‘The Horizon’, Part 3, Chapter 22: about Taboo as a healing impulse, what biosophy can learn from pioneers and explorers, and an overview of the Path of Talismans
“Beans are formed from the testicles of the primal ancestor.”Lynn Holden
The prolific correspondence of the French philosopher and playwright Voltaire made him both famous and infamous. Some of his most scandalous letters were written to a certain Marie Louise Mignot.
In a different place and time those letters could have cost the lives of both writer and recipient — not because of their explicit sexual content — it was the context, in which these passionate love letters were written. Marie Louise Mignot was Voltaire’s niece.
Incest is a strict taboo in many cultures and often punished harshly. This doesn’t surprise us because there are good reasons for such restrictions.
Other forbidden activities appear more ‘exotic’ to us, especially when they come from distant lands and eras. In her Encyclopedia of Taboos Lynn Holden tells us that beans were taboo in various ancient cultures, including Egypt, Greece and Rome.
“Egyptian priests would neither eat nor look at beans, and in Rome the Flamens Dialis (priests) refused to utter their name.”
The Pythagoreans also avoided the legumes, while it was considered part of a staple diet by other ancient people including the Chinese and Azteks. The advantages of the bean seem obvious to us, but what made it so offensive to some of our ancestors?
Lynn Holden says, “Cicero tried to rationalise the taboo by pointing out that beans cause flatulence and that this would upset the tranquillity of mind necessary for prophetic dreams.”
More importantly, beans were used as a sacred substance in memorial services for dead relatives, “To eat the bean would be equivalent to eating the human soul and would deny that soul the opportunity for reincarnation.”
Beans have also been associated with fertility — due to their shape reminiscent of testicles and ovaries. This similarity was observed in cultures as diverse as ancient Greece and Japan. And the Kaingang of Southern Brazil believe that “beans are formed from the testicles of the primal ancestor.”
“Dirt is matter out of place.”Lord Chesterfield
“Taboo is a Polynesian word, the translation of which provides difficulties for us because we no longer possess the idea which it connotes.” Sigmund Freud wrote in his book Totem and Taboo.
In an attempt to define the meaning of the word he went on to explain, “Our combination of ‘holy dread’ would often express the meaning of taboo.”
The concept of taboo was picked up as a curiosity by Captain Cook and his men on their visits to Polynesia. They noticed some strange customs of the ‘savages’ and couldn’t make sense of their arbitrary rules.
The word taboo was eagerly adopted by European languages, and its meaning inevitably changed in the ‘civilised’ environment. In Western interpretation taboo became synonymous with forbidden things and activities.
The German physiologist and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt called them “the oldest unwritten code of law of humanity. It is generally assumed that taboo is older than the gods and goes back to the pre-religious age.”
The original meaning of the word in the languages of Polynesia can only be understood in the ‘pre-religious’ setting of its use, and the adequate reconstruction of this meaning is not easy for us.
For the Polynesians, as well as all other so-called ‘primitive’ people, taboos could refer to behaviour, places, people and other living creatures, which were either considered sacred or unclean.
Pharaohs of ancient Egypt and priests in ancient Greece were ‘taboo’, and so were the outcasts of society — lepers, madmen, criminals….
This is very confusing. How can people, who were worshipped like gods, share a quality with those considered ‘untouchable scum’?
The answer is simple. Taboo is not a qualitative description in terms of ‘good or evil’. It relates to both, good and evil. It relates to things — objects, animals, plants, places, people — which are set apart from normal life.
To grasp the spectrum of meaning of taboo in its native Polynesia we can contrast it with its opposite term ‘noa’, meaning ‘general’ or ‘common’. Taboo relates to things which are separate from ordinary everyday life.
Lynn Holden asks an important question to help us deepen our understanding of taboo further, “What are the social or religious reasons for taboos. What function do they serve?”
She admits that there are many different taboos with many different functions. “But one major function is social control, to maintain the status quo and validate the authority of the ruling classes.”
In other words, taboos create limits in human Consciousness to prevent chaos and maintain the current order.
