Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Guy Claxton is a education thinker something like Sir Kenneth Robinson who has become so popular on TED Talks.  In Aeon magazine he begins an article this way: “It is every parent’s nightmare. The sea wall at Plymouth Hoe is 65ft high and a line of boys, aged from 11 to 15, are leaping off the wall into the aptly named Dead Man’s Cove, each of them egged on by their friends. This is ‘tombstoning’ — the idea is to enter the water feet-first, as upright and rigid as a tombstone. Most of the boys come up proud and unscathed. A few, inevitably, don’t.”

“When Jez, a tombstoning veteran aged 16, was interviewed by The Guardian in 2006, he explained: ‘You spend the whole day in school doing boring stuff … you still want to do something that will give you a rush ... Jumping does that. Just for a second you forget all the boring bits of your day and feel free.’ Steve, 18, said: ‘It’s a way of getting out of your mind for a moment or two without taking drugs or drinking alcohol. When you are out there in mid-air, you don’t think of anything — your head goes clear.’

“That desire for ‘your head to go clear’ motivates much of the adolescent behaviour that seems irrational and self-destructive to adults. Aggression and fighting are more about being jerked into the present — and so feeling fully alive — than actually intimidating or injuring other people. “

Whether we’re talking about medieval peasants, modern wealthy, modern poor, middle-class working stiffs, the hunger for something to happen is universal.  If nothing good happens, it may turn out to be something bad.  One of the most addictive drugs there is they call “adrenaline.”  When it is a matter of real survival, adrenaline is useful, but if it gets turned back on the body -- never expressed, never shaped, never even recognized because it is responding to denied fear -- it is a killer.

The inner cliff for human beings in our times -- maybe now more than ever because so many have been driven out of our familiar headlands or are at the edge of precipice, afraid to jump, unable to turn back -- is to accept a whole new set of “givens”, quite different from the deep sorting categories we learned as children, the ones set up in our minds as sin, violation, taboo, and filth.  Ideas that once worked taught us that prosperity is the only safety, pretty faces mean leadership quality, and technology is okay -- running water, cars and all that, but not science which is satanic and will twist up your mind.  The “leap of faith,” as in the belief in God as the Most Humonguous Humanoid and that “He” will save you, might feel the same as the leap to any idea that is unknown, impalpable, unseen.   But it's not the same.

A primate leap of faith is from one branch to another, smaller leaps depending on the individual’s own skill and judgment.  To change a whole worldview is only possible for humans and maybe not all of them.  Most of the time the new understanding is not a cliff but a trail and leads us along in stories.  I’m tempted to say that a war is a buffalo jump.

But a good metaphor can be murdered if it’s used too rigidly.  We aren’t buffalo.  But education is experiencing a bit of a buffalo jump effect because the world has changed so much -- at least in some places.  The same is true of religious institutions, challenged by the mass importation of rival systems that developed far away and long ago, to say nothing of those constantly sprouting up from the middle of us.   I do indeed think that science is like a religion, though it not based on blind faith and its evidence is as ungraspable as a cherubim.  But we have not realized that economics is also a religion and that bookkeeping that allows the tertiary bundling of unsecured debt is about as helpful as the rules of Leviticus.

So the trip I’m laying on a “deep experience” addresses that awful vertigo of realizing that what you had assumed all these decades is simply wrong and that you must change -- indeed, that you have already changed, you are in mid-air.  But also “deep experience” is a release from the monotony of meaninglessness that is our normal protection and obligation.   It should work in the way street drugs work, but without the cost, the damage, the addiction.  Not that there aren’t “deep experience” junkies.

A lot of people know all this and practice it and I glimpse them in the distance.  They are not attending seminary.  A few teach school for a while.  Many are artists.  It’s the society as a whole that condemns and resists any defiance of the standing order.  But every time I’ve preached about moments of transcendence or have even brought it up in conversation quietly, a good proportion of the people around me have nodded.  “Yes, I had a moment like that.  But I didn’t understand it.”

One theory is that the feeling (not a body of explicitly worked out thought) comes from a surge of certain chemicals, maybe serotonin or oxcytocin.  Another theory is that the cerebrum with its cautions and shaping shuts down so that the mid-brain, the one that supports emotion and the “seven urges” of Panskepp, can express itself directly to consciousness.  I pursue the idea that it is a moment when the whole self is unified, no longer pulling against itself, justifying concepts like harmony and peace.  But the truth is that when I read hard-core S/M philosophy it was there, too.  Why else would our movies and video games be so loaded with destruction -- though I haven’t noticed much realistic suffering in the latter except sometimes personified as a desperate little kid.

This is all justification for just thinking about such things.  But the goal is practical application.  Why would a crazy idea like Communion -- the trans-substantiation of a man’s flesh and blood into bread and wine -- become a source of sanity for an athletic team forced into cannibalism to survive in the Andes?  And what does that say about what the relaxation of censorship has revealed as a small fraction of random humans who eat other people -- because they want to, because they think they are taking those people into themselves as part of themselves?  That’s a huge buffalo jump sort of question.  But sharing a water communion, a seed communion, a flower communion -- in which people bring meaningful fractions to merge and then separate and take away on departure -- that’s a practicality.  Often quite moving.

Such ceremonies should be short, vivid, memorable, and cooperative -- not “done to” someone.  In the best of moments the natural world may join in.  One morning so early it was not yet dawn, I was asked to “baptize” a baby who was in danger.  I’m not Christian, but the symbolism of water is pretty universal.  We gathered in the infant ICU, a tiny congregation, and the nurses showed me how to use a cotton ball to squeeze a few drops of sterile water onto the tiny mite in the isolette.  Because the parents were Christian, I took as my text, “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Just then the sun broke over the horizon and bathed us all in light.  The baby cried.  Its birth had been a buffalo jump.

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