No Unsacred Place Posts

Quick note, it’s been a while since I did a roundup of my posts over at No Unsacred Place. You can get an idea of my summer nature-spirituality writing over there in the following articles:

Bathing in the Colorado, Swimming in the Pacific – reflections on water and perception while in California

The Power of Positive Greening – why we need a more constructive, positively-focused approach to the environmental issues we face

On the Impermanence of Mountains – on my many dance partners in this wild universe

The Dangers of Talking Plants – the perils of pseudoscience when trying to prove spirits exist

Getting My Hands Dirty – how is mucking about in a creek like pagan sabbat rituals?

I Don’t Believe in Karma

I don’t believe in Karma (the New Age version, that is, which for the purposes of this discussion I’m separating from the Hindu and Buddhist versions thereof). Or the Threefold Law. Or any other attempt to stuff morality and ethics into a nice, neat proportionate package, which I’ll abbreviate as Karma/3FL. Karma/3FL states that if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you, and if you do good things then you’ll receive that good in return, sometimes in the same proportion, sometimes in some set multiple like three.

Karma/3FL is a way for people to give themselves a sense of having more more control over the external world than they actually do. Or, if they don’t have direct control, they want to be able to put themselves at the mercy of someone or something that does. Hence you have people wanting to believe that bad people get what they deserve no matter what and that some invisible force above us all makes it so.

At the other end of the supposed spectrum there’s senseless chaos. Why, if we didn’t have Karma/3FL, then bad people would just keep doing bad things without consequence, and good people would keep getting hurt for no apparent reason. To an extent that is the world we live in. There are people who die of old age having spent their lives abusing others with impunity and reaping the benefits thereof. There are wonderful people who die too young, after hard lives of unfairness. Karma/3FL is a great way to distract ourselves from that perceived imbalance and to pretend that, behind the scenes, really those bad people were suffering in private, while the good people find riches despite their suffering. (For a truly esoteric extension of this, just look at how many people comfort themselves with the idea that this person went to heaven, but that person is being punished in hell, now that they’re all dead. If they didn’t get their just desserts in this life, well, by golly, they’ll get them in the next!)

We really have no proof of this balance beyond confirmation bias, that bugaboo of thoughts that keeps us blinded to anything except that which supports our beliefs. If Nasty Individual has five good things and one bad thing happen to them, we conveniently ignore the first five and only focus on the last; supposedly that’s enough proof that they got their due. Yet people keep thinking in this regard because it comforts them more than the idea that the dastardly villain got away with it after all; that injustice is unfathomable. It’s easier to weave a fantasy around it in self-defense than to live with that stark reality.

This is the cognitive error that Karma/3FL can promote: the idea that the world is more just than it is (see “just world hypothesis”), and a justification of empathic laziness. It makes people make up stories of an ordered world to protect themselves from a world of chaos, but in doing so it also dampens compassion for those who are just “getting what they deserve”. It’s mean-spirited besides; in fact, I feel that at the heart of Karma/3FL there’s a distinct streak of Schadenfreude.

I prefer to think of being in a world of agency and acceptance. Agency means that we do have free will and ultimately our lives and the decisions we make are all on us. It can be scary the moment we come to realize that there’s no one else holding the steering wheel of our lives—that we’re it. There’s no great balancing force that “makes everything better”; there’s just us and the choices we make. And the claiming of that agency is terrifying, so much that many of us dive right into denial at the thought.

The answer to that is acceptance. Crying about the fact that there’s no one to make our decisions for us isn’t acceptance. Pretending that that mean person who hurt us is secretly wracked by three times as much pain isn’t acceptance. Passively “letting Karma/3FL do its job” isn’t acceptance. Acceptance is allowing things to be as they are, no matter how seemingly injust, and acting from there.

Acceptance also means accepting that there are many, many factors that we simply cannot control. Humans have built up our species on control; we control our environment and other species, as well as other humans, to an unprecedented degree. So we stamp our feet and throw tantrums when we reach the end of our ability to act in a particular direction. We don’t know when enough is enough. If we don’t control everything, then everything falls apart—or so we think. We want to impose order on the world, personally and globally, because it makes us feel safer from the things we actually don’t have any control over.

Yet there is already order in the world, albeit a more organic one. I take comfort in the fact that the world is made up of systems that have developed over millions upon millions of years, from the atmosphere and weather patterns to continental drift to the biological imperative to procreate. These were not created by beings that were trying to pretend they had more control than they do, but beings accepting (not necessarily consciously) that the world is a particular way in this moment, and this is how to adapt to survive it. Non-biological systems were shaped by the laws of physics—pressures and movements and speeds and resistances—all predictable and knowable at some level. Instead of screaming and ranting when these systems don’t do what I want, I can flow with them as as being who developed within them, and I find comfort in that.

Like earthquakes. I can’t stop an earthquake. If Portland got hit by The Big One tomorrow, there’s not a damned thing I could do to stop it. But I can educate myself on what to do if it hits, and what resources I need, and what to do in the aftermath. Comforting myself with the idea that the earthquake happened for some abstract reason, or that maybe some bad people lost their homes or even died in it, certainly is no replacement for preparedness. In fact, making up stories about how earthquakes happen to punish bad people (I’m looking at you, Pat Robertson) just distracts time and attention away from knowing more about plate tectonics and how that study may someday help us predict earthquakes and save lives.

In the same way as preparing for the reality of an earthquake instead of my control-freak fantasies about it, I can’t just patch over the ugliness in the world by pretending that Karma/3FL has it all covered and that it all “happens for a reason”. Instead, it’s my task and even duty to roll up my sleeves and work to make this world a better, more compassionate place, not to earn myself karma points, but because the world isn’t just, and I can do something to help those caught in the injustice. It’s something that requires me to challenge myself and my perceptions on a daily basis, to be vulnerable even when it’s terrifying, and to be courageous even when I tremble. I have to leave the comfortable realm of black and white and get messy in the gray areas in between.

