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Fifty years ago this summer, the Sgt. Pepper’s LP from the Beatles was taking the world by stereophonic storm. The album defined one generation, and left its massive kaleidoscopic footprint on those to follow. It continues to capture my imagination, and in the spirit of Joseph Campbell, I see and hear undercurrents of the hero’s journey written all over it. No wonder it’s appeal has proven timeless, if not universal. Like a Mesopotamian legend or a German fairy tale, the Beatles spin a tale that resonates deeply in the human psyche.

The album opens with great fanfare and mock bombast, announcing a performance of exceptional proportions, presaging a bona fide epic of the most self-conscious variety. At the end of this quick and rowdy Sgt. Pepper preamble, the band introduces the body of the opus, and day breaks—for the first time—on a perfectly ordinary character. Ringo gives voice to a sanguine but unenlightened optimist who gets by (and high) with a little help from his friends. Like the rest of us, he just wants somebody to love. Here we have the archetypal everyman, the quintessential fool, on the cusp of a hero’s journey. He has been chosen, and so he accepts the call.

Track three opens with a mesmerizing melody on the organ, and we immediately sense a shift from the ordinary to the surreal. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, like a hot dose of LSD, opens up a whole new world of “plasticine porters and looking glass ties.” One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small, and down the rabbit hole we go. “Head in the clouds, and he’s gone.” We have crossed the point of no return and the hero is well on his way, to follow that quest, wherever it may lead.

From there, a burst of bright guitar chops launches us into the next level of optimism, where things truly are “Getting Better” all the time. No more angry young man, no more “hiding me head in the sand”, it’s time to for a complete change of scene and a total psychological overhaul. We have turned a corner, and the upward spiral continues. The hero charges onward, with the proverbial treasure fixed in his crosshairs.

The hero’s and the listeners’ eyes and ears are wide open now. The rabbit hole is the new normal, and we are ready for anything. Cue the harpsichords! Time to fix that hole and “keep my mind from wandering.” The imagination runs wild and “a number of things that weren’t important yesterday” come to the fore. Here the unconscious self breaks through the surface and the old habits are cast away. Indeed, the hole cannot be fixed, and so the mind is flooded with new perspectives and revelatory ideas.

With these fresh insights, both psychic and psychedelic, the old paradigm is no longer tenable. The hero resorts to drastic measures, and “at 5 o’clock as the day begins” and the harp strums softly in the background, we turn away finally from family and tradition. “She’s Leaving Home” and she’s not looking back. McCartney recounts her exodus in excruciating, tear-jerking detail. It’s a story as old as the pentatonic scale, of a young woman yearning to be free, and her parents—concerned but distant—who have absolutely no idea how it happened. “What did we do that was wrong?”

Side one draws to a close and we are off, with our frisky young runaway, to where else, but the circus. “For the benefit of Mr. Kite, there will be a show tonight.” Meanwhile, the multitrack recording performs its own dizzying array of acrobatics. Up and down, backward and forward, and hats off to the maestro producer, engineer and ringmaster, George Martin, aka the Fifth Beatle, for “their production will be second to none.” And after an all-out three ring circus of lyrical imagery and orchestral gymnastics, the record needle drifts obliviously into the vinyl’s inner groove.

Flipping the disc to side two, we ascend even greater heights. No more simple adolescent rebellion and horses dancing the waltz. The time has come for a spiritual awakening. Look into the void and let Harrison’s hypnotizing sitar carry you into that space where all things are one and separation is utter illusion. One of only two songs to clock in over five minutes, “Within You and Without You” transports all those with eyes to see and ears to hear to a realm beyond this mundane material place. To the frustration of Lennon and McCartney perhaps, it is under George’s aegis that the most precious kernel of enlightenment truly crystallizes. Here, among a rich, mysterious tapestry of exotic scales and eastern rhythms, the hero finds his treasure and discovers “a love [that] can change the world. . . If they only knew!”

