Category: Issue 96

96 Beyond Materialism


An Interview with Bernardo Kastrup

By Neil Johnston

Bernardo Kastrup is a metaphysical philosopher with a PhD in Computer Engineering, specializing in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing. He has worked in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and Philips Research, and his writings explore the “thoughtscapes” of philosophy of mind, ontology, neuroscience of consciousness, psychology, foundations of physics and philosophy of life.
He has a penchant for oxymorons and thought experiments. His published titles—Meaning in Absurdity, Dreamed up Reality, Rationalist Spiritualty, More than Allegory, Brief Peeks Beyond, and Why Materialism is Baloney—embody spectrums of thought and experience, always reaching for something beyond the “known” that calls to be touched; the space between extremes that paves a middle way into a fruitful no man’s land of “metaphysical speculation.”

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Neil Johnston: In your book Why Materialism is Baloney you’ve mounted a rigorous challenge to materialism as being the principal ontology underpinning mainstream western philosophy. Is it possible to outline the basis of your challenge? Materialism or mainstream physicalism, as it is technically called, is based on the concept of matter as the ontological primitive, in other words, a real entity, something of substance, something that exists, but it exists outside and independent of consciousness. According to materialists, particular arrangements of matter somehow generate consciousness and the contents of experience. However, matter outside consciousness is not an empirical fact. It’s not available to us as such. The only thing that is available to us is perception, and perception is mental in nature, not material. This idea of matter as something independent of consciousness is only an explanatory model. It tries to answer this question: If this world isn’t outside consciousness, how come we are all sharing perceptions of the same world?

Ok. But the overriding influence of materialism has profoundly shaped modern civilization. Yes, but is materialism the cause or is it a reflection of a development in the psychology of Western civilization that led both to certain materialist tendencies and to an articulation of a worldview—the philosophy of materialism—to justify those tendencies? On the face of it, materialism is so absurd that it’s impossible for me to believe that it has won out purely on the basis of the soundness of its argument. Materialism in a nutshell basically means the following: my mind conceptualizes something—namely, matter—within itself; it then claims this matter to be outside itself; it then points at this matter and says “I am that!” I mean, it’s completely outrageous, it’s absurd and it fails to explain the only thing that we actually know for sure, which is the qualities of experience. And yet it has become the mainstream narrative about the nature of reality.

Meanwhile, the materialist tenets that deny universal consciousness are set against the study and experience of consciousness by diverse numbers of traditions—a whole religious, spiritual, and cultural canon which presupposes an awareness of human consciousness and its relationship to universal consciousness. Yes, this awareness precedes materialism by millennia, it’s thousands of years old. So, materialism is a very new kid on the block. I don’t think it’s going to survive very long. As a matter of fact, I think it’s collapsing right now. [laughs.]

The thing about religious and spiritual traditions is that they employ metaphor rather than pseudo philosophic/scientific analysis to identify the existence of human self-consciousness and its relation to universal consciousness. Your book Why Materialism is Baloney, has a very powerful set of metaphors for consciousness and egoic representation in the mind which we’ll come to, but there are many others that relate to the relationship between self and universal consciousness; metaphors for essence and emptiness; mystical immersion; drop and ocean, for example. Metaphor appears in many spiritual traditions to describe ways of experiencing consciousness, where the subjective and self-conscious ego is a filtered experience of universal consciousness itself. And many practices make the conscious dissolution of the ego an overriding condition of experiencing universal consciousness. In Sufism for example, that relationship is present through the Lover/Beloved motif which introduces an emotional force of love. The Lover/ego-consciousness falls in love with the Beloved/universal consciousness, a process of emotional attraction to a non-self-consciousness that reduces ego-consciousness. So, the question is: how does this emotional/feeling correspondence between self-consciousness and universal consciousness relate to your theory of consciousness? You talked about metaphors. Indeed, I make liberal use of metaphors as do the world’s spiritual traditions because they convey knowledge by acquaintance, a mental gestalt, not merely to convince you that something is conceptually right. A conceptual model is something indirect. You may be convinced the model is correct, and still not know by acquaintance what the implication of that model is. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, used to say that you can build a conceptual system, but so long as you don’t inhabit the system you built, you are like an architect who builds a castle and lives in the barn outside. And I think that’s a great metaphor, there you go…

It’s a great metaphor. Science is also operating in terms of metaphors. The only difference is that it does not recognize what it does as metaphoric. While the world’s spiritual traditions are very open about it and they say this is just a metaphor, we are trying to point to the moon, but don’t look at the finger, look to the moon, materialism is saying the moon is in the finger because it isn’t a metaphor, it’s literally true, there is no “moon” outside the finger. This is, if you will forgive my English, bullshit. It’s complete nonsense. In the philosophy of science we have this movement called anti-realism and what it does is to deny literalism. According to anti-realism, what science does is to build “as-if” models. Take, for example, things not immediately available to experience, like an electron. You never see an electron. You see the consequences of the behavior of a so-called electron on a computer screen or on a photographic plate or on a sensor somewhere, but the electron itself is just an abstract theoretical entity. All we can assert is that nature behaves as if electrons existed. Nature behaves as if electromagnetic waves vibrated in a complete vacuum. Nature behaves as if atoms had a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons, but, according to anti-realism, these are not literal entities, these are metaphorical entities. In my own philosophy, I use an aquatic metaphor.

Whirlpools… You talk about drops and oceans; I like to talk about whirlpools in the stream. I think that we, as living creatures, are like whirlpools in a stream. Whirlpools are processes of localization in the flow of water, right? You can point at the whirlpool and say “here is a whirlpool.” You can delineate its boundaries. Yet there is nothing to the whirlpool but the stream itself. It’s just water in movement, not a separate entity. It’s just a local pattern of behavior of the stream and I think that’s what living beings are, local patterns of dissociated behavior of universal consciousness. You can point at a living being and say “look, here are the boundaries, here is me, there I am,” and you can trace the boundaries of a human body just like you can trace the boundaries of a whirlpool. Yet, according to my metaphor, there is nothing to the whirlpool but the stream: universal consciousness. In that sense, the ego and universal consciousness are not separate. The local pattern entails dissociation, this illusion of separation between the ego and the rest, the lover and the Beloved. And it’s intrinsic to the nature of consciousness that, when it becomes dissociated from an aspect of itself, it misses that which is no longer available to conscious acquaintance and the missing of that and the consequent feeling, could be called love. The lover yearning for the Beloved is a direct consequence, in my metaphor, of the dissociated whirlpool longing for the rest of the stream. It forgets that there is nothing but the stream itself. The moment the dissociation is over, the “lover” reencounters the “Beloved.”

Now, this implies “heart,” or feeling, an emotional relationship between lover and Beloved. In materialism, emotion is not considered to be a critical part of the philosophic experience. But there is specific emotional content in the relationship between self and universal consciousness—a yearning—and this suggests a correspondence, it suggests a means of communication almost. I understand you. Our emotions are integral to our psychic faculties and by trying to carve them out and throw them away we are mutilating ourselves. Why are we going to handicap ourselves by committing emotional-mutilation? It’s like cutting off a leg or an arm and expecting it to be as efficient as if we hadn’t done that. It’s nonsense.

That’s my point, we live in an emotional/feeling experience and without it there would be no experience of a living context. I think emotion ultimately drives everything, and I don’t mean only human history. I think the force we call emotion might drive the process of dissociation at a universal level. In the process of forming ‘whirlpools,’ there might be an inherent yearning for an ‘other’ because if there is no dissociation, no whirlpools, there is only the one stream. There is no other, and the emotional force—loneliness?—associated with that may be so strong that it ultimately creates a process of dissociation. Once that process takes root then you have, in turn, the longing for what has been lost…

Okay. …the yearning for the other part of self that is now separated from Itself, and this drives philosophical movements, religions, everything.

So, without the longing, the yearning, there would be no expression of need or desire, there would be no spirituality, no Vedas. It’s a profoundly important point. But how do you account for the presence of feeling and its sensory impact within consciousness and the brain? I see all experiences as excitations of consciousness and the metaphorical images of that.

Emotional experiences are closest to the innate dispositions of consciousness. In other words, they reflect pure psychic energy, the motivational drive that makes consciousness vibrate or get excited in the first place.

Including the emotional? Surely.