This clarifies the connection between sacredness and dirt (many religious taboos cluster around hygiene, food and sex, declared as a preventative measure against disease and chaos).
Sacredness represents the highest divine order and is equated with purity. Dirt produces disorder, or, in the words of Lord Chesterfield, ‘dirt is matter out of place.’
“Holiness and impurity are at opposite poles.”Mary Douglas
The ideas we have about taboos of ‘primitive people’ were originally formed by missionaries and explorers who viewed alien cultures through their personal lens and projected their own fear of a punitive God onto the inhabitants of other continents.
They brought back the image of ‘savages’ living in constant fear of upsetting some superior forces and terrified of crossing a forbidden line. This view was later corrected by anthropologists who found few traces of fear in primitive cultures.
In her book Purity and Danger the English anthropologist Mary Douglas mentions an example: “The feelings of an Azande man, on finding that he has been bewitched, are not terror, but hearty indignation as one of us might feel on finding himself the victim of embezzlement.”
Far away from our civilisation many people lived in close and friendly relationships with their Gods and demons.
“For us sacred things and places are to be protected from defilement. Holiness and impurity are at opposite poles.” Mary Douglas writes. “Yet it is supposed to be a mark of primitive religion to make no clear distinction between sanctity and uncleanness. If this is true it reveals a great gulf between ourselves and our forefathers, between us and contemporary primitives.”
It may appear as if taboos have lost their grip in our civilised culture. In the 17th century, when Captain Cook returned from his missions to chart unknown oceans and continents we didn’t even have a word for the phenomenon. But we did have lots of taboos, particularly in areas of sex, food, and religion.
Now we can talk freely about sex, including gay marriage, adultery, prostitution, and divorce — ‘uncommon’ sexual behaviour is no longer punished through killing or imprisonment. (Incest and paedophilia remain rare exceptions in our ‘taboo-free’ society.)
In contrast to previous generations we can now blog about ‘dirty linen’ in public. Through exposure via social media a private mess may even ‘go viral’ and become a commercial success.
Freedom from old taboos must mean we have overcome the limitations of our ancestors and the status quo. But have we really?
There is a hidden flip side to our assumed freedom. New taboos are more treacherous than the old ones. Taboos are not fixed, like written laws and rules. They change steadily, adapting to new waves and trends that shape the conventions of culture.
Instead of living in fear of committing one of the ‘7 Deadly Sins’ we put ourselves under pressure to achieve material success. We have to ‘find our passion’, ‘enjoy our job’, have ‘perfect relationships and families’, juggle parenthood and career like a pro, and look like celebrities on glossy magazine covers.
New taboos are introduced constantly under the patronage of ‘political correctness’. We are permanently censoring ourselves, our language, our thoughts and feelings, often without noticing what we are doing. Invisibility is the mark of powerful taboos.
Taboos are big influences not only on our behaviour but also on our language. They put limitations on what we are allowed to say and write.
On the other hand, we can cause changes in taboos we live by through our use of language. We invent euphemisms for forbidden words, avoid ‘strong language’, or use swearwords deliberately to provoke a response.
In their book Forbidden Words Kate Burridge and Keith Allan, two Australian linguists, point out that, “One of the reasons that political correctness has been so successful in getting people to change their linguistic behaviour is that it has created a climate of tacit censorship.”
“Taboos drive the renewal of language.”Keith Allan & Kate Burridge
One of the big taboos of our culture is the central topic of The Book by the philosopher Alan Watts. The subtitle is: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are.
Self-knowledge as a taboo? The suggestion seems almost absurd. Yet it is precisely this apparent absurdity which makes it powerful. Absurdity often serves as an ‘invisibility cloak’ for taboos.
“Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing.” Alan Watts writes. “The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”
If taboos are invisible boundaries separating the ordinary from the extraordinary — forming a filter between order and chaos — then self-knowledge plays an important part in the process of filtering out the fake from the authentic.
Knowing who you really are has all the properties of a taboo. It is both scary and awe inspiring. It plays around the edges of the current perception of your inner world. This is your personal danger zone.