When the victor returns from this ethereal dominion, he is greeted by a cheerful clarinet, Paul’s soothing voice, and a newfound willingness to accept old age and mortality. Will you still be there with me, “When I’m sixty-four”? The earlier optimism presses on, but now it carries the wisdom and foresight that was absent before. Knitting sweaters and Sunday drives: the promise of life’s simple pleasures rings as true as Ringo’s mighty cowbell.

The hero has captured the gold, and now it’s time to rescue the princess. Or is it the princess who will rescue him? What difference does it make when we are all one and life goes on within us and without us? The princess after all, is none other than “Lovely Rita”, a lowly meter maid on the outside, but a goddess and savior on the inside, worthy of John’s howling praise and panting paeans. She even picks up the bill after dinner.

“Nothing has changed, it’s still the same,” and yet everything has changed when the quest is complete and the hero returns, amidst sizzling guitar riffs, crashing cymbals and a riot of barnyard animals who greet the day. For at least the third or forth time, our epic protagonist wakes up and bids “Good Morning” to the world. But now he looks on the world with a fresh pair of eyes. He has come full circle, and the world looks to him for answers. And it’s the same solution we’ve heard a hundred times before: there is “Nothing to do. It’s up to you. Nothing to say, but it’s ok.”

Finally, as the dogs, cats, lions and roosters stir up a commotion, and a horse gallops into the distance, Sgt. Pepper’s band returns with a reprise of their introductory anthem. Thanks are issued, and the audience roars with applause. The saga closes, save for the cataclysmic coda, “A Day in the Life”, in which we return to the mundane, witness the tragic, and wake up one last time. “Woke up, got out of bed…” and barely made it to work on time. But then, amidst the monotony, the death and the decay, we “slip into a dream”. The orchestra rises to climatic heights, then crashes and fades slowly back into the void.

The day is done and the cycle is complete. From birth, to death, to rebirth; from acceptance, to rejection, to acceptance; we are all one. And life goes on, always revolving, ever forward, sometimes back. And that’s the news today. Oh boy.

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Happy Bloomsday, 16 June 2017. If you’ve ever tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, but had trouble getting through it, you may find this series of Limericks helpful, even illuminating. Or if you read it all the way through, and even enjoyed it, you might actually find this series entertaining.

 

“Ulysses”
There once was an artist called Stephen
With Homer he tried to get even
So Bloom and he walk
Around Dublin and talk
And reflect upon what they believe in

 

Telemachus (episode 1)
It starts with a portion of prose
From “Portrait” our character rose
A maker of mazes
His thoughts take us places
Like the Liffey his monologue flows

 

Nestor (episode 2)
At school young Stephen is teaching
And into the past he is reaching
By his’try they’re bound
To a king and his crown
And a Pope who’s incessantly preaching

 

Proteus (episode 3)
Introducing the Protean mind
Streaming with thoughts of all kind
The king can change shapes
As our hero escapes
On a quest for a woman who’s kind

 

Calypso (episode 4)
Calypso is leading a life of seduction
As Leopold seldom attempts reproduction
Their home goes to Blazes
While Bloom simply gazes
At maidens who gaily portend his destruction

 

Lotus Eaters (episode 5)
Naughty Miss Martha she beckoned
For Henry was lonely she reckoned
But when she comes calling
He can’t help from falling
Some thirty-two Bloom feet per second

 

Hades (episode 6)
In Hades his thoughts grow nightmarish
On the losses of loved ones we cherish
Of Rudy’s young face
And father’s disgrace
Each day umpteen thousand more perish

 

Aeolus (episode 7)
There’s a paper where men shoot the breeze
Blowing steam over Mad Cow’s Disease
Home Rule is one topic
On which they’re myopic
For our heroes have both lost their keys

 

Lestrygonians (episode 8)
There was an old Hebrew in search of a bite
In the lunchroom he witnessed a sickening sight
With the animals feeding
He felt like excreting
But a sandwich he managed to eat with delight

 