Okay. This is not often stated, Bernardo. Ultimately, emotions are phenomena sensed in consciousness, these are experiences, right? And there are different categories of experience. Some are perceptual, some intuitive, some intellectual, and some are highly emotional. There is a feeling aspect to certain experiences that could be pure emotion. But I do see them all as excitations of consciousness. Different chords or tones. Emotional experiences are closest to the innate dispositions of consciousness. In other words, they reflect pure psychic energy, the motivational drive that makes consciousness vibrate or get excited in the first place. They are the first level of differentiation from a purely non-excited consciousness, if the latter can be said to exist. Emotion is the first manifestation of pure potentiality and it reflects primordial drives, the primordial energy that gets everything into movement. But it’s nonetheless still an excitation of consciousness in so far as we only know it because we experience it.

It would seem that this feeling of loss and longing, this yearning, is fundamental to the human condition. Sure. Most human yearnings are yearnings to transcend limitations, the limitations inherent to the human condition. In other words, the limitations we have as seemingly separate beings. What is adrenaline-seeking behavior, for instance, but an attempt to transcend the limitations of the human condition? So yes, I am with you that yearning is behind everything and it expresses itself in many different words, tonalities, colors and forms, but the underlying force is the same.

It’s almost layered in that… Absolutely…

… layers of yearning are interconnected states encompassing the needs and desires for everything from the basic to the profound. And as you go through those layers, those states, then the desire for material stuff diminishes, becomes less satisfying? Materialism does not survive direct experience of transcendence.

I’ll quote that…[laughs] So, whoever is a materialist has not had that direct experience yet. That’s for sure.

Consciousness also often infers a wide range of feelings and positive human attributes associated with it: compassion, empathy, intuition, kindness, joy; could we say that consciousness is inherently a “good thing” with regard to its own behavior? The list of associated states that you just made—compassion, empathy, intuition, kindness, joy, love, these are all positive experiences, positive feelings, positive values, so to say. And I think they all exist, of course they all exist, we experience them, but I think they are not any less valid, in the sense of not being any less real, than anger, sadness, frustration, despair, angst and the whole gamut of what we call negative feelings, negative emotions. But let me clarify one point. My original point was that normal patterns of brain activity correspond to dissociation in universal consciousness, the whirlpool in the stream. If that dissociation were to reduce so that we would become more conscious of what is beyond the boundaries of our personal self, then those normal patterns of brain activity should be replaced with reduced brain activity. So if dissociation reduces, then brain activity should reduce as well, and it turns out that scientifically, empirically, that’s what’s observed. But this is all completely agnostic of the kind of experience that you have, whether it’s compassion or anger, whether it’s empathy or hate—these are all experiences, mental activities whose extrinsic appearance is certain patterns of brain activity. The latter are what the experiences look like from a second person perspective; in other words, from across the dissociative boundary. So I was very agnostic of positive and negative when I made that analogy. I am not sure that negative emotions are any less or more conducive to dissociation than positive emotions.

Despite the shortcomings of religious institutions through the ages, religion was humanity’s way to give words to an inner intuition, an inner perception of what is real.

Isn’t there a different kind of coherence to a state of meditation as opposed to a state of negative emotional excitement? What I can say is this: the moment I make this analogy between experiences and excitations, or vibrations of consciousness, I’m opening the door for consciousness to exist without experience. In other words, if experiences are like the vibrations of a guitar string, then nothing stops the guitar string from existing even when it’s not vibrating. Experiences are nothing but consciousness in motion, so consciousness may exist without experiences. And I think that’s what you’re driving to in a state of meditation; that you eliminate the excitation, reduce the vibrations. You meditate to experience the string itself. But if the string were to stop completely and be in absolute repose, then nothing would be experienced. So the fact that people can reflect on the great void in the Buddhist tradition for instance, or refer to accounts of pure consciousness that recur in all traditions of the world, they cannot be talking about consciousness in absolute repose because there is nothing to say about it. Perhaps what is happening is that they experience a fundamental tone, a single vibration, a carrier wave, if you will, of universal consciousness, which is always there underneath ordinary experiences.

The om. Exactly. An om that’s intrinsic to the string, and all other experiences are modulations of that basic tone, and if you remove the modulations, then you are left with that om. I think that is experienceable, because it is inherent to all consciousness, including the dissociated guitar string, including the dissociated whirlpools, lover and Beloved. It’s a consummate force. That’s what is experienced in deep states of meditation, but it’s completely neutral morally speaking, ethically speaking. It is not good or bad, it’s not positive or negative, it’s just the fundamental vibration of existence.

Is the sense of longing for life after death one of the planks for belief systems that seem to manifest around concepts of consciousness? I think that’s undeniable, right? And the risk of wish fulfillment and self-deception in that is obvious, it’s blatant, and one has to be very self-guarded against this kind of wish for personal immortality. But this is not the most important point. Today we are exposed to the much larger risks associated with a mainstream metaphysics that has made this amazing assertion that consciousness ends. Consciousness is the very ground of reality. Positing that it ends, is, historically speaking, an anomaly. It’s surprising. It’s abnormal. It’s an aberration. But, okay, that’s the status quo, the narrative that leads most people on the street to lose their source of meaning because they live in a cultural ethos that denies the endurance of consciousness. The concept of universal consciousness, mind, god, reflects an intuition of something real. And that’s the origin of the god concept. It wasn’t a wish fulfillment manoeuvre. Despite the shortcomings of religious institutions through the ages, religion was humanity’s way to give words to an inner intuition, an inner perception of what is real.

So, finally, there is a principal philosophic question utterly rejected in materialism: is there a purpose to consciousness, or to God? What you’re saying is that death is a kind of deconstruction and a return to universal consciousness, but what’s your view on the existential purpose of “consciousness”? Technically we call it telos—the idea that nature is guided by intent, that it’s not just random. Nature doesn’t necessarily have a complete picture of its final state but it nonetheless operates teleologically, operates with intent; it’s trying to get somewhere. I think life is a vehicle on that teleological path. Life has many negative aspects; it’s dissociation, after all. The lover loses the Beloved; they become separated through a dissociative boundary. But at the same time, living beings have the unique capacity of metacognition, the ability to self-reflect. I believe universal consciousness does not have the capacity to develop its own metacognition without these reflective, dissociative states. Life—dissociation—may thus be required for consciousness to become aware of itself, and this may be the purpose and meaning of life.

You seem to see consciousness as an evolving thing… I have to be careful here. It’s an evolution in the sense that it’s getting to know itself. But it’s not changing in the sense that it becomes something other than what it is and has always been. It’s just actualizing its potential for knowing what it is, has always been and will always be.


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96 Nameless



[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]


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Only a blind one can enter this room
let it be curtainless


Only a naked one can dance in this dark
only a fearless one can embrace this light-ball
let her be speechless
__________let her be nameless


Light the fire on heart level my dear
______________________________— let it glow
we can’t do it otherwise


Go to that forest you feared
do not ask why __________ just go
then come back to me
come back to me

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96 The Song Becomes Everything

The Song Becomes Everything

Kanai Das Baul and the Path of Longing

by Surat Lozowick

No fear in singing

Why are you afraid? We’re scattered in a circle, trying to match the melody that Kanai Das Baul sends high into the air, like a bird sent far then called back, sending messages to that which made us, returning with wisdom to share. His voice flies clear, straight, true: melody simple yet beautifully precise.

Night descends, darkness and a slight chill coming through open barn walls, cloth ceiling above us breathing with the wind. Kanai Das Baul, “Kanai Da,” sits attentively at the front, lit by LED lights, ektara (a single-stringed drone instrument) in one hand, ankle bracelet in the other.

“Oh Brother, my Beloved Friend,” he sings in Bengali, to Krishna, “when the bird of breath escapes the cage of my body, spreads its wings and flies away”—when I die—“that day, will you be there, will you remember me?”

We respond, but we aren’t singing in unison. Our voices collide and wrestle in the air.

Patiently, undemanding, he sings the song again and again. He doesn’t get frustrated at our pace of learning. He gets bored. (He who at other times sits contentedly as we talk for hours in unknown words, the majority untranslated.) Tonight we’re here to learn, and we’re not paying attention.

“It’ll take time,” Arpita, translating and helping teach the song, says to him on our behalf.

“Of course it’ll take time!” he says in Bengali. “I’ve spent my whole life taking time, and I still have more to learn. But sing together.”

On the third evening, as we flap through another repetition, he stops singing.

“Why are you singing with so much fear? There’s no fear in singing.”

“In the West, everyone’s afraid of being wrong,” I answer, speaking primarily for myself.

“Why are you afraid? There’s no fear,” he says. “Open your voice. Throw the voice as far as it can go.”

