Tag Archives: power

What is Reality?: Pilgrim Visions

David Guterson’s 2003 novel, Our Lady of the Forest, calls vision, belief, reality and hallucination into question. It examines mendacity and power structures of the Catholic Church, which are mobilized by an itinerant mushroom-picking seer’s visions of Mother Mary.

Many of you have read Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. I shall not attempt to place Guterson in a genre, other than to say that he is an author of the contemporary American West (and possibly of other times and places, but I do not pretend to have read all of or summarize his work, only to give some anchor to those who entirely unfamiliar with it.) It is not fantasy or science fiction, but the Marian visions of the ill, impoverished teenage seer, Ann Holmes, do–as is typical of Marian visions–bring apocalyptic warnings. Guterson’s Mary warns, as did the Mary of Lourdes, of evil that will befall a humanity that has ceased to attend to her son’s teachings.

Mary’s dire warnings are accompanied by the nuanced and multi-vocal concerns about the environment. A checkered character, Ann’s spokesperson Carolyn Greer spars with representatives of a large lumber company. Greer is a complex and interesting character. She is knowledgeable about the devastation of heedless deforestation. She reduces the arguments of the lumber company reps to an empty chorus, when she vividly describes their unethical logging practices. The lumber company’s concern is only with the bottom line, and Carolyn’s caustic critique is spot on. Carolyn’s desire to use the forest as a pilgrimage path and site are, however, seemingly motivated by the same concern. The novel is set in the forests of the Northwest, in Oregon, where loggers joke of spotted owl pie and resent environmentalists who threaten their livelihoods.

The most richly drawn and conflicted character of the novel is the young and kind, but neither youthful nor particularly vital, priest, Father Collins. Father Collins is able to entertain the possibility of the miraculous transcendent and skepticism simultaneously. He is aware that he has fled to the priesthood out of fear of sexual rejection, and suffers from sexual longings, which inspire a mild, resigned guilt. He has an intellectually rigorous knowledge of the teachings and arguments of the Catholic Church through the centuries. Father Butler, the “inquisitor,” is sent by and representing the official Catholic Church, and even antiquated, anti-feminist doctrine. The debate between Father Butler and Father Collins will not only interest Roman Catholics, but anyone interested in the institutional religious doctrine versus religion as practiced on the ground. Father Butler’s name is, I suspect, a well-chosen play on words: he is a lackey of official, unquestioning, religion. His character, though drawn with some amusing quirks, never becomes multi-dimensional.

Pilgrimage is a practice of religion “on the ground” that has grown in popularity worldwide since the 1980s. Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists are today’s pilgrims. The atheist pilgrim with a personal mission to fulfill, is represented by Donald Sutherland, in a recent movie, The Way.

Despite normal human flaws, Father Collins is a likable character, concerned with the well-being of his parishioners, if shirking, now and then, interactions with the most difficult of them. Father Collins never shirks his duty for long, and despite self-doubts, is cast as a man eminently suitable for the priesthood.

Guterson addresses the questions of bodily practice–the physical aspects–of religion well. The “Inquisitor” focuses intently on Ann’s bodily habits, especially use of alcohol or drugs, from antihistamines to mushrooms, to determine whether she is a fit vehicle for visions of Mary. Her recent conversion and unbaptized state are less important concerns to Butler. Those pleading with Ann for help, plead for cures to physical ailments. The one complex exception to those pleading for a cure is that of a troubled logger who pleads for his son’s paralysis to be reversed. Tom is one of the novel’s central characters, so I will not reveal the outcome of his dire family and financial situation here.

Wrestling with one of the ultimate existential questions, “What is reality?” is difficult. Guterson acquits himself well in his very readable novel, which I recommend. Because of the philosophical nature of the debate at the heart of the novel, it is somewhat unsatisfying. But it was doubtless Guterson’s intent to leave his readers with more questions than answers.

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Altered States: Body-Surfing & Biofeedback

No. I don’t mean redistricting on a state level or using any substance more remarkable than morning tea.

Having lived in Southern California, I am familiar with many legal practices that induce altered states of mind. I lived in Encinitas, CA, where yoga was introduced in the US.

Being in the ocean, immersed in the salt water, scent of kelp, and covered with small specks of black sand induces an altered state of mind. I am truly regretful that I did not overcome fears and learn to surf at the well known Swami’s Beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Body-surfing and ocean swimming induces a different rush. Surfers, far beyond the first and second set of breakers, in the early morning hours, sitting alert, ready, but still on a surfboard must enter a contemplative, yet highly aware, state of mind. Swimming and body-surfing in the Pacific in North San Diego County lacks that contemplative element.