Scylla & Charybdis (episode 9)
Now Stephen’s reasons seem so circumstantial
Prince Hamlet distracts him from problems financial
In a sharp dialectic
And a voice apoplectic
He maintains that the actors are all consubstantial

 

Wandering Rocks (episode 10)
Inverts and adverts and throwaway sheets
The minions meander through mazes and streets
A priest on parade
A state cavalcade
The double-edged spoon from which Ireland eats

 

Sirens (episode 11)
A hero hears voices out over the oceans
While sirens fill glasses with succulent potions
His eardrum it pounds
With sonorous sounds
And somewhere a street girl seductively motions

 

Cyclops (episode 12)
I once knew a man who was prone to eruption
Lashing about at the eye of destruction
Exalting his land
Libation in hand
Then blinded by no man with no introduction

 

Nausicaa (episode 13)
O’er the sea sinks the sun with contrition
To be watching alone is the human condition
Like a rock on the sand
Honeymoon in the hand
Sowing seeds with no chance of fruition

 

Oxen of the Sun (episode 14)
There was a commotion in yon House of Horne
By three days of labor a mother was torn
While gentlemen waiting
Delivered words so degrading
The god-possibled soul of a new boy was born

 

Circe #1 (episode 15)
A vision at midnight by magic affected
But Bloom’s black potato is bound to correct it
Like a morsel of moly
To reverse the unholy
The remedy found where you least would expect it

 

Circe #2
Our pig-headed heroes wind up at Miss Bello’s
One of the district’s most fetching bordellos
Where spirits might render
Delusions of splendor
Finally conjoining these two wayward fellows

 

Circe #3
Stubbornly Stephen’s extending his nerve
“Non Serviam” he will duly observe
While Bloom takes a bow
Like a suckling sow
The artist announces that he will not serve

 

Eumaeus (episode 16)
In the wee early hours their congress occurs
Perfectly sober Bloom sorely infers
That Stephen’s been euchered
Forsaken and suckered
And therefore he (Bloom) at this treason demurs

 

Ithaca (episode 17)
How shall this hero extinguish his passion?
With questions all posed in fastidious fashion
Then where does he head?
But straight for the bed
Right back to the womb and the voice of compassion

 

Penelope (episode 18)
They’re fleshing things out at their Eccles address
Erupting with feelings she needs to express
She wonders half sleeping
Is Poldy worth keeping?
And answers in estrous emphatically Yes

 

Re(ad)Joyce
Poetry students are said to be sissies
They wander through life like a string of ellipses
Other vocations
Achieve higher stations
But all of it’s useless unless it’s Ulysses

 

 

America used to be great. I mean, really great. Immigrants flocked by the boatload to be welcomed in her open arms, whether they were huddled, tired, poor or disenfranchised. They came for the abundant resources and the free society which made those resources widely available. They brought their vigor, their ambition, their creativity and the necessary skills to make something for themselves in this rich land of opportunity. And make something they did.

Centuries advanced and times changed, but America today is still pretty great. As far as hegemonic superpowers to dominate the landscape of global politics, the world could do much much worse. One needn’t look far through the pages of history to see that.

But as time marches on, the great American pie gets divided into more and more slices, as more and more people gather around the table to claim their share. So the chances of staking a claim, and the opportunities for really making something, grow smaller and smaller. And the further this pie is partitioned, the deeper the divisions run, and the less benevolent this world superpower will become.

On the face of American politics, we can see the furled brows, the clenched jaws, the deep divisions. One side wants to restore that lost past, revive that land of opportunity, and make the country great again. Another side maintains that no restoration is necessary, that thanks to recent health care reforms and the expansion of free trade, America is now as great as ever. Rather than looking back to a more glorious yesterday, these partisans can’t stop thinking about tomorrow, just like they did 20 years ago.