We sing again. This time it’s different. “It won’t work when the voice is closed,” says Kanai Da. “If you open your voice, you’ll feel good inside, and it’ll sound good too.” We all feel it. The air, our voices thrown unreservedly into it, is more full.

Still, we are just beginning. Now, with less fear in our voices: “Sing louder!”

Wherever my ektara takes me, that is my work

Kanai Da is a Baul, a God-loving, God-singing, God-breathing minstrel who lives in Tarapith, Bengal, India, where he sings to Divine Mother Tara—singing, as his contemporary and friend Parvathy Baul says, with the Divine Mother’s own voice.

Today, alongside her and two traveling companions, he is in lumber country in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, sleeping in a canvas tent under pine trees by a drought-dry stream on the Kripa Mandir ashram of healer turned Western Baul teacher Lalitha. Lalitha has gathered Bauls from India and North America to her farmland sanctuary for an exchange of teachings and songs between the two traditions, Bauls of Bengal and Western Bauls. The Western Baul tradition was founded in the United States by Lee Lozowick (born 1943, died 2010), ancient seeds in modern earth, and became associated with the Bauls of Bengal through a resonance of practices.

In bright orange robes, Kanai Da squats in the dry grass, smoking a bidi, with an empty sunflower butter jar beside him for ashes. As long as he has hot black tea, thick with sugar, and bidis, he is content: at home on the wood porch of his tent, taking in the morning sun, as he is at home on the funeral steps of Tarapith, with his friends the beggars, the tantrikas, the aghoris, the poor, the mad, the dead.

The cremation ground (smashan) of Tarapith is his “office,” he says. “I go to my office at 8 am, go home for lunch at 1 pm, return to the office at 5 pm.” His work: singing to the Divine Mother.

Sitting in the grass outside his tent one evening, I ask, “You don’t miss the office?”

“Na. Here is office. Wherever I go, that is my office. Next the airport. I come, I go, everything is the same. Wherever my ektara takes me, that is my work.”

Filled with compassion

True Bauls are hard to find, says Kanai Da. With “modern” Bauls, “their minds are functioning.” The Baul mind was once empty of thought and filled with compassion. Now, he says, there’s too much intellect.

Yet from Kanai Da, compassion shines like one lit by the golden rays of the morning sun. He carries calm rootedness in his body, roots reaching up to heaven, to bloom beauty and heart onto earth. His sixty-three years show on his wrinkled hands and his vast grey-black beard, but he lives in his own body a relationship outside of time: the eternal devotion of Lover and Beloved.

It’s not the details of his life that imprint in me an impression of who he is—it’s his voice, like earth, solid yet wildly alive; the way he claps his hands when he sings, steady, soft, deliberate; the way his hands are always active when not holding an instrument or clapping, running over each other like a farmer washing his hands after a day in the fields, a constant movement which yet leaves the calmness emanating from him untouched; the still focused attention expressed on his face; his hand pulling through his beard; his wrinkle-eyed, open-mouthed laugh.

The wisdom of one such as Kanai Da is a lived wisdom and a living wisdom. Between the countless songs and poems he carries is the simple space for life to be lived, naturally, spontaneously, fully, beautifully.

His eyes are blind, but when he squats in the grass taking in the polished-bronze light of dawn, or sits on the couch still and quiet as we gab over dinner, one suspects that he sees something most of our hearts are closed to.

In his heart, I sense, he is with his Beloved. It is her we hear him calling, tenderly, powerfully, joyfully, when he sings. In silence he is with her too. His song to her does not stop when his voice does, and the silence they share is not interrupted when it starts.

Still sitting with the Goddess

“I’ve been through a lot of hardship,” he says, “That’s why the Divine Mother has given so much happiness inside.”

Parvathy asked him once if he has pain, she tells us, and he answered:

“I started my journey. The Goddess came into my life, everyone came, and then everyone left. I’m still sitting with the Goddess.”

His guru said Kanai Da would meet many people. He said, “All the meetings will come but also leave. It’s a cycle. They will leave today but more will come tomorrow.” Thus he must not be attached. He found these words to be true. One by one his family left—some to death, others to marriage. Now, free from familial duties, he wanders around, he says, enjoying his life, accepting what is given, accepting what is taken.

One of his gurus, Gyananondo Goshai, told him not to go begging on buses and trains, as some Bauls do. “Stay in one place,” he said, “If you need anything it will come to you.” So, he stays in the “office” in Tarapith. Everything he needs does come to him, he says. He lives in a mud house, the last in the neighborhood, surrounded by modern two-story buildings. Many people help take care of him, Parvathy tells us, from other musicians to the flower sellers at the temple. In 2002, he met Canadians in India, and decided he wanted to go to Canada. Now, on Lalitha’s invitation, here he is. “My wish has been fulfilled,” he says. “Divine Mother made it so.”

Singing to survive

When Kanai Da was ten years old, his father died falling off a ladder. He, blind since a young age, was left to care for his mother and sister.

There were many Baul practitioners in the village, and they would sing every night. He would listen. He might remember only four or five lines, but he would repeat them throughout the day. People would sometimes give him money, food, or rice.

“He had no instrument,” says Parvathy, so “he took two stones and played them against each other.”

When he didn’t beg enough money to feed his family by singing in the streets, he would go to community houses. He would say openly that he couldn’t earn enough that day, and they would give him cooked food to take home. He would go to as many houses as he needed to feed his family.

He used to play in the temple in Tarapith, 9 km from his village, and was attracted by the funeral ground. As a teenager he would sometimes spend the night there.

I ask him how old he was when he began singing in the smashan, and he begins counting the years backwards to find out. But the number doesn’t mean anything to him, so he’s not sure. He says he’s been sitting there full time for at least 37 years. Parvathy thinks it’s more. (He’s 63, and has been going there since being a teenager.)

His colleagues in the funeral ground “office” used to remember how long he’d been going, he says, but now they’re all dead, so he has no one to ask. He says this matter-of-factly, with humor.

“We all want to tie and measure everything, counting days,” comments Parvathy, “for him it’s the opposite. He’s just being who he is.”

In his every word and gesture, Kanai Da sends a message: what matters is not the years of the past, but today. Today, like almost every day, he will sing the songs he’s learned, many which remind us we will die, and that only love is eternal, love for Krishna, the Dark Moon, the ungraspable eternal lover trysted in longing. Today, and every day, he shows up to his office and does his work, as he will until the “noose of the God of death,” as one song says, tightens around his neck; and then, “Dark Moon, I will know what kind of friend you are.”

“You can have beautiful language,” she explains, “but you must start with the alphabet.”

The song becomes everything

He worked hard to learn each song, he tells us. He cannot read or write, and not all his teachers were patient. Some would run away, or reject him. But he was resilient. Every song is precious, he says. “The song becomes everything. Your house, your friends, your parents, your companion, everything.”

When Kanai Da was young, his gurus would call him with compassion. “Ok, this old man is calling me, I’ll keep him company,” he would think. They would teach him wisdom and repeat poetry for him to memorize.

As he tells of his meetings with teachers, he begins reciting one of the first poems he learned. He has to finish, uninterrupted, before translation can continue, like he’s holding a scarf that cannot be taken from the weaver’s hands until the final knot is tied. It is a test for his memory. When he finishes, he is relieved. He can relax. The poem is in its proper place, complete, unbroken. Translation can continue.

He tells of Pagol Bijoy, an aghori practitioner and poet who would compose spontaneous poetry, many poems which now are preserved only in the memory of Kanai Da. “Pagol” means mad. Pagol Bijoy would speak poetry, and his assistant Horidash would write it down, then put it to music.

Pagol Bijoy was singing in the smashan in Tarapith and said he would write a song for Kanai Da. Kanai Da told him he would not remember, because his mind could not sit still and learn poetry. His mind wanted to go to the tea shop, then have a samosa. The poet said no problem. He would repeat the song 40 times if necessary.

He did repeat it nearly 40 times, says Kanai Da. And Kanai Da really wanted to go have tea, but he stayed until he’d learned the song. The poet told him to put the words to a melody. When he sang it, the poet went into ecstatic bhava, crying, and hugged him. After that, Kanai Da would visit him once a day, every day. The poet would have tears in his eyes when he arrived. He used to cry so much with love for Kanai Da that Kanai would have to leave, just so the poet could stop crying. He would speak poetry and Kanai Da would compose a melody. The poet used to scold Horidash for not composing like Kanai Da.

Song by song, he learned. Yet even with decades of songs memorized and lived, he says he is sad he can never learn all the songs there are to learn.

