Dream and Myth

Sometime ago I had an unusually vivid dream. I was swimming underwater, perhaps ten or fifteen feet below the surface. I was swimming along with little effort, not holding my breath. Looking to one side I saw that I was swimming alongside a huge shark. I had a moment of panic being so close to such a fearsome beast. The shark’s side was 5 feet from top to bottom, it was about 30 feet long, but it wasn’t a harmless whale shark. Then I looked at the shark’s large eye which was staring at me and noticed that the shark’s gaze was intelligent and somehow caring. Immediately, in the dream I felt not only comfortable but deeply peaceful. When I woke up, I remembered the dream clearly.

Among Hawaiians there is a tradition of having a personal totem animal called one’s ʻaumākua.

The wehewehe dictionary’s definition:
nvt. Family or personal gods, deified ancestors who might assume the shape of sharks (all islands except Kauaʻi), owls (as at Mānoa, O’ahu and Kaʻū and Puna, Hawaiʻi), hawks (Hawaiʻi), ʻelepaio, ʻiwi, mudhens, octopuses, eels, mice, rats, dogs, caterpillars, rocks, cowries, clouds, or plants. A symbiotic relationship existed; mortals did not harm or eat ʻaumākua (they fed sharks), and ʻaumākua warned and reprimanded mortals in dreams, visions, and calls. (Beckwith, 1970, pp. 124–43, 559; Nānā 38.) Fig.., a trustworthy person. (Probably lit.., ʻau 4, group, + makua, parent.) See pulapula 2. hō.ʻau.makua To acquire or contact ʻaumākua.

Growing up in Honolulu one heard much of Hawaiian traditions. At my elementary school we heard Hawaiian stories of how Maui raised the islands out of the sea and, on occasion, learned a Hawaiian chant celebrating the god Lono. So it was clear to me that I had a giant shark god as my `aumakua. This was a source of satisfaction; however, if you ask how seriously I took this as protection if I swam in shark infested waters, the answer is “not very.” And, in fact, there is no way I would voluntarily swim in such waters. I knew of and felt the power of some Hawaiian myths, but remained a geeky haole (white person), quite afraid of sharks. I remember body surfing at a great place near Portlock place at Koko head with a crowd of others. As we waited for waves a fishing boat came by and warned us that they had just seen a shark. Everyone moved in closer to the break line, but after missing a wave or two moved back to where we could catch the waves. I was definitely fearful and on guard. True Hawaiians, on the other hand, were not all that afraid of sharks.

My uncle who had come to Hawaii a little prior to 1920 told a story he had heard about the time when dynamite had first come to the Islands. The Hawaiians would go to the outer reef in their canoes, set off a stick of dynamite under water, leap into the water and throw the stunned fish into their canoes. Sharks would show up and go into a feeding frenzy. The Hawaiians would pretty much ignore them except for an occasional push or kick and keep throwing fish into their canoes. I’m not sure how much of this I believe, but certainly the story has it that Hawaiians were very respectful, but not afraid of sharks. One must of course distinguish between reef sharks and the pelagic Tiger shark. Spear fishermen know that they should keep their speared fish at the end of a long line rather than tied to their waist because reef sharks would go after the speared fish. Actual shark attacks, on the other hand, seem to come from Tiger sharks who mostly can reach shore only where the reef is missing or not very wide.

My `aumakua experience of Hawaiian culture was a dream. Others have had vivid, waking experiences. On the Big Island of Hawaii where there are active volcanoes, there is a tradition of Madame Pele, the goddess who controls volcanoes. Many people native or otherwise believe that Madame Pele actually exists. She supposedly is fond of gin so people living near the volcano leave offerings of gin near their houses. It seems to be a good idea to be respectful and try to be in her good graces whether or not she really exists. My mother told me, probably in the 1970’s, of an older couple (haoles), friends of her and my dad, who happened to be in the parking lot of the Crater rim road at the Kilauea Iki view point during the great eruption of 1959. It was at night, but hardly dark, as a fountain of lava about a mile down the crater was illuminating the landscape. A mile sounds like a considerable distance. However, the lava fountain, on one occasion reached almost 1900 feet high (see Wikipedia). The Empire State building in Manhattan is 1454 feet high at its very tip top, while the new World Trade Center’s spire tops out at 1776 feet. So while my folk’s friends stood near the edge of the crater one can imagine a garish, flickering light, intense radiating heat, dark shadows and a loud roar as molten gobs of lava fell into the lava lake at the fountain’s edge. The couple took in the awesome scene for a while, then noticed a Hawaiian women nearby. She had reddish hair and wore a red holuku (Hawaiian mother Hubbard dress). They exchanged a few remarks with her about the incredible scene they were witnessing, then turned back to look at the fountain. Finally, satisfied, they turned to go back to their car and noticed the Hawaiian women rise a couple feet off the ground, drift away to the edge of the parking lot, and vanish.