Even if you’ve spent the last two or three decades sequestered in a bubble—whether it’s a financially-induced bubble of complaisant detachment or a confirmation biased bubble of one-sided news consumption—you’ve probably been aware of the economic strains associated with the shrinking pie described above. The world’s seemingly inexhaustible store of resources turns out to be precariously finite. And for the first time in history, broad majorities of Americans are facing the real prospect of living in a less prosperous society than their parents. The opportunity curve has peaked, and the view from the top is horribly unsettling.

In this state of collective vertigo, we need someone to blame, because the thought of failure is anathema to the America psyche. The idea that you could work hard, do your best, and end up empty-handed is unthinkable. For hundreds of years, America enjoyed a uniquely privileged position, with all the bounty of the New World ripe for the plunder. And consequently they have no strong tradition of the noble peasant, the wise hermit or the tragic hero, that you find in every other world culture.

In “Death of a Salesman”, the singular literary example of a national tragedy, Willy Loman, at the end of his long career, laments not having made something of himself. A fantastic play, to be sure, but do we really identify with Loman, the way we can empathize with a despondent serf in a short story from Tolstoy, for example? Or do we merely pity him, because he lacked ambition, amounted to nothing, and then lived to regret it?

The story of someone with a vision, who tries to accomplish something great, but fails, does not jive with American mythology. And the national psyche is not equipped to deal with it. We grew up with Oliver Twist, Little Orphan Annie and Elvis Presley. So we look around today and see all the signs of a psychological breakdown in a society that just doesn’t know how to cope. On the right we see anger and denial, on the left we see denial and depression. And if anyone speaks rationally of acceptance, their voice is all but silenced.

In spite all this, I still recommend acceptance. Meanwhile, America elects people to the highest office who kick and scream like bad-mannered toddlers when things don’t go their way. When the going gets tough, the country chooses a loud-mouthed bully to represent them, while generosity and benevolence fall out of fashion. And as we saw last week in Montana, body-slamming the opposition now meets with greater public approval than the weak policy of tolerance.

What is the relationship between matter and spirit? What is the relation between the will to self-preservation and the will toward sacred atonement? Here’s an answer, where you may or may not expect it.

Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Here we have one of the best known and most frequently cited anecdotes from the New Testament. Typically, the story is read as a lesson in discernment, in distinguishing the righteous from the unrighteous, the holy from the impious. But the passage is not without controversy, and interpretations vary widely. For the line that separates the wicked from the virtuous is hardly as clear as the distinction between Martha and Mary. Indeed, the very subtlety of that distinction is the crux around which this fable revolves.

It should come as no surprise that Mary, who stoops down low, by Jesus’ feet, should be exalted higher and presented as the sister with greater virtue and sublimity. Variations on this theme recur throughout the Gospels, most notably in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

What fewer interpretations appreciate however, in their need to draw a strict line between right and wrong, between heaven and earth, is the importance of Martha and Mary being sisters and living together. Like the sets of brothers who star in so many ancient legends and myths, the housemates here do not represent separate and distinct characters, but the divergent aspects of a single individual.

Differentiating between good people and bad people is one thing, but the more important task is to recognize and acknowledge the sacred and the vulgar impulses within ourselves. Martha and Mary occupy the same house, just as their characteristics co-exist in a single personality. Maintaining a healthy household and a harmonious family, allegorically speaking, means tending a healthy psyche and balancing the circle of inner forces.

Martha tries to shame Mary for neglecting the cooking and cleaning, the daily duties of earthly living. Meanwhile, Jesus criticizes Martha for failing to attend to the “one thing needed,” the eternal matters of singular importance. In fact, genuine health requires both; we must be mindful of our material needs, but we must also remember the questions of ultimate importance.

For Jesus, the paragon of holy perfection, it’s easy to look down on those who bother themselves with the mundane duties and household chores. But for the rest of us, we would wallow in filth and starve if we simply ignored the housework and shrugged off our basic material needs. All too often though, we end up getting lost in the daily routine, consumed by worldly matters. And once our earthly pursuits have crowded out and supplanted our spiritual endeavors, then we have gone astray. As it’s been said, we cannot serve two masters.