A daily practice, morning to night

In outer expressions of Baul culture one can see madness, spontaneity and iconoclasm, but the core of their way of life is sadhana: disciplined, committed, daily practice, of both music and esoteric methods of transformation.

“One thing I want to remind everyone, and myself also,” says Parvathy, “is that it’s a strict discipline. You must practice as a musician, and then you can transcend. But first you must practice technically.”

“You can have beautiful language,” she explains, “but you must start with the alphabet. As a child you must learn to read and write. Even speaking, you must know where to put the words. On a Baul ashram, a child born there learns the songs very naturally, almost like breathing. But when you come from a different perspective, you see that there are many steps. Even how you stand, how you breathe. It’s a daily practice, morning to night. It’s not like you practice meditation for seven hours and then you’re done. You have to practice every day.”

For one who grows up surrounded by Baul music and culture, is there an age when they could be considered a Baul? someone asks.

“Am I a Baul?” Kanai Da asks in response. “There is always more to learn, there is no end. There are infinite songs to learn. Even I am still learning to be a Baul.”

Not all Baul practitioners are performers. Some live the teaching in other ways. Yet an intensity of focus on sadhana remains core. “The music is a vehicle,” says Parvathy. “Some people sit in front of a fire; we play ektara and sing.”

You cannot run out of this gold

Parvathy emphasizes the necessity of working with a guru, a living teacher, on the Baul path. “The guru is neither man nor woman,” Parvathy says. Yet “When the guru takes a human form, he or she takes on all the human functions.” We have to see beyond this. “What is the essence the guru is carrying? That is what we will have to look for.” From how we look, our view will change, she says. “When we see the divine in him, we can start to see the divine in everyone. Even a dog. We can see a dog as our guru. See compassion in it.”

“Guru yoga is very difficult,” says Kanai Da, “so we need guru kripa, guru’s grace, to be in guru yoga. Guru kripa is a state of lightness. You cook and serve, but you don’t touch the pot, and you should not be hungry. The grace of the guru is to be completely free, even free of wanting the fruit of sadhana, of wanting to be realized. Not attached to getting something, believing if we follow obediently we’ll get something. Not wanting, just being, that’s the grace.”

Kanai Da and Parvathy attribute everything given in their lives to the grace of their gurus. They are instruments; the guru is the conductor and the orchestra.

“We must be slaves, just workers on the path,” says Kanai Da. “He is my employer, and there’s no retirement.” He laughs.

“Your guru is you,” says Parvathy. “But not in the sense of ‘I am my guru.’ The human who is sitting in front of you in the form of the guru is you.”

“If you search, you will never find the guru,” says Kanai Da. “Because he is there, he’s present with you. Searching is outside. Be with the guru, don’t search for the guru.”

“He fills your life with practice,” says Parvathy, “so there’s no room for anything else.” She continues, “my sadhana is one-string. I cannot think of anything else. I am filled with my guru’s ornament. Gold.”

“You cannot run out of this gold,” says Kanai Da. “You give it away and you have more.”

“Everything is impermanent,” says Parvathy, “except that ‘I,’ which we call love, to give it a word. Even words are impermanent. Only the essential ‘I’ exists.

The practice of the heart

“In Baul, it’s the practice of the heart,” says Lalitha. A quintessential mood of love for Bauls is that of longing, the heart both broken and full.

Jim, a Baul practitioner from the United States and Lalitha’s husband, illustrates this with a poem written by Lee, the Western Baul teacher, to his own guru Yogi Ramsuratkumar. It ends,

“The Old Man, ageless, eternal / has cracked his son’s heart
in order to heal it. / Who would guess that despair
mixed with Praise and Worship / would be the sacred balm
of Union and Oneness?”

Jim comments, “Without the polarity of both despair and sweet heartbrokenness—heartbrokenness which is expressed as praise and worship—then neither would exist. It’s not like we can leave despair behind.”

As Kanai Da waits for translation, he begins commenting in Bengali to Parvathy.

“What did he say?” asks Jim.

Parvathy smiles. “He just said exactly what you said.”

“The words are nectar because they come from the guru,” continues Kanai Da in Bengali. “After seeing, thinking, experiencing, realizing, experimenting . . . only then they write.”

A surprise that you’re alive

After singing one afternoon Kanai Da speaks on death. His words, as always, leap from poetry, inspiration, humor, his own experience of life, and all that is learned by repeating thousands of songs until they become a part of his body, as intimate as his own breath.

“Death can come anytime, anywhere,” he says. “Death doesn’t have any rules. Death is present. Death doesn’t listen to anyone.”

“I’m here, I’m talking, and suddenly, I have a heart attack, I’m dead. I’m here at this moment, but death can take me, so what does it mean, staying here? And after, I’m not here.”

“Usually we refuse to think we will die. We always think we will never die. But if we know in our hearts that we will die, know that that day will come, then we live longer, because we don’t waste any moment.”

“Life is a gift. It is a surprise that you’re alive. Every morning you wake up and it’s a surprise—the gift of being alive.”

“If we could spend every moment of our life in our sadhana, moving toward Brahman [pure consciousness, supreme reality], our lives would be even fuller.”

“One who knows this truth and who is living with the divine every day can decide between life and death, even the time of death [for a great yogi]. Then death is not a surprise. For a sadhaka, death is not an accident. For most people it’s an accident.”

When he stops speaking, the reality of death sits with us in the silence.

Lalitha adds, “If you’re aware of your death, every day, even if you don’t know ‘I’ll die in ten minutes,’ you can be prepared.”

Parvathy says her guru Sanatan Das Baul began talking about his death from almost when she met him, over two decades ago. Before he died in 2016, he spent time visiting the samadhis (tombs) of other great yogis, deciding what time of year he wanted to die. For many reasons, including the seasons, astrology, and the deaths of other yogis, he chose February. He died February 28, 2016.

What was Sanatan Das doing to prepare for his death throughout his life?

“He watched his breath 24 hours a day,” says Parvathy.

Only the essential ‘I’ exists

“Everything is impermanent,” says Parvathy, “except that ‘I’, which we call love, to give it a word. Even words are impermanent. Only the essential ‘I’ exists. This observer that even as a child is the same, that has no age. This is love, which we cannot hold, but we can sense.”

“All humans are humans,” says Kanai Da, “American human, Canadian human, Indian human. The essential ‘I’ is the same. This has no culture. The form might be different, but the truth is the same.”


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96 Hidden Companions


[/twocol_one] [twocol_one_last]

Hidden Companions

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we are the leaves
and the seeds
of a sacred Bodhi tree
scattered throughout the world
by His breath
and we are the supplicants
who have worn its trunk smooth
through centuries of pilgrimage
and we are the hidden companions of the Saints
who are its roots
reaching down to the center of the Earth
anchored at each Pole by the Qutbs*
and we carry images of them everywhere
in secret shrines in our Hearts
and their relics are the bones within the marrow of our bones
and their Grace pours from us continually
in our laughter and our loving-kindness
and their Light from our smiles

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*The Qutb is the Sufi spiritual leader who has a divine connection with God and passes knowledge on which makes him central to, or the axis of, Sufism, but he is unknown to the world.


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96 Heart of the Matter

Heart of the Matter
An Interview with Tiokasin Ghosthorse

Interviewed by Sholeh Johnston

In the seclusion of the northern Pennines in England, a group of forty people gather around a cozy fireplace in silence. The paper and kindling crackle in the flames, and our esteemed guest speaker, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, lifts a pinch of tobacco from his pouch, feeding it to the fire. It is a subtle and meaningful act, though we cannot yet explain why. It is felt. Tiokasin settles into his chair, looks up at us all with a warm smile, and begins.

“Imagine a language without ‘I’ without the concept of death, or mystery. Can you imagine it? You are now speaking Lakota.” Minds bend attempting to comprehend this possibility. He asks us all to write for ten minutes about ourselves, without using the words “I,” “me,” “my” or “mine.” In the sentences that emerge, the most apparent thing is relationship—to each other and the complex and mysterious web of life around us. “What if, when we are outdoors, we are really inside?” he asks. The simplicity of the lesson is profound, and exemplary of Tiokasin’s teaching­—rooted, sincere, authentic, beyond the individual.

He never once mentions his accolades in the two days of teaching, but Tiokasin’s life is a vibrant tapestry of activism and advocacy for peace and the Indigenous Mother Earth perspective. A member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota, he is a survivor of the “Reign of Terror” from 1972 to 1976 on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud Lakota Reservations in South Dakota, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding and Church Missionary School systems designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

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As a teenager, he spoke as the “voice of his people” at the United Nations, and ever since he has been educating people who live on Turtle Island (North America) and abroad about the importance of living with Mother Earth, most regularly as the Founder, Host and Executive Producer of “First Voices Radio,” a one-hour live program offering a platform to Native cultures from around the world.