When I heard this story, I felt a tensing of muscles in my back and my hair felt like it was standing on end. Could I have had this same experience? My emotions said so, but my reason said unlikely. The couple had an hallucination. But just what is the status of hallucinations? One notes that our entire experience of the world is entirely inside our heads, with considerable mental processing of our raw sense impressions. Could not the processing of neuronal pathways, influenced by one’s cultural background, and an incredible, dreamlike scene, construct an image that appears in consciousness as real? It would seem so. Hearing this story made me think that stories, for example, of the Greek gods were likely based on genuine hallucinations rather than simply literary imagination. Probably literary imagination was involved in the elaboration of such hallucinations into an entire cosmology, but behind the stories were experiences of the gods and goddesses that passed for real.

For the Hawaiians living before Captain Cook’s discovery, the myths were integrated into their natural surroundings and constituted an entire world view. Besides being the background to hard won practical knowledge and lore, the myths told of the place of humans in the universe. Their meaning carried religious significance, practical significance and social significance. In the modern world, West and East, reality has been split into “areas” and thereby degraded.

This post has gone on long enough and I will doubtless get later into an inquiry about the concept of “reality”. For now let me just say that if someone explains to you what “virtual reality” is all about, the proper reply is “I didn’t know there was any other kind.”

Spiritual Quest, 1953-1954

What compels one to sail on a spiritual journey? Fundamentally there is no real answer. It is a mystery similar to that arising when considering the question of why some people climb mountains. If someone who has no interest in mountains asks why I climb, I’m really at a loss to explain. It is obvious to me that often I feel more alive and full of joy on a mountain, seem to feel a sacredness in great mountains, seem to “see” further, and feel a sense of spiritual well-being and insight, indefinable in concrete terms. If a person is immune to such feelings, there is really nothing to be said that would give her or him a real, personal understanding of why one would feel compelled to climb a mountain.

As a child I was fortunate in having parents who were not conventionally religious. Neither ever went to church. There was no attempted brain washing. I was curious about religion and on one or two occasions actually went to Sunday school at Central Union Church in Honolulu. Sunday school there was obviously simply a place to harbor children while their parents were in church. Theology was conspicuously absent. No help there. Later, in high school, we had a Christian non-denominational chapel which I found exquisitely boring. I was already an unthinking atheist. So, later in life, when I felt the need for an understanding that was deeper than that provided by a scientific and humanistic education, I could approach the search, more or less unbiased by childhood experiences. I was open to any spirituality based on beliefs that seemed reasonable to a person who had unconsciously committed to a scientific world view.

In an earlier post I’ve already set out one criterion for my journey: it must be superstition-free and beliefs should not be based on their comfort level. Now, in the years after college as I worked as a mathematician in Pasadena for a branch of the Naval Ordinance Test Station, climbed and skied in the Sierra, and met the friend working on his Ph.D. in physics at Cal Tech, I gradually formed another criterion: Any spiritual outlook should be totally comfortable and compatible with a scientific world view. This is not to say that I thought a scientific world view the be all and end all of knowledge and life. I had heard about logical positivism in college and had taken it to claim (probably mistakenly) that the world of experience outside of science lacked meaning or validity. I felt that this view was ridiculous though I didn’t know enough about positivism to argue against it. I knew that I loved poetry, good poetry and kitchy bad poetry, was carried away by classical music, and felt impelled to try understand all of life, scientific and otherwise. Somewhere along the line I had run into the world of myth in Joseph Campbell’s books and found exciting his ideas about how myth gives meaning to life.