What then is the genuine master? What is that “one thing needed,” which Mary looks after and Martha neglects, the one thing which cannot be named? That of course is the great question, and it must remain forever the question, because every time we name it, we think we own it. But we we do not. And so it slips a bit further from our grasp.

For one, that article of singular importance may be wisdom, or love. For another it may be justice, or motherhood. For the Greeks, these ideals had titles, like Hera, Athena, Aphrodite. These were their gods, which is another way of saying that these were the things that gave meaning and depth to their otherwise ordinary lives. These ideals were portrayed as  living and dynamic, capricious and ephemeral. And I think the Greeks were on to something here.

But Jesus was emphatic on this point, that Mary had made the right choice by directing her attention to the holy and the eternal, as personified in this text by Jesus himself. By the same token, he insisted that Martha, distracted by so many menial things, was missing out on the one thing she could not lose. And in order to understand and identify that singular thing, we must look deeply within ourselves.

Unless we take time to nourish the soul, the daily duties become mere motions, sterile and meaningless. Still, if we try to dwell exclusively in the astral and the eternal, we cannot expect to thrive or even survive in this world of objects. We can model ourselves after the great sages, but ultimately we cannot live like Alyosha Karamazov, always on that higher plain but never without a clean shirt and a fresh bite to eat in his hand. Concerning ourselves exclusively with the otherworldly, we are more likely to suffer the tragic fate of Prince Myshkin, to borrow another page from Dostoyevsky.

It’s not that Martha is up to no good. She’s not dabbling in witchcraft, she’s not obsessing over monetary gain or collecting trophies, and she’s certainly not acting out of selfishness or malice. She’s simply seeing that the kitchen is in good order and that a good lunch is properly prepared. These are hardly the actions of an audacious sinner. But these material concerns are respectfully inferior to Mary’s interest in the kingdom of god, in entering that realm where all things are connected as one.

To lead a healthy life, Mary and Martha each have their roles to play. We should invoke the spirit of both sisters, so that the two aspects can function together. But in order to be effective, we must render unto Martha what is Martha’s and render unto Mary what is Mary’s. When we are working in practical areas, we need to focus on doing that work properly. And when we strive to reach a higher plane of spiritual connectivity, our attention must be concentrated like Mary’s, and our minds must be free from the clutter and those ongoing to-do lists, the many things diverting Martha’s attention.

The house of Martha and Mary serves as the model for right mindfulness, right action, and proper balance. It’s critical to remain mindful of Martha, to tend the hearth, take out the garbage, and file your taxes. Grand ideas give us meaning and purpose, but they rarely put food on the table or shoes on your feet. At the same time, we ought to remember Maslov’s pyramid of needs. Once the basics have been provided for, we can—and should—move onward and upward. To give our lives real meaning, we must embark on that spiritual journey, humble ourselves before the vast and mysterious, and devote our attention to the highest ideals, that which cannot be touched or taken away.

If you’d like to be an opera singer, you need to learn Italian. If you want to learn gourmet cooking, it might help to speak French. And if you want to study philosophy, theology and metaphysics, it would be useful to know some German. There’s no doubt, these fields of study were dominated by Germans for a good solid three or four centuries, from Luther to Leibniz, Hegel to Heidegger, Schopenhauer to Schleiermacher.

I recently spent a week in the central German city of Erfurt, where Martin Luther enjoys the status of a superhero, and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a church. I can attest this second fact from personal experience, as I toured the city with my two feisty youngsters.

Over the course of our ongoing walking tours of the east German city, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to track down one particular house of worship known as the Predigerkirche, or the preacher’s church. For days, I circumambulated the historic Altstadt, longing to locate this semi-obscure monument, the Eckhart Door.

Long before Luther, the region’s best known church father was a country preacher by the name of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). Or at least that’s the name by which we remember him some 700 years later. Eckhart’s reputation waxed and waned over the centuries, but around the turn of the 20th century, he enjoyed something of a revival, and today we recognize him as one of the premier religious mystics of the western tradition, alongside the likes of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. You might think of him as Christianity’s equivalent of Rumi.