His ability to bridge the Indigenous way of life with contemporary America arises from his own experience of pursuing a career in computing, but becoming increasingly uneasy with the culture of materialism that surrounded him. In his search for meaning, he returned to his roots and committed himself to reviving the “old ways” of his people, exchanging material wealth for community and the wellbeing of living in reciprocity with the land and other life forms.

Tiokasin is a 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nominee of the International Institute of Peace Studies and Global Philosophy, and a guest faculty member at Yale University’s School of Divinity, Ecology and Forestry where he focuses on the cosmology, diversity and perspectives on the relational/egalitarian vs. rational/hierarchal thinking processes of Western society. A master musician, he also performs worldwide, and has been a major figure in preserving and reviving the cedar wood flute tradition, using instruments crafted by his own hands.

Tiokasin’s spiritual activism represents an immediate and fundamental solution to the divide between human society and the environment: a humble acknowledgement of the ancient intelligence that exists within nature. His call to action is to re-learn the languages of life, so that we can commune with consciousness.

Your activism is about raising awareness of the Mother Earth Perspective. I remember at the Spiritual Ecology retreat where we met, you spoke of asking the land what to say before you give a workshop. Can you tell us more about this practice? That time in the North Pennines, the feel of the country was great. When I first arrived I didn’t say hello to anybody and I didn’t want to, because the first instruction is to go to the land and ask the land what it wants us to say as messengers. We’ve been neglecting Mother Earth, moving too far away from that which is obvious­—that which gives us protection, nourishment and dreams. When I ask, it’s not with the expectation to receive an answer, but in acknowledgment that Mother Earth has been missing from the human mind. We think that we’re the only ones who can think and feel alive, but we have to take a step back and look to the great intelligence offered by relationship­—the relational values of a rock understanding the fire, the fire understanding the water, the water understanding the trees and the animals understanding the sun, and so on.

To recognize this relational value we have to understand what’s going on “now.” If we don’t have the language of “now,” we’re stuck in the past or planning the future. As Natives, at least in the Western hemisphere, we ask, we don’t plan the future because we know we can’t plan Mother Earth—she’s already planned us, in the sense that she’s given all these intelligences, these conscious elements to ask from. When we go to the land, we understand we’re walking amongst elders.

When you’re coming from a people that have spoken these earth languages forever, and have not lost communication with the elements, then intelligence comes through and we understand what is to be said without forming any thought process. And once you’re finished asking, you offer something—in our way, we put tobacco down, or ask if we can put tobacco down, because every terrain is different, everything has already been placed there in balance by Mother Earth, and human beings can upset it by planning and moving and forcing, taking it all for granted. When I do this I’m recognizing the powers of all these consciousnesses that come through all of us. When we sit in our circles, like we did in the North Pennines, that’s what was coming through. It wasn’t me and my formulated ideas or thinking patterns. The messages are coming from the earth. It doesn’t mean I’m a shaman or anything like that—to think that I have a personal power because I identify with Mother Earth is not the point. It’s that you ask Mother Earth to be with you when you speak. I spoke to people such as yourself with that asking energy.

The motion of asking is not praying. When you pray it’s like begging the one who’s holding the bread for a piece of bread. But if you ask without a sense of lack, you can know what it is to be a “magi.” A “magi” is not a genie or something with special powers, it is someone or something that uses the Earth’s tools intelligently, in balance. The bird uses the wind to fly, and fire and water combine to make the wind.

In Sufism there’s a large emphasis on the heart as an alternative tool of perception—similar to what you say about broadening our awareness and tuning in to the way that the Earth and the different manifestations of consciousness speak to and through us. What is the role of the heart in your tradition? The word that we have for heart, chante, is not a noun, it’s a moving energy. It’s creating thoughts and feelings together. It also keeps our circulatory tree, in a sense —our brain, our nervous system, the blood or menea (the water) within our veins—moving. So, “Chan” means tree, or “tree-ing” if you put it in motion, and “te” is a derivative of “living,” so we are talking about “living tree-ing”­—chante— when we speak of the heart.

A tree begins growing beneath the earth as a seed, and has to become knowledgeable about hydration and geology and nutrition of the minerals it picks up. To do this, the seed has to ask first, it has to give recognition that it’s in the ground, in the womb of Mother Earth. Then there is a flash of light, and the conscious seed is allowed to put down its roots and grow deeper into the consciousness of the earth. The tree keeps growing and learns the relational value that the only way it can survive is by learning to give off oxygen while taking in the waste products of those who breathe like mammals. It becomes a magi. It grows and grows, and its consciousness gives food in the form of fruit or seeds, or provides a place of harbor for animals or birds. It grows to understand the weather patterns, the winds, the seasons, the daylight and the nighttime, so it’s in balance. Every time it moves it’s in balance. Sometimes trees are four, five, six thousand years old. Trees are our elders. They are part of who we are, in our hearts. That’s why we called it “living tree-ing.”

The tree consciousness is a language of the earth, and cannot be destroyed because it is invincible. The wind is the wind, a rock is a rock, and all languages can describe this but they forget the sacred value that life is in motion. A tree is tree-ing, not just an objective form, and the heart has its own language too. In the modern world, it’s almost like we’re developing bigger languages because we’ve forgotten the basic, invincible languages—we don’t know what it is to have a “heart language” because we’ve taken it from the heart and put it into the mind. We are disconnected from the reality that we see with our senses. The trees, rocks, and all these elements live within us, and when your consciousness is all of those things then there’s always so much to learn by watching nature in movement.

Nature humbles you, it is the most powerful place to be because all that knowledge is in front of you, but it takes time to learn it, maybe generations. As Native peoples we’ve done that. We’ve been settled, we are advanced. We don’t even know what primitive is; the intelligence that’s in front of us in all life forms, that’s what I would call high intelligence.

Everything you’re saying reflects the idea in Sufism of returning to unity with an “absolute being” and stepping out of the “I” mindset. As I understand it, the concept of individualism doesn’t exist in your language. Could you say more about this? Yeah, in English we describe living amongst the community of Earth from the human perspective and that community is usually extracting from the Earth. That’s what makes individuals out of us, the “I” language, if you will. “I” is a noun or a pronoun that is singular, alone. It refers to self, to being individual. You have power or you don’t have power as an individual, so therefore you’re either looking for domination or lacking domination so to speak. In the “we” language that Lakota speak, “I” doesn’t exist. In the long-ago language before the colonials arrived here in the Western hemisphere “we” was more important, and is still in practice among the Native people. “I, me, my” or “mine” doesn’t exist in the language. To us, “I” is a verb. You are always in motion and if you are always in motion then your language is always relational, you’re describing things in a moving relationship to the matrix of life, and there’s no control or domination whatsoever. And that’s kind of alarming to the Western world—people want to control the environment so we make up words for nature, we give Latin names to life. But most of life doesn’t understand individualism, it’s a box which people are trying to find their way out of.

Imagine you set something like a cup in front of you, and you write “mystery” on a piece of paper, and tape it to the cup, and say “that’s mystery.” It’s a container, a preconceived notion of what mystery is, just like that. We “nounify” it, we “thingify” mystery. We say, “it’s a mystery, it’s unknown, it’s fear, there’s no answer to it,” but we still want to have control of mystery. We want to solve mystery. In the Western world, people are going crazy trying to solve the problem of mystery. They can say, well, that’s mystery over there and that mystery is making us go crazy. The other way of understanding mystery, using the “we” language, is that you take the cup away. Once you remove it, where is mystery? Where does mystery exist? Can we even ask how mystery is not there? That blows the box apart because we can’t contain mystery, we can’t even name it “mystery.” We can’t even say, “that’s God.” We can’t say, “that’s divine.” People who are not trying to control mystery, who are accepting mystery as it is, experience it as infinite.

We’re forgetting that “I” is a verb, in motion. You can’t capture that “I,” and that’s really freeing. It’s freeing when you can no longer say “that cup is mystery.” Or you can no longer say “that’s a cup” [chuckles].

When you’re watching this movement of the universe you see that you can’t really control anything. You know no one is in charge.