See http://www.amazon.com/Thousand-Faces-Collected-Joseph-Campbell/dp/1577315936/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1462321437&sr=1-1&keywords=joseph+campbell

Although I was captivated by the “worlds” outside of science, I decided that any religious claims that attempted to contradict the stories of the scientific world were unworthy of consideration as serious truth, spiritual or otherwise. At the time this left a big question in my mind. Was there already existing somewhere in all of mainstream world religion or in any existing sect, a spiritual path that satisfied the criteria I had developed?

For my Future Wife

Our relationship will never go to that completion I desire unless you are
as crazy as I am. Our human condition is to be trapped in an animal body
aspiring for the stars. Our consciousness non-existant for an eternity of
the past and to be non-existant for an eternity to come. Meanwhile, for a
brief instant we are here. If one truly realizes our condition one must
be crazy, at least by conventional standards. This is not a sick,
destructive craziness, but a creative, tragic, open and aware craziness.
This kind of craziness I’m talking about is the only sanity. Are you that
crazy? A humorous saying is, “Never sleep with anyone crazier than
yourself.” I would turn that around and say, “Never sleep with anyone who
isn’t as crazy as you are.” If one is in touch with another at that level,
nothing else matters; not differences of age, of personality, of
temperament, of wealth, of fame, or of position in society. If one
doesn’t have a deep bond at that level, the relationship may be nice but
will never be complete. And can never bear the name of true love.

Comfortable Belief

I almost made this first post about wine, partly to emphasize that this blog is not confined entirely to spiritual matters. Of course, there might be some peripheral relation between wine and spirituality, but mostly I think wine is simply a joy of life and good company. It happens that it can be indulged in not only by drinking but by travel to great wine growing areas near where I live. I have, however, resisted wine because this is the very first post to the blog. Wine will be saved until later. Since, in fact, the idea of a spiritual journey is the main theme here, I should start with that.

So… Let’s begin with some fundamentals. Here is a paragraph I wrote Jan. 8, 2002.
1. About the time I got out of college I came up with some ground rules for a spiritual-religious quest. A basic idea is that one should try as hard as possible to be free of superstition in the spiritual quest. This is much more important for religion than for science simply because science has a built in mechanism for eliminating error that works pretty well most of the time. (The basis for this idea of a superstition free spirituality is the ancient idea that one should not worship false gods. Idolatry is perhaps the most serious religious sin. We are seeking the truth at any cost.) A rule that follows from this idea is that we should never try to believe something simply because it offers comfort.

This theme of rejecting beliefs of comfort began for me back in college days during a ride from the Bay Area to Yosemite to go climbing. It was dark and we were riding along in the Sierra foothills on the way to Camp 4 when somehow the talk turned to religious beliefs. One young woman said that she didn’t have any idea whether one survived after death. However, she found that idea comforting so that is what she believed. I was totally amazed and appalled by her remark. I don’t remember saying anything, being too polite in those days, nor do I recall that there was much if any discussion on the part of anyone else. This incident made a big impression on me and led to the idea that pursuing the “truth” at all costs as a basic spiritual postulate. All of this occurred back in the early 1950’s as I was just beginning to realize the importance of spiritual answers in my life. Back now to Jan 8, 2002.

2. This morning I had the thought that one should expand the rule. Rather than using it merely to reject ideas that have no basis but their “comfort”, one can use it to choose between competing possibilities about spiritual matters. One should base ones religious ideas on the seemingly “bleakest” possibility.

At first blush this idea seems somewhat perverse. Why go out of the way to consider what seems worst to one? I suppose the idea is to guard against the seduction of attractive ideas. We humans have a great capacity for rationalizing emotionally attractive ideas into the “truth”. If one cuts through what one thinks is the worst possibility and finds comfort anyway, the loss of the worst possibility isn’t likely to be too devastating. I note as a sideline that the comfort is the theme here, not the ideas themselves. I could imagine, for example, that immortality might get to be monumentally boring after a few thousand years, especially if one knew there was no escape. The saying “after the first death there is no other” might carry an appalling meaning in these circumstances. At the risk of being repetitive I’ll close this post from a note from Feb. 19, 2003.

7. One might ask, “Isn’t the whole point of religion to offer spiritual comfort?” “If so, choosing bleakness seems perverse.” My answer to this idea is first, I am unable to find any comfort in an idea that seems false on its face. Or to put it bluntly: Truth is more important than comfort. In seeking truth we hope that comfort might come as a by-product, but finding spiritual meaning is a more important goal.