Among the countless statues and historic monuments in Germany however, there is hardly a mention of this 13th century sage. So when I discovered that there was Meister Eckhart door on the Predigerkirche, I headed straight over. Or at least I tried to head straight over.

Erfurt’s old city center, like any other European city center, consists of a tight network of short, narrow and circuitous alleys and passages. So it’s nigh impossible to move anywhere in a straight line. But move and meander I did, strolling past church after church. I worked my way around the Luther church, admired the partial remains of the Barefoot church, noted the unusually sparse architecture of a certain evangelical church, but the Eckhart door still eluded me.

After a couple days of this mild frustration, I was forced to consult my maze-like map in excruciating detail. Gradually I honed my search, until finally I zeroed in on the neatly concealed Predigerkirche. With both my children in tow, I began to circle the sprawling structure. Approaching from the back of the church, we made our way through the cloister and found ourselves in the courtyard of the seminary school. Stone walls and irons gates partitioned the chapel and the divinity school, but no sign of a door with any allusion of the illustrious medieval mystic.

Finally, on the opposite side, we found the main entrance to the church. But still no mention of the Meister. We looked to the left, we looked to the right, we looked up, we looked inside, but only the narrow foyer was open to visitors. The children were growing restless. I stood at the door and doubted the entire undertaking. Perhaps we should simply cut our losses and find ourselves some fresh baked pretzels instead. Always delicious, never elusive.

Then we rounded the other side, and lo and behold, the last possible door of the church, the absolute furthest corner from where our circumnavigation began: we had arrived. No fanfare, no throngs of foreign tourists waiting to take a picture, just me and my two kids, and a very heavy door engraved with a bible verse and the dates of Meister Eckhart’s life.

My daughter was so relieved. “Ok, let’s go in already,” she groaned.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s just a door. We can’t open it. The church is locked. It’s just a door.”

She was incredulous. I tried to point out the nice big bronze letters on the door. She was not impressed. And so we headed back, slightly fulfilled, slightly disappointed, and mostly just relieved that we could stop searching and get on with our lives.

But later that day we passed a tourist information office, and I found a very small booklet about Eckhart, with a cover photo of the Bodendenkmal, the floor monument. Really? Was there yet another Eckhart monument to go and find?

As it turns out, a newer and even more meaningful memorial to Meister Eckhart covers the ground at the front door of the Predigerkirche. I had just stood on that exact spot, looking left and right of the church and upwards towards the steeple. I’d looked everywhere but down. Had I not been so obsessed with that door, I might have easily noticed the words of Meister Eckhart himself, etched into the very floor, right below my feet.

While the door includes a verse from the book of John, the floor memorial features seven distinct quotes from Eckhart, who for several years had delivered weekly sermons to his congregation in Erfurt. On one of those floor plaques reads the memorable message, “Man kann Gott nicht besser finden als dort, wo man ihn lässt”, which I would translate as: “Nowhere can you better discover God than where you let Him go.”

I can hardly think of a better phrase to sum up the lesson I learned in my long and winding quest to locate that glorious door. Sometimes the greatest discoveries are waiting right at our finger tips, if only we can let go of our tenacious attachment to the search.

Some people refer to it as “the days when God still spoke to people.” German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) called it the Axial Age. It was the time of humanity’s most prolific religious and spiritual output, roughly 2500 years ago.

In India, the Buddha was achieving enlightenment. In China, Lao Tzu was grappling with non-duality, and Confucius was articulating morality. In Athens, Greece, Socrates was questioning everything and formulating the bedrock of western philosophy. And in the near East, Hebrew sages, under Babylonian Captivity, were using a revolutionary alphabet to compose the literary foundations of Judeo-Christianity.

