When he was nine years old, Black Elk had what appears to have been a near death experience, in which he participated in a complex and powerful vision. In it he described how his people would have to climb four “ascents,” each one more difficult than the previous one. Here is how he described the fourth ascent:
Then when the people were getting ready to begin the fourth ascent, the Voice spoke like some one weeping, and it said: "Look there upon your nation." And when I looked down, the people were all changed back to human, and they were thin, their faces sharp, for they were starving. Their ponies were only hide and bones. And the holy tree was gone.
In his vision the ascents represented the trials that would be faced by four consecutive generations of his people. Clearly he was anticipating the defeat of his people and the destruction of their way of life by the Wasichus -- the White Men.
After a century of bloody conflicts, genocides and horrors, it would seem that the United States, and perhaps the dominant world culture in its entirety, is now entering its own fourth ascent. We are threatened by endless wars, economic exploitation, the repression of our hopes and dreams, and the unraveling of the ecological system that sustains us. We are starved for meaning as we sense the crumbling of the entire fabric of life beneath us. We wonder about not only the possibility of our eventual well-being, but whether our species will even be able to survive. The Wasichus have led the entire planet into its fourth ascent. By Wasichus I do not refer here to a race, a nation or a sex (though many of the most powerful of them are white North American men) but to a head set – the head-set of domination rather than negotiation and cooperation.
Our prospects look bleak, and there are no assurances. What can possibly give us the energy to continue the journey? It would seem that we are very much in need of hope. But in the face of such adversity, how are we to hope?
I believe that the hope that will give us the energy and direction we need can come only from a vision – or as Martin Luther King Jr. would term it, a dream.
The earth is being dominated to death. The central strategy of those responsible for this is divide and conquer. So we need a vision that is not only able to offer a viable alternative to the violent, repressive and exploitive vision offered to us by the current elite, but one that can be shared by a wide variety of people. The needed vision, at least in its broad outline, is not, I think entirely missing. I would suggest that it can with a reasonable degree of accuracy, be delineated under five headings:
We must create a world in which goods and services are shared and the basic needs for food, shelter, and medical care are guaranteed to all people. It seems clear that a world society build upon the huge and growing disparity between the rich and poor is doomed to failure. It is already creating a great deal of class conflict and it is predictable that this conflict will grow and become more violent as the disparity increases. Also it is clear that the excessive consumption of the few will also will predictably drain the non-renewable resources of the earth and create multiple ecological problems of a very serious nature.
As the goods and services must be more equitably distributed, so must the decision making. We must all be able to participate in the decisions that are made about the social, economic, and physical space we share. The failure to see this was the great failure of the communist systems in the last century. Real democracy must be established between the nations that are now being dominated mainly by the United States, as well as within each country. The wealthy cannot be permitted to buy elections. But beyond this we must explore ways to make participatory decision making a reality within our businesses, our families and our social and religious institutions.
Access to Information
Accurate information about our world much be available to all – not just the wealthy or those in high places. We need a press that is free from the control of big nations, big banks and multinationals. If we do not have accurate information about the world we inhabit, how can we make informed decisions about how to work toward negotiated and workable solutions? Presently most people in the world, and especially most Americans, live in a fantasy world created by a mass media in which propaganda, entertainment and news are merged in profoundly misleading ways. In addition our governments lie to us endlessly, and demonize and punish those who attempt to let us know the truth.
Increasingly we are becoming aware that we are a part of a larger network of life, upon which we are dependent. An ecological perspective suggests that we must move ahead in a way that respects this dynamics and nature of this fabric. We must negotiate with it and try to develop a relationship with it that is mutually sustaining and enriching. Technology must be aimed at enhancing our relationship with the natural order, not overcoming it. Technologies that attempt to overpower the ecological order and replace it with a humanly created one will lead to disaster.
