Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Foolishness and The Kingdom of the Bad

stanczyk-court-jester

The archetype of the fool or the clown shows up in most every well-known story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This character appears in dramatic work in various forms from the “Wise Fool” of the Greek Tragedies to Shakespeare’s spritely Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Dori in Finding Nemo.

These “foolish” characters provide comic relief and a sense of conscience to the protagonist (as they do not follow society’s ways, are usually not the most fashionable, and always speak the truth). They invite us to wear masks — or to take off our masks and live a life free of labels and ideals. And they are usually a “lowly” character, and sometimes a blank slate, that will reveal the character of others based on how they themselves are treated. Sometimes an antagonist we thought was our friend will show their true colors by betraying or mistreating the fool, usually in the final act.

In Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, J. Phillip Newell writes, “The fool is calling us to be truly ourselves and points out the falseness of what we have become. He is not, however, over and against his hearers. Rather, he invites them to discover the fool within themselves. In All’s Well That Ends Well, when Paroles says that he has found the fool, the clown replies, “Did you find me in yourself, sir?”

In ancient Egypt (as early as 2400 BC), clowns served a socio-religious and psychological function in the court, with the role of priest and clown traditionally held by the same person.

In Native American traditions, the Trickster God is represented as Coyote, a sacred clown. During certain ceremonial performances, masks were made of clay and worn for each direction of the medicine wheel and a Heyoka (a mystic, a medicine man, an outsider) plays the role of the backwards clown, doing everything in reverse.

There is within Christian circles those known as “Holy Fools” or “Fools for Christ.” These are the ascetics, mystics, saints, outcasts. The Hindu equivalent would be Avadhuta (The Sanskrit word for people who “do not identify with their mind or body, names or forms, a person held to be pure consciousness.”). In Islam there are the Qalandariyya (whirling dervishes) and Malamatiyya (Sufi mystics with a staunch belief in self-blame).

The first card of the Major Arcana Tarot deck is that of The Fool. It shows him in all his youthful innocence stepping off a cliff and into the unknown without judgement, but also without wisdom. He is the embodiment of a new beginning. He is actively sacrificing his past. And he is represented by the number Zero. As George Leonard writes, zero is “the fertile void from which all creation springs, the state of emptiness that allows new things to come into being.” The fool represents what is known in Zen Buddhism as shoshin or “beginner’s mind,” the attitude that makes real learning possible. Continue reading

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Creating a Cohesive Worldview (Part One: Either/Or)

“What can we do when things are hard to describe? We start by sketching out the roughest shapes to serve as scaffolds for the rest; it doesn’t matter very much if some of those forms turn out partially wrong … In the final filling-in, discard whichever first ideas no longer fit.

That’s what we do in real life, with puzzles that seem very hard. It’s much the same for shattered pots as for the cogs of great machines. Until you’ve seen some of the rest, you can’t make sense of any part.”

– Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind


We are born. We are taught to communicate. And most of us are immediately asked to choose a side.

We’re told by people that we love and respect that we are either liberal or conservative, left-brained or right-brained, introverted or extroverted, left- or right-handed. Either/or. We’re sometimes told that these traits are predetermined – by the stars or by destiny. That the universe is a magical, vibrating world of opposites, and that we hang in the balance. We’re told that this duality is our reality. But this is not the whole truth.

Our compass orientation need not point us in only four directions. In three-dimensional space, we’re not limited to only 360 degrees. Are there not an infinite number of grays, colors, dimensions, subtle gradations and subjective ethical and cultural nuances between the concepts of black and white – or good and evil?

Haridas Chaudhuri writes in The Evolution of Integral Consciousness, “One devious root of war-mindedness is the dualistic logic of the arrogant intellect – the logic of either/or. Dualistic logic says: Either communism or democracy, either socialism or capitalism, is the ultimate truth, and thus creates an irreconcilable opposition between them, diving the world into two warring camps sworn to destroy each other.”

We are also taught that we are innately masculine or feminine. We are not told that there are both masculine and feminine qualities in each of us that will be appropriate at certain times and in certain moments. We are not taught how to easily switch from barking orders (“being the rock”) to nurturing flexibility (“being the tree”) and back again. But there is a time and a place for each. We are never explicitly shown how to change our mind, but every moment as a conscious human being – living among other conscious beings – demands it.

Even before we’re born, people start asking, “Is it a boy or a girl?” But, what if we are both? What if we are a girl on the outside and a boy on the inside? And what of the hermaphroditic, the transgendered, the bisexual, the polyamorous? Sexuality and gender roles exist along a full biological, psychological and sociological spectrum, and the idea of simple one male/one female binary pairs is a learned one. Perhaps the fact that we’re learning untrue (or partially true) things about gender might explain why there is so much confusion and trauma around human sexuality (not to mention sexual ethics).

Brain vs Heart

Even our worldviews – our philosophies and religions – are separated into “Eastern” and “Western.” We may be told that Eastern religions are all about Zen and the Tao and “formless emptiness” and are based in concepts like “detachment” and “discipline.” We may be told that Western religions are all about monotheism and hierarchy and are based on things like “compassion” and “reason.” But in actuality, some religions have sprung forth on one hemisphere and migrated to another over time. In actuality, all religions are a product of a certain time, place and culture. In actuality, there is nothing more unreasonable than seeing only part (or one half) of the bigger picture.

One of our primary tasks should be to unify eastern and western thought into a global philosophy that satisfies both detachment and compassion, both discipline and creativity, hierarchy and holarchy. Yes, we need to honor and uphold the need for ceremony and ritual as well as the deep social roots of our individual cultures and our learned roles within them. But we also need to bring science and religion into alignment as aspects of the same universe – convincing both that not only is there room for the other, but that neither can stand on their own.

A modern approach to religion should not only be inclusive of the mostly partial truths found throughout the world’s wisdom, but also shouldn’t rely on a solitary book, philosophy or teacher. It should continually adapt and evolve, co-creating and recognizing new mythologies (from Star Wars to Shakespeare to Dharma Bums). It should be written by the people who live it, breathe it, and believe it.

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