These were heady times indeed. And some have drawn comparisons with our current era. The proliferation of what have come to be known as “New Age” ideologies suggests to some that we are currently moving through a second Axial Age. Of course, there are other factors at play, the ability of modern technology to spread ideas with unimaginable ease and quickness, and a response to the relatively recent Age of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason.

Extenuating circumstances aside, it’s hard to deny the outburst of spiritual ideas that we have witnessed in the last hundred years. Maybe it started with Carl Jung, sometimes called the father of the new age movement. Perhaps we can trace it back even further to the prophetic writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. At the turn of the twentieth century, religion effectively meant Christianity; now it includes everything from from reptile idolatry to past-life clairvoyance. And today we have entire bookstores devoted to new age spirituality, this in a time when bookstores are disappearing faster than Manischevitz at a Jewish wedding.

Deepak Choprah, Eckhart Tolle and Jane Roberts have all become household names, among a sea of others like Ken Wilber, Matthew Fox, Michael Talbot, and hundreds of others. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th in a long line of Tibetan Buddhist visionaries, but has there ever been another Dalai Lama even a fraction as popular and influential as the incarnation who has held this venerable position since 1950?

Ordinary people from all walks of life turn to these alternative ideas and ideologies to escape the meaninglessness and absurdity which has plagued our species for the last century or so. For significant segments of society, traditional religion has grown inadequate, while the basic need for some sort of spiritual outlet or connection still looms large. For others however, attachment to the old religion has grown stronger than ever.

Perceiving an existential threat from these novel spiritual schools, the most traditional Christians (as well as Muslims and others) have responded by clinging more tightly than ever to their old beliefs. This resurgence of fundamentalism has been all too obvious in the last couple decades, coming to a boiling point in what we so casually refer to now as the Culture Wars.

The failures of neo-liberalism notwithstanding, progressive movements have advanced with great strides in terms of racial integration, LGBT rights, gender equality and more compassionate social. It should come as no surprise then that we should see a pushback against this progress. Under Donald Trump’s flag of making America what it used to be, xenophobia, patriarchy, traditional religion and intolerance are soaring to new heights. Terrifying as this all might be to any forward-thinking individuals, it also confirms the fact that we have accomplished some great changes in the last 50 years.

In the spiritual sphere, we have witnessed a coming together of ideas, old and new, from East and West, like never before. Major swaths of the population are undergoing a shift in consciousness, growing increasingly aware of the universality and interconnectedness that tie us together. The teachings date back to the first Axial Age, but today, those ideas are embraced on a whole different level, in an entirely new context.

The quantum leap of consciousness is something worth celebrating, but, as tremendous as it is, it will not take place without a violent wave of resistance from those still attached to the traditional and archaic. In fact, the collision of traditional and new age belief systems, as we see, is only pushing them further back, to the point where they literally refuse to look at the facts. The sense of tribalism has grown so tenacious, that they will follow their strongman leader blindly. So intolerant have they become to the flow of progress, that they willfully ignore any message, however valid or reliable, when it goes against the ethos of their own narrow and regressive worldview.

People speak now of resisting, and organizing resistance, against the reign of Trump and this resurgence of bullying and ethnocentrism. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this new regime is the resistance. It is a reactionary resistance against an undeniable movement forward. We are witnessing the death throes of a belief system on the verge of collapse. It might happen slowly, and will almost certainly get ugly, but ultimately, the forward momentum will always prevail over the backward resistance.

This is happening now, and it is happening daily. It is nothing less than a war of ideas. But as we see their movement scurry forth, and watch them sink lower and lower into the depths of anger, denial and willful ignorance, what’s most important is that we not allow them to drag us down with them. Like the young Luke Skywalker when confronted by the wrath of Darth Vader (the Dark Father, the symbol of a passing generation), we must not give in to anger.

Anger leads to the Dark Side. And we all know this. They have already dragged us into their post-fact world. If it comes down to a battle of bullshit, the Dark Side wins. If we reduce ourselves to a rivalry of name-calling and finger pointing, again, the Dark Side will prevail. When they take the low road, we must take the high road. If they insist that Jesus entitles them to the moral high ground, and they do, then we must remain vigilant.