This reminds me of the metaphor in Sufism and Persian poetry of spiritual surrender and the experience of the divine as madness, because of the irrationality of the experience. How can we find balance with surrender and trust in mystery without understanding it in the mind?  To the Western mind, if something doesn’t fit in the box it’s not of any use. Balancing the positive with the negative is impossible to think of in relational “we” languages because there is no positive or negative, no binary. That’s just our need for a scientific explanation about how spirit’s supposed to be, or we get religious about our spirituality and we begin to put rules upon it. There’s no movement, it’s a mindset that’s been preoccupying Western thinkers for maybe three, four thousand years.

People feel depressed because they can’t have power, they’re not getting enough money, they’re not good enough, not pretty enough, not cool enough. All these things are to do with false power and prestige, and we feel we’re lacking because we’re told that’s how we’re supposed to behave and think. Well, there are still people in this world who don’t understand that judgement of self or judgement of other ways of life. Native people are sitting there feeling the wind and the wind is equal in all parts of the world, so there’s no need to judge the wind, the trees or the rocks. Those elements aren’t judging. But as soon as those elements give us coolness in the summer heat or warmth in the winter then we start judging them as good or bad. That’s really a lack of equilibrium in a sense.

Our language has, as far as I know, two hundred words for balance, whereas in English as far as I know there are seven. I keep trying to stuff those two hundred words into this little box of seven words and sometimes I’m like, wait a minute, who’s in charge here? That’s what a friend of mine, Martín Prechtel, said in an interview recently, that the Western mind always wants to be in charge of everything because it’s lost control, it doesn’t know how to let go. But I know those who are not Western thinkers and aren’t thinking that they have to be in charge. We’re lying to ourselves, to the animals, and all the elements if we think that we can control and be in charge.

A young Navaho man said to me “yeah, we don’t think too much. We don’t think that we can think our way out of this situation. When we pay attention only to our mind it throws everything else out of balance.” If you’re paying attention to the consciousness of the Earth there’s no need to think, because thinking is merely an abstraction of ego. A tree is not egocentric, it’s there, really living, moving in motion, in balance. When you’re watching this movement of the universe you see that you can’t really control anything. You know no one is in charge.

You have spoken a lot about asking and reciprocity, and I wonder what you think of the concept of service, a central practice of selfless loving kindness in Sufism. Okay, so if we go to the heart of the word “service,” it’s an action. Action is dealt with in the Western world as a binary product—either you’re helping or not helping, and you’re judged on the value of service.

We are usually looking for a benefit in everything we do, because we have a sense that we’re lacking. If we help charity we’ll feel good about ourselves, and we can write it off on taxes. That sounds like we are expecting, like we’re setting forth an insurance policy. With the Native way, you just give because you become instantly healthier—the health of giving without expecting anything back. Being a warrior of service is a one-way energy of giving, because that’s what Mother Earth is doing—giving.

It’s hard to give without benefit. People say, what do I have if I give everything away? It’s always fear based. You don’t have anything in the first place, and generosity is reciprocity—that’s the difference that I have seen in my lifetime.

What are your feelings about the imagination as a place where we can more freely understand the Earth? The Earth has imagined you, has dreamed of you, has created you. Earth used its own self to create you in service, as you would say. We are the living dream of this entity called Mother Earth, but instead of freely accepting that mystery, we are trying to figure out “who I am, what I am.” We send rockets out, and take things apart to find out mechanically who and what “I” am, which makes way for artificial intelligence—another tangent from our natural ability given to us by Mother Earth. Illumination of who we are… it’s a light inside. Scientists have witnessed by electron microscope that when male sperm touches the egg, there’s a flash of light. This light that is within all of us is the imagination that we’re not giving credit to, because we think that we’re the only ones in the imagination of creation. If you watch a bird, they are in their own imagination. They’re creating song, they’re creating flight, they’re creating color.

In the languages of old, there came a cosmology of how to relate to Earth. A spirit lived everywhere and this energy began to speak to all the peoples who came here wanting to learn how to live with Mother Earth.

What is your view on technology, and do you see a way in which we can balance different elements of human society with the needs of the planet we’re living on? Well, you know, what we are doing here is also using technology in a good way to continue the message. I’m not saying technology is bad, it’s how we use it.

I think humans here, in the United States at least, have forgotten how to listen. It’s not a listening nation. It wants to speak all the time, to overrule anybody who’s listening. And it’s not just human beings that we should be listening to. We didn’t really have to really employ the word “science,” or cut things apart to understand life or make things work technically or mechanically. People want to imbue technology and artificial intelligence with life, but it doesn’t know how to feel. It can be compassionate, it can be sympathetic, but it will never know how to feel. That comes from some source that we can’t even begin to name. We’ve distorted all of the technologies that we can to try to give credit to ourselves as creators, to become the god of ourselves.

In the West, they think so highly of themselves that they think they can put technology and spirituality together as if it was one consciousness, because they are not dealing with their own conscience as a priority. The priority is: I don’t want to feel guilty so I only talk about the positive, and if I only talk about the positive that’s already an imbalance because it’s not allowing the negative to come in. This is why it’s difficult for even Native people to speak in Western institutions because they’re looking for a win/win, positive/positive situation. There’s no shadow there, there’s no nighttime to allow things to heal. We need to balance this stuff out.

Technology can only support the spiritual. Technology is not the universe, the spirit is. It’s like we’re trying to rationalize ourselves, trying to insert ourselves into spirituality. I don’t think it’s ever going to work through technology, because it only takes a switch to turn off technology. Someone’s got to control it. Technology leads you into the matrix where they want to own what you say, they want to own what you buy, they want to own how you walk, and how you look, and they’ll teach you the language to do that by getting rid of nature. You will no longer be of a spiritual nature, you’ll be of a technological nature. It involves extraction, isolation, always trying to rationalize why you need to be alone and why the human race is unique and there’s nothing spiritual except our own minds. But why aren’t we saying all life is spiritual? We need to balance technology and spirituality together, balance the rational mind and the intuitive mind.

I find it really interesting what you were saying about positivity and the shadow, and it occurred to me that the emphasis on positive thinking which you see a lot in New Age psychology “just think positively and everything will be fine,” is like a kind of silencing. Following on from what you were saying about the experience of Native peoples in Western institutions, what do you think the role of active resistance is in safeguarding a human culture which is intuitive and balanced? The political nature of spirituality is the highest form of intelligence for many Native people here in the Western hemisphere. To be spiritual and political is not only dealing in the realms of humans. In Native government our decisions are based on Mother Earth, not on financial gains.

During the spiritual movement of events like Standing Rock—and I call that a consciousness movement—we relied on technology. But where did it go? It went right back into the box. The court systems, the governments and corporations stepped right in and made those spiritual people look bad and wrong for resisting energy technology. Government is extractive as far as my experiences is concerned. Extracting people’s minds, even their spirit or energy. Telling you when you have power on voting days, saying “just give us the keys and we’ll give you water, we’ll give you food”—but it was free before, so why is it not now? If we were living the cosmos of Mother Earth, we would see that there is no need for government. Civilization means individuality, to cut people apart, to civilize people and say well, books are education, books will give you intelligence, but that’s not intelligence, that’s not spirituality, because they removed you from nature. The more civilized you are, the more removed from nature you are, the more you act like you’re not from the Earth. And of course that’s an abstraction, to act like you’re from another planet.

The cultures that have been called “primitive” are the ones who are not resisting the greater law of nature—universal law. We’re trying to maintain that balance, as a Native people, to protect it. And I think that’s resilience. We’re standing the storm of technology and the nosedive of Western civilization.

I wanted to ask about storytelling because it’s often through stories, fables and myths that we reflect on our relationship to each other, to ourselves, and the Earth. Stories have this capacity to encompass the spectrum of reality—the shadow side, the positive side. What importance does storytelling have in nurturing spirituality and in the resistance that you just described to a culture which is out of step with nature?  In the languages of old, there came a cosmology of how to relate to Earth. A spirit lived everywhere and this energy began to speak to all the peoples who came here wanting to learn how to live with Mother Earth. It gave us form and each of the elements gave us their story and so within our bodies are the stories of our origins: where the rocks came from, how they probably came from someplace else, or how the light or fire came here. When I think about fables (which means “false”) and myth, which is “made up,” it’s misleading—the myths of the “little people”, the Native person, did exist. If you sit around a camp fire, that fire is essential to our learning process. If you stick your finger into the fire you’re going to get a lesson—maybe we should pay attention more to the elements and their stories. Our memories are stored within these elements, and if you’ve forgotten the language of Mother Earth, your story is not going to be long.

