments are beyond reach.

We must create the conditions where food, shelter, basic medical care, educational opportunities and access to the creative sharing power of the world community are available to each of us. By making this possible, the whole world is enriched. A happier, more secure, healthier vibrant human culture profits us all. This is now within our reach.

We are all on this Earth together

The world has become a much smaller place. Through the technological wonders of computers and the internet we now have instant communications and the opportunity to build and maintain friendships worldwide.

This brings us to a new threshold in the global exchange of ideas and information. This gives us the chance to look at problems we face with a new perspective and seek new types of solutions.

The new communication technologies allow for a very de-centralized type of exchange. No longer are top-down systems needed, or even useful.

Now anyone with a basic level of economic security is part of the global exchange of ideas and has access to the global markets as well.

However, one in six people on the Earth suffer with chronic hunger and lack access to clean water, much less computer access.

It is high time that we recognize as a basic right a minimum level of security for all members of our human family.  Every person on Earth must have access to clean water, sufficient food, clothing, shelter and the opportunity to an education.

In the past many considered poverty inevitable.  People chose to ignore the condition of the impoverished or assuage there sense of guilt or shame by occasional charitable gifts to "maintain the poor". Unfortunately, "maintaining the poor" simply perpetuates poverty.

The alternative approach is to strive for a transformation of the condition of poverty. In the past this usually translated into political struggles for power. And still, the condition of poverty prevails even if political power shifts and new parties seize the reigns of government.

But today perhaps - in the "information age" - we have the chance to try a new approach.

What's called for is an experimental approach of mutual aid across class lines, across national borders and across the digital divide. We must seek new ideas and new approaches to what until now have often been considered problems with no solutions.

The technologies of the internet, the wisdom of solar energy, the creativity of experimental builders and the knowledge of sustainable agriculturalists can change the course of human life on this planet.

Certainly there is an immediate need in many circumstances for direct material assistance - food and clothing and some building supplies and educational supplies - the longer term goal is the development of sustainable housing and agriculture and viable new industries that encourage long term economic security and a true membership in the global community.

We are all on this Earth together. The planetary resources - indeed the very air we breathe and the water we drink - are all interdependent on the same sources. Ultimately the solutions we find to aid those that now suffer in poverty - solutions that will be sustainable and encourage both the local and global community - will help folks on both sides of what is now a greater divide. With sustainable approaches we will all have hope for a future we can share.