Knowing who you really are nudges you to challenge the familiar roles you play, which you may have identified with for as long as you can remember. It is therefore a rebellious kind of knowledge.
Knowing who you really are calls you to take a leap of faith into uncharted territory, like Captain Cook when he sailed the HMS Endeavour towards Terra Australis.
The departure from the ‘ordinary Self’ to a more authentic, wholesome, ‘holy Self’ inevitably upsets our current personal ‘inner world order’.
Often there are many experiences leading up to the decision to depart from the familiar shores. Hermann Hesse describes such an experience in his book Demian:
“This moment was the most significant and lasting of the whole experience. It was a first rupture in the holiness of my father, it was the first cut in the columns on which my childhood had been resting, and which every individual must destroy before he can become himself. The inner, the essential line of our fate consists of such invisible experiences.”
Synonyms for our ‘civilised’ interpretation of the word taboo are prohibited, banned, forbidden. This definition places our taboos into a zone which is barred off, out of reach.
The journey of the Polynesian term around the globe, however, reveals that restrictions placed by a taboo are supposed to be flexible, natural, and protective boundaries, not rigid and harsh rules.
What if our taboos are meant to be a personal protection, not a restraining order or punishment? The purpose of those invisible limitations might not be to keep us imprisoned for life in solitary confinement. Maybe they are meant to serve our inner growth.
Taboos set boundaries, while at the same time stimulating our creative forces.
Keith Allan and Kate Burridge observed that “self-censoring human beings use figurative language and/or verbal play in generating X-phemisms, many of which show remarkable inventiveness…. In such ways do taboos drive the renewal of language.”
This has far reaching implications. Since language is an expression of Consciousness, it means that taboos drive the renewal of human Consciousness. Taboos seem to play an important part in the renewal of life itself, both as a protective power and source of life energy.
“Between these savages and myself, the beginning of a reciprocal taming.”Paul Gauguin
One of the most influential anthropologists and researchers of taboos was Claude Lévi-Strauss. With his book The Savage Mind he explores ways of thinking which challenge the traditional view of so-called ‘primitive people’.
The Savage Mind is not about the mind of ‘savages’ as opposed to the ‘civilised, educated mind’. The book is about a form of human thinking which doesn’t conform with the explicit rules and which doesn’t have an official script.
In other words, Claude Lévi-Strauss contrasts the ‘savage mind’ with a way of thinking that has been ‘tamed’ in order to be more effective, perhaps more controllable and predictable. In this sense we all have a ‘savage mind’ as well as a ‘tamed way of thinking’.
Taboos are born from the ‘savage’ parts of human Consciousness. They settle in the Dark Side and generate invisible but palpable and effective boundaries.
While living and painting among ‘savages’ in Tahiti the French artist Paul Gauguin experienced the freedom from old and constricting boundaries when he wrote, “I have escaped everything that is artificial, conventional, customary. I am entering into the truth, into nature.”
He enjoyed a sense of inner peace ‘descending into him’ and the mutual enrichment he gained from living in a Polynesian culture. “It was, between these savages and myself, the beginning of a reciprocal taming.” Gauguin wrote in Noa Noa, his Tahitian journal.
Having cultivated and tamed only some parts of our Consciousness we have to learn to communicate with the wilder ones. In the wild parts of Consciousness we hold on to personal taboos — often unbeknown to ourselves — which stop us from living the life we want.
The only way to break through our invisible boundaries is to begin to tame one another — me and the savage parts of myself.
“One only understands the things that one tames.”Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Path of Talismans is ruled by the Faculty of the Intuition, and it stimulates Self-Protection.
When we hit against invisible boundaries in our growth process, when we get stuck in the same trap again and again and feel unable to overcome a particular hurdle, the limitation may be caused by a personal taboo. This is a hidden but powerful constraint, which can only be detected indirectly.
Personal taboos are supposed to support our growth process. However, they need special attention, because they are a serious hindrance which has already been in existence for a long time.
The Path of Talismans is suitable for dealing with personal taboos. At the moment these are unknown to you, the explorer of your inner wilderness. The taboo itself is not directly perceptible. What you can feel and see are its effects.