English is a young language, and it’s meant to proselytize its way of life. It emerged with Christianity, and it is still evolving. It focuses on progress, on getting something new. Native languages have less explanation, they have a quantum, multi-dimensional view of life. We’re in constant flow, we’re in constant unity; we don’t have to “reconnect” because we are unified.

English excludes because it wants to make individuals out of all of us and [as a result] we don’t have a shared story. Its story doesn’t deal with wholeness at all. It deals with the practicality of rationalizing everything in existence, so that it can exist.  Our mindsets have come to destroy and we know that it’s adverse to creating any story that will go into the future. Maybe there will be an ending story, because this will be the end of creation. There will be no more stories because one way of life, one way of thinking believes it knows the answer.

When we go back to the originality of consciousness and the languages that are there, vibrant, speaking every day to us within our body, we can listen to the greater story that the Native people hold here, not because we’re special, but because we’re still conscious of Mother Earth and the creation story. That story is peace. Peace with Earth rather than peace on Earth.

You’ve dedicated a huge part of your work to giving a voice to the Indigenous perspective and other Native peoples in the different communities who are still living in the way you describe a voice. Have you seen a shift in the cultural balance between the story that you represent and the story of individualism? I think one needs to know that the Native story has always continued. Mother Earth has always been here. That’s the original story. She will continue after humans are long gone. We think that humans are needed here, but not in the context of control and domination of the Earth.

We think we’re too good to learn the struggles of Mother Earth. That’s why a lot of the Western world, and even my own people sometimes, forget who they are, and it’s hard to address shame about how we treat the Mother Earth or even our relatives. We forgot the empathy of Mother Earth. And in the long run, we’re sitting here with a bucketload of grief. We forgot how to grieve with Mother Earth

But when the story continues, what is the legacy, what is the story people are going to leave behind? Is it guilt? That’s something that comes out of Christianity and binary thinking because we don’t know how to deal with grief. When people and cultures don’t deal with their grief, they push it onto Native people. They praise themselves and say, “poor Native people.” But when you live amongst Native people they don’t judge in this way, the domination factor doesn’t exist, they observe. They just want to help, to be generous. They have nothing, no material, no bank, but they always want to give. They see Mother Earth at the heart of everything.

We need to look to those who are being resilient, the ones who are really resilient are proud to live with Mother Earth. It’s the ones who are living against Mother Earth who are the ones who are really resisting. They think it’s bad to be in nature, to live in nature, to be with nature, to not have faucets and not have cars, not have electricity, not have technology. They think that’s resisting life, but it’s really not. There are many more other accessible dimensions to gather intelligence and intuition to live, to teach us how to live.

Of course you’re a musician too, and music sometimes has a capacity to cut through whatever story we’re living in and touch the part of us that is in motion. What is your experience of playing and making musical instruments and do you see it as an important part of how we go beyond the dominance of the mind? The flute goes way back in all cultures to the beginning of our human time as we know it. That’s one magical instrument. If we really want to know music we’re going to have to go listen to the birds. That’s where we get our songs from. We have to go listen to the meadow lark, to the eagle, to the bear. We listen to all the animals that we possibly can before they go away, before we forget how to know song, and where it comes from, because we’re definitely not the only ones who can sing.

People say that all music is good and I have to disagree with that—music can be used to control and manipulate, just like language. You can’t play a Native American flute in some deep, dark dungeon of a bar or a pub and watch people yell at each other with loud music, being cool and having intoxicating drinks while they lose their sense of self—you can’t hear Native American music in those places. The three affiliate tribes in North Dakota have a certain ceremony where they sit for ninety days and sing a song to a cedar tree, and after ninety days they learn how to become the tree, and the tree finally begins to sing back to them. The “tree-ing” is not stuck in the time concept of a three-minute interlude of “I begin here and end here and now we have to put another song on to keep us hyped up.” No, you find a consistent vibration with nature. That’s music.

So when I play flute, it’s coming from the wood, the tree. I’m putting wind into the tree. My body and all the makeup of those elements I described earlier in this interview said, “play it this way.”

Beautiful. Thank you so much Tiokasin. It’s been such a pleasure. Is there a last thought you can leave us with? Yeah. I think one thing would just be to learn how to be consistently generous to each other, to the Earth and to yourself without taking too much, even when you don’t have anything else to give.


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96 How Could I Know



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How could I know

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How could I know that this longing would render me mad
And would ignite a hellfire in my heart,
Making my eyes flow with rivers of tears?

How could I know that a flood would suddenly snatch me away
And hurl me like a ship upon a blood-filled sea?

And a surging wave would wreck that ship,
And cast it about smashing it into splinters?

And a whale would appear and drink up the entire sea,
Turning that vast ocean into a desert wasteland?

And the desert would rip asunder that seafaring whale,
And the maw of wrath would swallow it like Korah?

After these transformations
Neither the sea nor the desert remained,
How could I know what else happened,
Since “how” and “what” are drowned in the One?

There are more things that baffle me, I don’t know,
Since in that ocean,
A mouthful of intoxicating poison,
Sealed my mouth shut.


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96 Diffracting Rumi

Diffracting Rumi
on Becoming Human

By Annouchka Bayley



I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and became an animal,
I died as animal and became Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.
—Jalaluddin Rumi



We have never been fully human. This is the contention of some of the authors who work with post humanisms. Every time I’ve mentioned the word “posthumanism” outside (and even sometimes within) the academy, I’ve been met with variations on a theme of incredulity. “What do you mean posthuman?” Then laughter. This is a state of affairs that is both encouraging and discouraging. Discouraging because it suggests that a fundamental belief about “our” humanism is that we have actually achieved it. Or that we’ve always been there—at least since the Vitruvian Man burst out in all his glory in the Italian Renaissance courtesy of Da Vinci.

Diffraction refers to physical phenomena, processes like light diffracting through a prism on a journey of ontology as it explodes into an array of colours…


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But in truth, perhaps we’ve never actually been fully human, and this is the encouraging part, for “what do you mean posthuman?” is also a question that has sometimes been asked in the context of a disbelief in the idea that we were ever human in the first place. Thus, the incredulity emerges at a different segment, a different cut, along this line of questioning: how could “we” be post-something when we were never initially there in the first place? This has usually in my experience been accompanied by an exasperated sigh. Perhaps in other words/glances/nonverbal modes the question has become: why are you being so insanely impatient?

But it is not impatience that drives me, amongst others, to fashion a prism through which to try to glimpse notions of the human and becoming-human. Today, as I sit at my round desk in unreasonably hot (climatically transitory?) weather, provoked by the editor of this journal to write something, I return to something that has always-already been there in my history—right down to level of DNA. And it’s something that as an academic, a writer and a performer, I must and shall bear witness to. Learning Rumi by heart is my heritage, a tradition in my family and from my childhood, and the world that surrounded us: the recitations on the verandas, the balconies, the bedrooms and living rooms, the gardens, streets and khaniqahs that shaped my early and middle experiences of being (towards) human.

So this essay—this piece of storytelling in service of learning to “live and die together well in a thick present” (to reference the writings and projects of Donna Haraway) is not so much a reflection upon Rumi, but a diffraction of one particular poem read through the body and life of a human (in process). But not so fast! First, what on earth is diffraction? Diffraction refers to physical phenomena, processes like light diffracting through a prism on a journey of ontology as it explodes into an array of colors; or of waves that diffract in a pond, rippling over and above and within each other to form a new and temporary watery surface. Such intensities are not about reflection, they do not assume that one unit is separate and another unit is separate and they meet to form a third, or reflect the originary nature of each other (as when you look in a mirror and say “wow, I look so…” or post a selfie and say “well this is so me right now…” Neither are true—they are merely representations of “me”—and often severely filtered at that, as anyone under the age of 35 who has received a selfie will know, or anyone who has children under the age of 35 will know!) Rather in diffraction, these units of being find they are not inherently separate “units” at all but are eternally existing from within each other, momentarily creating new and various forms in the metaphoric and material “garden” that is the manifest universe.

Diffraction 1: Representations. I realize that mirror-like representations are a farce. Why? How? Because sitting with my parents as a child, at the foot of Aga Joon Nurbakhsh, I see something happening. My optical nerves pulse and vibrate and encounter this Other person—Other self engaged in the pursuit of not-self—who is clearly mirroring both my parents in the same moment. He changes states as rapidly and quickly as a pond diffracts into waves on a windy day. I giggle internally (well, what can I say, despite the continual misapprehensions, I am in fact extremely shy) and watch him endlessly and playfully reflect she and he who stares into him. Is it a reflection? Or is it a diffraction? After all, he is of course inimitably him—his voice, his body shape, his own seeing eye. How can one ever engage in reflection? Reflection is too static, too stuck, too dependant on a universe that stays still. Rather diffract! Show the difference differing. Watch the endless encounters buzz and hum with variation. What states might diffract into other states? Read from a position of fana or baqa, would Rumi’s stories not tell something entirely other?