And I have willingly cast off the blinders of Karma/3FL in favor of embracing my agency and my ability to act within the world, even as I learn the boundaries I have to work within. True, there’s the challenge of getting over the fear of lack of control, and acceptance of the limitations of my agency, however frustrating that may be. But isn’t it more productive to maximize the use of the control I actually have rather than engage in spiritual and mental fantasizing over control that I can’t, and will never, have? That, I think, is worth facing the fear of the loss of control and the false promises of balance that Karma/3FL claims.

Mt. Hood At Last

Festival season is over, and I’ve been trying to shift gears into a slower, more home-based lifestyle. I’ve started picking up my practice of weekly hikes, and yesterday I decided to reach for one of my personal goals–hike on Mt. Hood itself.

Mt. Hood is the closest and most noticeable of the snow-covered peaks surrounding Portland; there are places in the region where you can see all the way from Mt. Rainier in Washington to Mt. Jefferson in central Oregon. But Hood dominates to the East, a large gray andesite peak with remnant glaciers adorning the top. The Multnomah tribe, a small group of the Chinook Nation who were wiped out by European-borne disease in the 1800s, referred to the mountain as Wy’east; some people still choose to use that name. While for me the Columbia River is the heart of my home, Hood has been this brooding presence ever drawing my attention. I’ve hiked near it, at Twin Lakes near Barlow Pass, and Mirror Lakes, and I’ve driven 26 and 35 all the way around it. But it wasn’t until I found out about the McNeil Point hike that I decided that I was ready to get to know this mountain more closely.

The hike itself was rather pleasant, not as steep as I had thought. My idea of “strenuous mountain hike” has been steep switchbacks on Dog Mountain or Kings Mountain, and most of the trail here was pretty level. There was a surprising number of hikers, too–the parking lot was so full that I had to park on the side of the road with a few other cars! I kept running into these two nice guys, too, who were on the same course (and made one of the same wrong turns, too!) I also chatted a bit with a couple of members of Friends of the Columbia Gorge; we talked a bit about politics in an election year, and I asked about their organization, which I think I’m going to join.

The wildlife was out in force, too. I flushed several Northern flickers from the grass on the sides of the road as I drove up to the trailhead, and I heard, though didn’t see, the occasional raven. There were lots and lots of chipmunks; I startled one near the start of the hike, but he (or she) quickly recovered, and sat about four feet away from me foraging for seeds and berries. Might have been the most chill chipmunk I’ve ever seen outside of a city park! The juncos were in full attendance as well, and higher up in the talus slopes I could hear pikas making their squeaky-toy noises. (If you’ve never heard a pika, allow David Attenborough to introduce you to this most adorable of mountain critters.) Lots and lots and lots of Douglas fir and hemlock trees, too, and the trail was lined with thick clumps of beargrass and some wild rhododendron. Erratic boulders deposited by long-retreated glaciers sat like large resting animals in the brush, and glacial streams trickled down the slopes.

It wasn’t the steepest hike I’ve done, but it was the longest–partly because I went almost a mile the wrong way down the Pacific Crest Trail and then had to turn around. Between that and another wrong turn and backtrack I added two miles to the nine miles of the McNeil hike proper I managed. I’d had the grand plan of going all the way up to the stone shelter at the edge of the treeline and snowline, though things didn’t work out quite that way. The trail disappears once it dips into the valley of McGee creek, and so I just poked around the valley a bit before deciding to head on back. I’d gotten a later start than I had intended and didn’t reach the valley until 4pm; with only three hours of daylight left and this being a new trail to me, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stomping around in the dark and cold!

Still, I had the time to be truly amazed by being so close to Hood’s peak. I went far enough up McGee’s valley that I was probably within a quarter mile or so of the base of the peak proper. You can see in the photo here just how close I got! (I’ve seen several other people’s versions of this shot online, too, so I know it’s a bit cliche, but I wanted to mark the moment for myself.) Surrounded by wildflowers and the cold meltwater of the McGee, I imagined I was in another world. And Hood didn’t seem so scary, either–perhaps a little brusque and cranky, but I’d had so much help from other hikers and the trails themselves getting there that I felt rather welcomed.

I am normally a solo hiker; I prefer going at my own pace, and dislike too much chatter. But as it was getting late and I needed to hurry back down the mountainside, I met up with the two hikers I’d been sort of pacing with earlier, and asked to accompany them down to the lower trail. So we rather quickly ate up about two miles of rough trail in an hour, and once we were within a mile of the trailhead I bid them good evening, with plenty of sunlight left to make my own way back. There are two options for taking the Timberline Trail back to the Topspur trailhead where I started; one goes through fairly standard fir and hemlock woods, but the other follows a narrow trail overlooking the valley of the Sandy River–not only do you get a great look at Hood in all its glory, but you can see the tiny glacial trickle that is the source of the Sandy. In the late afternoon sunlight Hood was beautifully illuminated, and I kept stopping to gaze in awe. Here’s my last photo before I headed back into the forest:

Just for fun, here’s a version of the above photo with a bit of notation–you may need to click on the photo to get the bigger version so you can see my notes!

All in all, it was a very good hike. While I’m definitely not in a place where I can climb Hood’s peak proper, I feel much more comfortable with the spirit of the mountain. It truly is a place of beauty, with the deep evergreen forests, and the alpine meadows with little surprising ponds. I think next year I may try doing a backpacking trip up there, though I might take another shot at the shelter on McNeil Point later this month.