If you want to move forward in a certain area of life and develop a specific skill or desirable experience, but your efforts keep getting frustrated for no obvious reason, it may be worth exploring the Path of Talismans. It can help to reveal the personal taboo and loosen the hold it has over your life.
Overview of the Path of Talismans
The Path of Talismans is suitable for a TABOO, which stands in the way of your inner growth. At this stage you may be unable to name the taboo, but you can identify a personal limitation in relation to an area which you would like to develop.
For example, you might want to cultivate the experience of inner peace, or foster greater clarity, or gain deeper understanding of an issue in general. Or you might want to nurture a fulfilling intimate relationship, or find a successful expression of your creative gifts etc., but none of your habitual strategies bring you closer to the desired goal.
The purpose of this path is to identify a personal taboo, name it and begin to dissolve the grip it has on you.
1st Talismans — Intuition — Limitation
Every taboo expresses itself in a limitation. The taboo itself is usually invisible, and you don’t understand why you can’t break through this obstacle. At the first step of the Path of Talismans you are invited to identify a personal limitation in relation to a taboo area.
A- In what area of my life do I get stuck?
B- What exactly is the limitation?
2nd Talisman — Inspiration — Danger-zone
The taboo area is a personal danger-zone for you. To find out what the dangers are, ask yourself the following questions:
A — What dangers have I experienced in relation to this taboo area?
B — What other risks do I need to be aware of?
C — Why would this be so terrible?
3rd Talisman — Soul — Sanctuary
On the other side of danger every taboo is associated with a notion of sacredness. At the 3rd step on this path you are guided towards your inner sanctuary. This sanctuary is shrouded in reverence and mystery. It is a place you feel drawn to but believe you are not allowed to enter.
You would love to experience being in your inner sacred space — perhaps even live in it permanently — but you have no idea how to get into this taboo area.
You can move towards your inner Sanctuary by awakening the experience within you that is associated with it.
A — What do I revere about this taboo area?
B — What would it be like to be in this sacred place?
4th Talisman — Will — Tradition
It is likely that this area has already been a taboo in your family and/or culture. Look at your family tradition in relation to the area that is currently out of reach for you.
Think of your family members, especially mother and father and answer the following question:
What similarities do I recognise between my current struggle and experiences of my ancestors?
5th Talisman — Body — Habit
You have developed certain habits in relation to this taboo area. Your habits keep you on this side of the invisible boundary between your current experience and the experience you are yearning for. Find out what they are.
What habits do I have in relation to this taboo area?
6th Talisman — Intellect — Interest
Every taboo is tied up in a social context. Within that context the keeper of the taboo gains certain benefits. Therefore we always have a vested interest in perpetuating our taboos.
To reveal your interest answer the following questions:
A — What benefit do I get from this taboo?
B — What vested interest(s) do I have in perpetuating this taboo?
7th Talisman — Instinct — Sacrifice
A – By perpetuating a taboo you make a significant sacrifice. You sacrifice the experience you are yearning for. Turn your attention to the experience you would have if you succeeded and state clearly what it is you are giving up
What sacrifice am I making? What is the experience I am sacrificing?
B – The word sacrifice literally means to make holy. At this step you have another opportunity to stimulate the experience you feel drawn towards.
What would it feel like to have the experience I am yearning for?
8th Talisman — Imagination — Initiation
The final step on the Path of Talismans invites you to initiate yourself into the experience that lies beyond the invisible boundary in the ‘prohibited zone’. You are now ready to expand your life into the taboo area.
Design an activity to initiate this experience. Start a new habit that will give you the experience you desire. Describe this activity and state your commitment to do it.
With the Path of Talismans ‘savage’ areas in the inner world can be tamed. In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explains the process of taming a wild creature. The following conversation between the little prince and the fox may give some further useful hints:
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox.
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me … But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”
The next day the little prince came back.
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “… if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you.”
© Veronika Bond, 2017
This article is a draft of chapter 22 of The Horizon, volume 2 of The Solo System.
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