In other words, diffracting something, or using diffraction as a method of exploration and inquiry allows the inquiry to come from a position of seeing the world as a complex, entangled ontology—to see Being as not built up from a number of separate units, but as a entangled flow of phenomena, a surface of intensities, which in Sufism might tug at something within scholars and practitioners’ familiarity with the concept of the Unity of Being. Not at all the same, but not entirely different either, a concept itself that diffracts its own existence here on the page in this set of contextual mark(er)s.

So, to diffract this segment of Rumi (perhaps himself a diffraction of Shams, of Konya, of Persia, of the flow of time and space and matter we call “history”) through posthumanisms, through myself today at this moment, through the context of “would you like to write something for the journal…?” means here to thicken the present with diffractive storytelling. And the story right now is of Rumi journeying from one state to another in his poem. What he points to here is ostensibly a kind of teleology. He talks of evolution, of a history that has lead from the halcyon days of hanging out in primeval soup, to becoming something unfathomable and more-than-human. But is Rumi just talking about evolution in some kind of Darwinian daydream/nightmare where “we” humans move on to some kind of next stage of evolution (indeed there are groups that affirm that becoming-robot is the fulfilment of the Bible­—but here I digress into what are, for me, shady and uncomfortable waters…)? Not in this diffraction. Because whilst Rumi may be referring to the process of evolution, in his inimitable style, he is perhaps also talking about a teleology of states and stations along the way to becoming human in Sufic terms.

As I sat at the side of teachers, mentors, mystics and cynics with a perhaps manic curiosity, (apparently I should have been playing with dolls, sorry Grandad) I heard many stories of what it might take to become human in these terms. It would take practice. It would take suffering. It would take dying to selves and self in the sense of “die before you die”—a sentiment that repeats and (re)emerges in mystical literatures across a range of cultures. It would take listening to wise old men. It would take not listening to wise old men. It would take living in the world and not living in the world. It would take getting married and not getting married. It would take having children and not having children. It would take embracing poverty and not being impoverished. It would take learning and unlearning everything you learned. In short: it would take everything (in both senses of the phrase).

Thus, the only way forwards (and backwards, in the sense of tracing the diffraction of personal history) was to embrace the idea that these things­­—these binaries of having and not having, doing and not doing, being and not being—were all eternally entangled. They were all existing as vital and vibrant parts of each other. And not just as concepts, but at the material level of flesh itself. These concepts were all living as part of my flesh and my experience of being alive on this planet. Much like Rumi’s poem and how I might diffract myself through it (and vice versa), all these knowledges, all these states were co-existing in one and as one. What “one”? Well, in one present-moment slice of identity, in an experience self continually diffracting into uncountable scores of phenomena. Or, to invoke the scholar Karen Barad, perhaps momentarily into a marked body—here, mine.

Diffraction 2: “You’re a tiger.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “No, I’m not.” And so on and so on. I remember thinking in this instant that I wish I were, but the truth (of this diffraction) is far weirder. I’m absolutely a crocus. Now I remember walking into university. I had by chance, managed to secure a place engaging in the academic study of Sufism (amongst other great traditions). We’d had a lecture on Rumi’s poem during our Mysticism in the Great Traditions course (one might indeed pick the title apart, but nonetheless, there I was, less than twenty and very excited.) Later, I went to my dear friend and teacher’s door to ask “What am I? What animal am I?” It was a trick question, to my mind, as I felt about as animal as a block of wood. “Ha!” is the response. “There’s nothing animal about you. But I’ve never seen a vegetable with so much presence.” I breathe the biggest sigh of calm—I’ve been seen but not reflected. I’ve been diffracted in contact with another. On recollection, perhaps it was nothing but a simple farmyard joke. But how I love this memory, that over time helps me to diffract myself. A further twenty years on, I find myself dreaming of crocuses. How beautiful that they grow in often inhospitable weathers. I imagine tigers trampling them underfoot. What is the power of the crocus-human, this particular and strange diffraction (like all others) that moves about on the planet, getting jobs, loving, eating, dancing, crying and wishing? Not much. But simply and only that we grow back. We know that we will grow back in endless diffractions, on endless fields and hope to be picked and given to a lover for a moment of joy.

But Rumi’s poem does something further than offer a metaphoric manual on becoming (and importantly also not becoming) one’s own diffraction of self via dying to different states and realities. Whilst situating these states within the material world (the world of rocks, veggies, animals, humans before the weird and wonderful, speculative world of angels and beyond) he also suggests that these states of being are temporary—that we are always-already dying to self, materialities and concepts: “I must pass on”… And perhaps this is where a brief investigation of the word “transcendence” might come in, both in terms of the poem and its diffraction here.

Transcendence is a word that troubles me. I became uncomfortable with it after a time when I felt its most prevalent diffraction was as a way to deny the body, materiality and to enforce an “us” and “them” that felt akin to the way Enlightenment readings rendered some people (usually non-white, often female) less civilized and more savage, less able to attain to the sacred than others. Thus, I felt that the word itself often carried a colonial baggage that filled its utterance with a whole host of angry ghosts whose voices had been stoppered up and silenced in the wake of innumerable colonial violences. However there are other diffractions to be included…

In English, the prefix “trans-” is applied to suggest something of slippage, of non-binary experiences and contexts. We trans-it from one place to another, existing temporally and spatially in between. We trans-form our homes, our spaces, our relationships, our lives. We trans-late from one language to another, crossing divides in the same moment that we invent them (for as every writer and reader knows, we never truly “capture” the meaning and form when we translate —why should we?—but invent something hopefully strong and beautiful). Thus, whilst to transcend something might suggest that it was originally fixed and we went beyond it, in this reading, we can do something different. All these trans’s are indicative of unfixed and constantly moving realities that go on to make up our simple everyday. Rather than being fixed and transcending out and beyond in order to arrive at another fixed, often disembodied point, transcending might also point to moving along to another state of engagement along an entanglement. Perhaps no experience is ever fully un-entangled from others. Not even the most simple and taken for granted one: being human.

Going further, as Rumi takes us on this journey, we also come to enter into a conceptual place that is simultaneously outside of conception. Perhaps there’s nothing a mystical writer likes more than the stylistic introduction of a paradox! In the context of Rumi’s religious and cultural tradition, and more specifically in relation to the end of his poem quoted here, outside of conception means into the state of returning to Allah—or that which is outside of human experience, and yet paradoxically in the literature of Islamic mysticisms, is closer to you than your jugular vein. Thus, there is something in diffracting literatures and writings in this context again that invokes the entanglement of binaries, of dualities, of separate selves, and othernesses. From the position of being-in-entanglement, these paradoxes of the Sufi kind perhaps become practiced as part of the course of living and dying, part of the everyday, part of the self and the marks we make. They become embodied and alive, a continually diffracted treasure that forces one to go beyond the reasoning mind and its endless, chattering attempt to fix realities. They become part of the journey and the endless work of “becoming human.”

Bearing witness to my own heritage through this brief diffraction of reading and reciting Rumi from my early life conjures up my own experience of making and unmaking marks. Of entangling through culture, through practice, through DNA with the vast heritage of Sufism to a moment of living with Rumi and his journey of states through recitation. Of living and dying together with friends, with books, with thoughts, with messy politics, with messy cultural traditions, with clear and unclear conflicts, with jobs, with mysticisms, with parents and families and pets, with displacements and revolutions, the thrills and sorrows of being always in-between. Of bearing witness in my own small, tiny way to becoming, always becoming, human.


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96 The Creed of Drunkenness



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The Creed of Drunkenness

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Cupbearer, by God, I am drunk and unconscious;
O drunken gypsy take me by the hand

My ashen face is flushed with wine
I have cut off the self, I am free of “I”

I don’t want to hear that the healing wine is unlawful
When I saw His face, I broke my repentance

I don’t know any faith or belief, religion or creed
If you must know, I am a worshiper of wine

Away! You babbling intellect, stop your nonsense
I am crazy for Him, I am free of common sense

Since I am captivated by His beauty
I have no worry for this fleeting life

I heard Nurbakhsh tell a companion
“I am utterly drunk from the Beloved’s beautiful Face.”


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