Always alert for the next set of waves, the body-surfer hops over the ones she judges too small to be worth the effort, dives through the ones she judges too big for her level of competency and confidence–and takes an occasional pounding nonetheless. The body-surfer looks over her shoulder and starts paddling furiously when a wave of the right size begins to form. This is an art requiring concentration & practice, like any other. Hasn’t every bodysurfer paddled wildly only to have mistimed a wave that crests before she is in motion and ready to ride, or that simply flattens out and ripples by? The keys to the joy of bodysurfing are ordinary: a true thrill, a body rush that requires at least a slight amount of risk-taking. Sometimes that rush requires jumping into very cold water, very quickly, because to delay would be to sheepishly turn back to shore.

Warm or cold–and the water in San Diego is never very warm–there is something energizing and particular to a full-immersion saline, negative ion, kelp & iodine bath. The effect is not realized unless you literally soak your head. This can be particularly salutory after an overly festive evening. But it is the every day experience of surrender to higher power and strength, and letting go, and riding along with, fear that makes swimming in the ocean an experience of renewal. Those who live in San Diego and are not 6am surfers lead normal grocery-shopping, child-rearing, working lives, so the beach is not a daily experience for all. It never was a daily experience for me. But the ability to go to the beach just a couple of miles away, swim for half an hour, and lounge for a bit, is an experience I sorely miss.

After toddlers or young children have spent a couple of hours of ” making castles in the sand,” digging for sand crabs, pail & shovel triumphant, or making new, momentary friends while digging a pool and moat, it is time to pack up and go home. Making the beach part of the day, not the day in its entirety, and going to “my” beach in my home town are experiences that cannot be replicated in Central New Jersey. Having also lived in and visited Sweden, where beach access is free and open to all, paying to step onto the sand rankles. Other family members are equally disturbed by being told when they can or cannot enter the water. The sight of tawdry mansions and cheap thrills or fast food behind are also distasteful to some who spent more years in the ocean with the bluffs as backdrop than I. In that case I remind them that they have a choice which way to look. Look to the sea! Some day, some where we will find our East Coast beach. Since we can’t afford a home on the sand, it may not be on New Jersey. Where is your favorite beach? What are the smells and sensations you love best? I may have to import some kelp. The smell of kelp washed up on shore, stepping on and popping the light brown nodules, and picking up a kelp rope are inherent parts of the beach experience for me.

Other meditative practices which allow the mind to enter different states are prayer and biofeedback. A relative beginner, I tend to need the “right setting” for prayer. Vacillating between belief, doubt, and agnosticism complicates prayer practice.

Not a calm person by nature, “I am open to persuasion” (Joan Armatrading) and will try various practices, pilgrimage among them. I am distinctly post-New Age and perhaps unreasonably prejudiced against Exkhardt Tolle, The Secret, and their ilk. My prejudice extends to listening to the preaching of the Health & Wealth Gospel. I eschew practices that openly confuse peace of mind with financial gain. (Discussing religion, power, and the SES–socio-economic status–necessary for time to indulge in meditative practices is a discussion for another day. But I do not misrecognize (Pierre Bourdieu) all of the implications.)

Thus I am now embarking on the practice of biofeedback. The psychologist and scientist from who developed the biofeedback techniques I will be learning is the renowned Les Fehmi. Does anyone have experience with biofeedback, positive or negative to share? While I don’t anticipate achieving a state of nirvana, I hope to glimpse Wallace Stevens’s “palm at the end of my mind.”

I love self-hypnosis. Too easy. It can’t possibly work? The Mind-Body Jon Kabat-Zinn school of practitioners derisively call it “the poor persons” meditation. (I haven’t paid the $500-$750 for their course.) The Mind-Body techniques may be more fruitful in the end, but what if you are a poor person interested in a quick & effective way to achieve an altered mental state? Personally, I would love to live in Barcelona (Barthelona) & pull down the shades or grate for a long 4pm siesta. But I don’t live there. Life in a convent sounds good at times, too! The real trick is attaining a comfortable state within the circumstances at hand.

Aside from alcohol or drug use–I’m no Puritan or ostrich, but interested in looking beyond the obvious–how do you achieve your desired mental state? Downhill skiing works, but only in season and with a lot of disposable income or seasonal employment on the slopes. Many advocate fishing. Is the goal for most hunters to come home with dinner, or rather to extricate themselves from daily life? These are all possibilities for those with time and money. How do you achieve peace and harmony?