Sunday, 26 January 2014

Pandora and the Fear of Beauty

This week I had to do a class presentation on the myth of Prometheus and Pandora as it features in the writings of the Greek poet Hesiod. The myth is quite difficult to grasp and has been interpreted in various different ways. I would suggest reading the writings of the Greek poet Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days) as it is also important to consider it within the context of the entire work. I have only read the English translation, which limits my ability to accurately render the poet’s intent. Nevertheless, I would like to offer my own interpretation, supplemented by class discussions as well as secondary literature by the hands of Dr L.G. Canevaro and S. Nelson. The translation I worked from is by M.L. West. My interpretation goes hand in hand with my personal experiences, which is perhaps most important to get any value from the mythology that I study.

Prometheus is a character that represents foresight. He has a brother, Epimetheus, who represents hindsight. From what I understand, they were not mortals but represented mankind. Prometheus tried to trick Zeus through unfair division of portions of a slaughtered animal. This angered Zeus, which caused him to take away “untiring fire” from mankind. Prometheus stole back a “far-beaconing flare” of untiring fire for mankind, which he hid in a fennel stalk. As punishment, Zeus gave mankind Pandora, who represents women. She was adorned by all the gifts from the various gods but had a thievish nature. Epimetheus was stupid enough to accept the gift of Pandora.

This let out all the evils in the world because Pandora unstopped the jar. However, she closed the lid on “elpis” (usually interpreted as hope but more accurately translated as expectation) which remained in the jar by the providence of Zeus. In the work of Hesiod, men of the Iron Age have to work for a living because of the progressive deterioration of mankind. (Read more on the mythology of the ages here.) In this context, women are not to be trusted; they might deceive you through their appearances but only be interested in your wealth. The best way to deal with them is to keep them close, control them, or alternatively make a good choice. A good woman can be worth gold.
Image by André Koekemoer
The myth has been interpreted along the lines of hope as something positive to help us deal with all the evils in the world. The poet has also been described as a misogynist. However, I think that there is much more to the myth of Pandora. I cannot disregard the Freudian association of Pandora’s jar. She hypnotises men but the desire to have her can never be fulfilled. Looking at it that way, expectation remains safe in the jar because man doesn’t have access to it. Pandora is a trick in response to Prometheus’ trick of unfair division of portions. Because of expectation or hope of fulfilment that is beyond man’s reach, the evils have flown out into the world, out of control. The punishment of the gods is due to Pandora consuming the wealth of man while he has to work for a living.

The portion of fire stolen back by Prometheus could shed some light on what this myth means. Untiring fire belonged to mankind to start with, but after the trickery man only acquired a far-beaconing flare of it. This represents the advent of ego consciousness, which explains the need to control and possess what is a gift that can never belong to us anyway. The illusion lies in the fact that we are lured to what we desire but we cannot have it. Because of the continual expectation that having something would mean fulfilment of the desire, living is hard work. The world is a place filled with evils because everyone has to fight to get a portion of the value that deceives us. The story of Pandora is not only man’s dilemma, but the world we have created together where fulfilment is always on the horizon. The more we try to acquire what we value, the more it consumes us. Man might think himself to be cunning, but only in looking back do we see the chaos we have created by our short-sightedness.

After the class presentation and completing my week’s worth of planned studies, I had an empty space of a couple of hours’ time while waiting for my partner to arrive home. As the world moves at an ever faster pace, I become increasingly aware of the need to use every spare moment to create something valuable. I never seem to have enough time, and yet this empty stretch felt threatening. I have had something in mind that I wanted to draw but I couldn’t bring myself to use this space to work on the project. I was tired but that wasn’t what prevented me from getting to work since creative expression usually gives me energy. It was fear that stood in my way.

I have worked hard to move past my fear of failure. Since I wouldn’t be doing it to achieve anything I had trouble understanding what I was afraid of. I realised that it was the fear of beauty which stood in my way. Mankind’s response to Pandora, the gift from the gods, was not only the tension experienced by men in response to what they desire. She represents the beauty in everything that is God given and our own fear that we might not live up to what we appreciate in something outside of ourselves. I felt afraid of drawing something because I wanted it to represent the beautiful image in my mind’s eye and was afraid that it wouldn’t. The fear is of not being worthy of the beauty in creation that has been given to me for free as an act of love. It is because of beauty that we fear being inadequate, in response to which we continually need to prove ourselves through being better or having more.