By the term “Eros” I mean love energy. It includes, but is not limited to, sexuality. Eros should not be dominated by society but negotiated between individuals. A cooperative vision of Eros would perhaps be based on the following principles:
That all people of all ages are enabled to respect the source of their own Eros without its being labeled “normal” or “abnormal”
That all are able to make their gender choices without fear of ridicule
That all people are free to restrain or express their sexuality as they see fit, so long as they do not force unwanted attentions on others, create undue risks for others, or act in ways that are inappropriate to the situation.
That each family is able to choose or develop its own template, whether traditional or based on same sex desire and/or polyamority.
This, in broad outline, is a consensus toward which I think many of us may be moving. Clarity with regard to Eros is perhaps the least developed aspect of this growing vision. Unfortunately the United States, along with most of the English speaking word, has been immersed in a moral panic about the innocence of children that prevents any intelligent discussion of the topic. Even so, we do perceive some headway in such developments as the growing acceptance of gay marriages, and the understanding that people of all ages must be free to choose their own gender identity.
This is my vision of the future. It is not a vision that I simply made up. Rather it is a vision that many people have contributed to. I believe it is a vision that I share, at least in broad outline, with a growing number of thinking people. It is a vision of the new promised land. It may be a promised land that humanity never enters. We may destroy ourselves first, or create a ant-heap civilization that excludes freedom and spontaneity. In any case, most of us, especially those who are no longer young, will never see the promised land even if our species is destined to arrive there some day. Like Moses we may help humanity to move closer to it, but like him we will die with a dark valley still separating us from it. I believe that a world built on the five guiding ideas that I have outlined, might, just might, one day be established in reality. It is not a certainty. But this is a hope I can live with. It is a vision that will give me strength to continue to struggle for a world rooted in cooperation and negotiation rather than domination. It is a world in which diversity and our ability to pursue our individual dreams is affirmed within a larger unity that enables us to cooperate and negotiate at our boundaries.
Still, placing all our hope in an event which may or may not really happen, and which, in any case, many of us will never see, is a bit austere for those of us not inclined to asceticism. And it pushes our capacity for altruism to the limit. We may need some smaller hopes to sustain us along the way. Occasions for these little hopes can be discerned if we pay attention. Perhaps we can create micro-realizations of the larger hope in the small events of our present lives. We can try to shift the balance of a relationship with someone we know from being dominance based to being based on mutuality, negotiation and accommodation. We can advocate within any small organization we are a part of for a more participatory approach to decision making. Maybe we could start a cooperative. Or we could structure our family so that the domination structures within it give way to patterns of discussion and negotiation. Maybe we have a group of friends who could become a tribe through the exploration of ways they could be more mutually sustaining. The poet Hakim Bey called any such a focused gathering of free people a TAZ. A Temporary Autonomous Zone. Temporary Autonomous Zones can grow in the unattended cracks and crevices of our society – when nobody is looking. They always require that the old mental forms be thrown off.
A TAZ is, by definition, temporary. Why? Why must they always be little Camelots, containing at their inception the seeds that will eventually destroy them? Three reasons, I think: First, all living forms have a natural life span. A TAZ, like any social entity, is a living form. It is an organism. Second, a TAZ will generally be somewhat short lived because most people do not have the skills needed to sustain a group of autonomous individuals in a productive manner to the full extent of its natural life span. These skills must be learned, and few of us were raised within such structures. Third, the larger social environment within which they must exist will be hostile to them and will seek to either destroy or co-opt them. One morning the members of a TAZ may wake up to discover something that was once a TAZ is no longer one, even though it has not changed its name.
Temporary though they be, every TAZ sustains and teaches us, and gives us something to carry into the future where we may make better use of other opportunities. A TAZ might spring up anywhere and at any time. We need only keep our minds open and alert to the possibilities. The dream may find micro-realizations even in these dark times.
Whether it is focused on the larger historical realization that we hope for, or on the little realizations that we discover and create along the way, I believe the basic vision is not that different that what Black Elk saw beyond the darkness and horror of the fourth ascent:
Then a Voice said: "Behold this day, for it is yours to make. Now you shall stand upon the center of the earth to see, for there they are taking you." I was still on my bay horse, and once more I felt the riders of the west, the north, the east, the south, behind me in formation, as before, and we were going east. I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.