Such flagrant hypocrisy and hyperbolic dishonesty cannot last long. In time, they will be their own undoing. But it could still get worse before it gets better. Our leaders are teachers and mystics, not generals and politicians, so the struggle might not be an easy one, and for a time it may look like they are ahead. We must stick together and steel ourselves for some nasty displays of darkness. But their desperate extremism only proves that the forces of progress and tolerance are winning.

Finally, remember the words of Dr. King, for he too withstood a few beatings and proved his own moral supremacy while resisting the temptations of anger and violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

James Joyce’s most celebrated novel, Ulysses, has been described—by Joyce himself, or perhaps it was Robert Anton Wilson—as either a religion disguised as a joke or a joke disguised as a religion. In either case, the author’s efforts to probe the depths for secret subtle wisdom were profound indeed, but equally important, his revelations were consistently made with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. From Moses to Shakespeare to Aquinas, none was immune to the sarcastic lampooning of Joyce’s rapier wit.

A useful religion, like a good joke, requires a great deal of cognitive blending, examining words, concepts and narratives from a number of simultaneous perspectives. Fairy tales, holy scripture and great novels all employ the language of myth, which is the dialect of metaphor. Potent language brims with signs and symbols, draws us in with a simple enough story, then engages clever devices to direct our imaginations upwards, to higher levels of meaning. A good joke sets up certain expectations, then swings the helm and points us in a different, unexpected direction with joyful results. Either way, when we surrender ourselves to the charms of a good narrator, we also appoint him to the role of navigator, allowing our imaginations and our unconscious to be guided far afield into uncharted waters.

Rarely if ever has anyone grasped the full power of language and known how to harness it the way Joyce did. Each word is selected with the utmost care, and pregnant with meaning and potential. Every sentence is constructed with as much deliberation and precision as a seven layer wedding cake being delivered to the surface of Mars. It may not make for light reading, but it can provide a lifetime’s worth of study for the assiduous reader.

Like Biblical scripture, his books can be read time and time again, with additional layers of meaning gleaned from each and every subsequent reading, while accumulating a greater and greater general knowledge as necessary to draw increasingly meaningful interpretations. Ulysses, in fact, is the kind of book that one could study with the same sort of devotion and exclusivity that fundamentalists apply to the Bible or the Koran. Once you have thoroughly understood this masterpiece, then you will have grasped a complete understanding of human history and the world. Like holding William Blake’s infinity in the palm of your hand, Joyce’s microcosm of Dublin contains—however obliquely disguised or ironically revealed—an all inclusive metaphysical system and a comprehensive roadmap of the human soul.

Committing oneself to the literary output of James Joyce may confer great intellectual and spiritual benefits, but the material disadvantages are hard to overlook. I’m reminded of Lynch’s words to Stephen in the aesthetic theory section of A Portrait of the Artist. “Damn you and damn everything. I want a job at five hundred a year. You can’t get me one.”

No, the remunerative opportunities for the full-time Joyce enthusiast are limited indeed. For the aficionado of fine literature, this may come as a somewhat disheartening realization, for what it says about our society and what is valued and what is not. But I as gave this fact a more thought, I came to see that Joyce is not the profitless diversion, but it’s money that is the vulgar distraction. True enough, we live in a society where money is the measure of all things and what cannot be monetized is discarded and disdained.

Joyce, however, was a staunch advocate of art for art’s sake. By virtue of the the fact that these profound works remain untarnished by greed, profiteering or other commercial influence, they retain a special place in our society, or more accurately, outside of our society. Somehow this joke disguised as a religion, untainted by man’s foulest devices, is elevated to an even higher, sacred plane. Its study is relegated to the mystical and esoteric circles, where the ideas and intentions remain most pure, detached from earthly pursuits. Go forth then into that otherworldly realm of wisdom and mystery, and rejoice, for the remedy you seek cannot be bought or sold.