Maybe if we learn to accept the gifts from the gods without allowing the perception of only being a far-beaconing flare of untiring fire to stand in our way, we could start reversing the trick of unfair divisions of portions.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Criticism and the Omnipotent Standard

There is one kind of criticism that I believe cannot be constructive: having one’s best efforts put down just because they don’t live up to an arbitrary standard. We are exposed to this kind of criticism from a very early age. We are taught to man up and learn how to handle it because that’s life and we would get ever more of it. Nobody ever teaches children that standards are arbitrary. I’m tempted to believe that learning how to accept this kind of criticism as “constructive” goes hand in hand with the process of losing our ability to imagine. It’s the point where we learn to subscribe to the reality of a life of mediocrity. The alternative is often making ourselves unhappy while we continually try to play the standards better so we could get to the top.

This week I was exposed to the kind of criticism where I gave my best efforts and was put down. I didn’t care much about how I was graded because I had decided beforehand that I would give my best effort without making myself unhappy trying to do better. What was important was that my effort meant something to me. The very average rating set me free because I could close another door on something I had always been good at but wasn’t my dream. If I’m no longer good at it then it means that I can let go of doubts as to whether or not I owe it to myself to continue.

Nevertheless, the criticism hurt. Reflecting on it, I realised how weak I felt for feeling injured by criticism. It occurred to me that criticism in response to any kind of constructive effort is actually a non-physical form of violence which we all take for granted. Accepting that criticism of our best efforts is constructive is how we learn to love Big Brother, in the language of George Orwell. We believe that being rated, compared to others, found lacking and/or criticised is necessary because there has to be some kind of standard, otherwise who will know who is better? We won’t, and that would be problematic because then nobody would know who is more deserving of the privileges of being at the top. I'm being ironic, for those who don't know me.

In the framework that we know, I can identify a few ways in which most people would likely respond to this kind of appraisal.
1) Work harder so that you might at some point be found more deserving, less lacking.
2) Accept that it is beyond your ability or too much effort, in which case you have to resign yourself to mediocrity and look up to those in charge.
3) Look for an alternative where you have a better chance of getting to the top.

All the options to me look like a prison. The question nobody ever asks is who sets the standards and why. I’ll leave that up to you to decide. My conclusion after turning various stones is that the standards work for certain people more than others. If I look at the state planet Earth is in then my reasonable judgement tells me that I would rather define my own standards. Trusting those at the top is an irresponsible venture.

Steve Biko, South African freedom fighter, said: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” What better way to imprison people than to teach them that there is only one standard of being “good” that defines everyone. This standard is all important because it will determine where you are in the social pyramid. A lot of energy that could be spent on actually living is wasted when focusing all one’s efforts on fighting to get to the top, whatever that might mean.

After reading about the ring of Gyges written about by Plato I thought I finally understood Tolkien’s work the Lord of the Rings. My interpretation is that the ring of power makes the bearer invisible because being the one to dictate standards of achievement or morality means he is not subject to these standards. He can bend them at his will. The ring has to be destroyed in the oven where it was forged. The power imbalances we see in the world have to be destroyed on the level where they were created, i.e. on the level of consciousness. If all of us realise that we can define our own standards and more importantly, that we have an existential responsibility to choose them conscientiously, then the imposed standards of achievement, morality and value no longer control us. This makes way for a freer, more egalitarian society. Once the slavery is out of the way and we learn the importance of love as opposed to domination, I believe we can even create heaven on earth.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Reversing Ridicule

We have all been ridiculed at some point or another. Maybe that is where we lost ourselves and instead started subscribing to the idea that being normal is what we should strive for.

It is fairly easy to get out of the pattern. When you realise that anything can be made to appear ridiculous, you are free to subscribe to the notion that your authentic self is valuable.

I realised this when I went to the movies before Christmas watching the advertisements. Since I don’t have a television at home, I am completely out of touch with what is shown by the media. I was quite astounded that what I saw actually drove millions of pounds of sales. Watching advertisements that are produced by people that most would consider “successful”, I resolved not to feel stupid about any of my own ideas ever again. It is so easy to manipulate people into thinking they need anything to be happy when they have lost belief in their authentic selves.

On another day I looked out of my window to see a group of teenage boys walking down the street, all wearing similar looking track suits. At first I thought that they were in some kind of uniform, but then my partner informed me that apparently it’s fashion. I thought about the few times as a child and a teenager when I dared to wear clothes that deviated from the norm. It only took a few stares or condescending comments to subdue me into acting normal again.

Actually, the idea that we have to be anything other than ourselves is empty. The more one is oneself, the easier it is to appreciate others for who they are.
Image by André Koekemoer:
My knowledge of witchcraft in ancient Mesopotamia informed me that to deter spirits (bad ideas), magicians would use spells or amulets that deterred the harmful agent by their own likeness. I am not in favour of ridiculing any person, but we can ignore ideas that make us feel bad about ourselves. Seeing them for what they are means they no longer have power over us.

This is more effective when backed up by a pure idea, one that makes us feel strong. A Celtic charm I have heard of calls in the powers of nature to deter any harmful spirits. This is very effective because it invokes beneficial things that we value. In nature we see that which is a reflection of ourselves. When we can appreciate it, we internalise it and it strengthens our spirits against ideas that break us down.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Janus is the Roman god after whom January is named. He has two faces, which enables him to look backwards and forwards. January and Janus are also connected to the Latin word ianua, which means door. Janus represents the threshold, the space between past and future. Perhaps for that reason he holds the key to heaven (source: Wikipedia).

Image by André Koekemoer:
While we associate the crossing of the border between “old time” and “new time” with New Year ’s Eve, it is needless to say that this date is arbitrary. Repeating it every year keeps us stuck in the linear concept of time, where all things ironically repeat themselves in endless cycles. We are never completely in the present unless we let go of everything, because the present is too hard to define.

The consciousness associated with Janus teaches of the potential that can be found in the threshold. It encompasses more than the passage between the old year and the new, because each moment is actually the gap between the past and the present. Janus is always present to offer us the key to change. Without the past and the future to define the present, the gap is empty. Since everything is only present, everything is actually nothing. In this gap we can simply be, which provides the fastest tool for creation. It is from this empty space that new things come into the world.

Nothing is actually anything unless we give it meaning or purpose. As far as identity of anything is concerned, we only have ideas of things, which will never be completely accurate is to what the thing is. That means that we cannot actually know anything, not even ourselves. This is incredibly liberating because it means all our past ideas of ourselves are erroneous, which leaves the empty space to define ourselves. When we recognise this, consciousness expands.

If I draw the head of Janus on a flat piece of paper, he looks left and right, but I decide which one is past or future. In the in between gap in 3d space-time, Janus’ forward face can look in any direction, making it the future. Conversely, his other face will face in the opposite direction, making it the past. This opens up a myriad of possibilities, precisely why the in between space offers so much creative potential.

Since this time of the year is one of taking stock to see whether we are on track, I might as well share my personal insights. A week or so ago I thought of the same period last year and the place I was back then. Things look very different now, in a good way. This time last year I felt disconnected from purpose. I had strong doubts about the road I had chosen and felt like none of my efforts were paying off. I then had a very powerful reading with someone that confirmed that I was on track, regardless of appearances. Nevertheless, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to see through the next seven months. This year I am pleased to say that while I know the next few months will be demanding, I feel confident that I will be able to cope with it. A few things I have picked up along the way that have proved to be valuable follow.

1. I have been making the right choices all along.
Obviously I have made many mistakes too. But as far as the big decisions are concerned, I usually went with my gut, which turned out to be the right way. Just doing your best is usually enough. A decade or so ago I made a very impulsive decision when I was in a really bad place emotionally. I have at times had my doubts when I wasn’t able to see the fruits of my efforts. Looking back, it was the best decision I have ever made. I gravitated towards what I enjoyed and what resonated with me, regardless of what others considered to be valid. There is no better reward than a life that is more interesting because of one’s choices.

2. A little bit of gratitude goes a long way.
I have learned to say thank you and appreciate the small good things as it truly brings more of the experience. We have been conditioned to focus on scarcity to such an extent that we start thinking the abundant things are unimportant. The good moments that come from nowhere are actually important. You might notice that as you pay more attention to them, the world where lack reigns drifts to the background. Don’t worry about it. The real world is not out there, but in here.

3. What others tell you is important, is not. What you feel is important, is.
If anybody wants to tell you what is important then more often than not it is because it is in their interest that you believe them. You might not be endorsed if you go with your own standards, but it’s your life so you have to take charge. In the end, death will also be yours. You are the one who has the responsibility of making your life worthwhile.

4. Doing what you enjoy makes a world of difference.
The minute I started doing things I enjoy more often, the doors started opening in the strangest of places. Try it, even if it’s just an hour a day. I can’t say that I have everything figured out or that I’m even close to success, but at least I’m getting more of what I love into my life. That in itself is already major reward.

5. Sometimes karmic debt needs to be paid.
It sounds like punishment, but it’s not. It’s an opportunity to learn from your mistakes so you can do it better next time. Paying karmic debt sets you free. Once you forgive another person, what they have done to you no longer has power over your well-being. It is also an opportunity to forgive yourself for what you have done to others and clear the effects of the cycle.

If you would like to share what you have learned looking back and forward, please feel free to comment.