When is knowledge “written in stone” not `written in stone’? This is not a trick question. It relates, however, to the question that I raised in my previous blog post: Where does the expression “written in stone” originate?
My proposed answer to where the expression originates is, the `Ten Commandments.’ Biblical history tells us they were inscribed on a stone tablet, as witnessed by and imparted to Moses by God. Moses’ task was to communicate them to his tribal people as religious laws by which they are instructed to live, henceforth. This event is related in the earliest Judaic-Christian documents which, thereafter, have been widely distributed, re-translated several times, and passed down through many centuries around the world in diverse cultures, within the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.
Although religious historians and theologians continue to debate – following so many translations – how the original meanings of biblical text have become distorted through time and subjective interpretation, the Ten Commandments are understood today to be `literally’ the same as when originally documented in stone and on paper.
Interesting to observe, however, is how radically different is the Western culture which, through the centuries increasingly has relied on literal rather than visual knowledge, in contrast to Eastern and Indigenous cultures which, conversely, continued through the ages to recognize the perennial wisdom infused in pictorial images.
The conceptual bias of Western society is evident in how those of us living in it are socialized, and also how Western culture systemically constructs a particular perception of the world. This perception privileges intellectual analysis over the experiential and holistic. Such fractured wisdom plays out in every institution of our society, from repressed emotions within a family constellation, to mainstream schooling and allopathic health systems that omit the complement of holistic treatments.
For all ways of knowing have their value and place in human consciousness. But, our potential fuller consciousness remains split and disconnected unless we develop our innate `inner ways of knowing’ that have been systemically marginalized in the West.
That fact is why – as I outlined in a blog post earlier this year about ancient symbols – a lot of North Americans through the 1960s, who intuitively sensed something vital was missing within themselves, sought the missing pieces by engaging in Eastern and Indigenous cultural practices and beliefs, and have never looked back.
The reason is, they were engaged in the quest to seek wisdom that lies beneath, in other words, wisdom that has layers of meaning, not all of which are visible to the eye or to the intellect.
To clarify my opening question, that read, “When is something `written in stone’ not written in stone?,” let us consider rock paintings. These are the earliest known images created by human beings to relate stories through pictures.
While the Ten Commandments, regardless of language or culture, communicate the same message through time using `alphabetic’ written words, the meaning and value of ancient `symbolic’ pictorial images continue to evolve through time, in accordance with the willingness by new generations of human beings to seek deeper understanding.
Doing so may not be an accident in regard to their original creation. First of all, note why I am comparing the initially engraved yet timeless Ten Commandments in the West with ancient rock paintings and, more specifically here, the petroglyphs near Peterborough, Ontario. These examples of inscriptions implicitly communicate that our earthly existence is connected to a spiritual dimension, because both types of documents have been inspired by visions.
These inscriptions, moreover, explicitly indicate the types of relationships considered important. Note how the Ten Commandments focus only on human interactions with fellow humans or the human relationship to God. Yet rock paintings and rock carvings inclusively depict human interactions with all species as well as in relation with Spirit.
Regarding Indigenous beliefs and practices, two conversations come to mind, from which specific statements have remained in my consciousness. One conversation occurred on Manitoulin Island with Native visual artist and poet Michael Robinson (1948-2010). His spiritual insight speaks for itself in his artistic imagery. Note one of his online quotes: “I have worked hard at removing `man’ from the `centre of all things’ by putting him in his rightful place. Equally, among all living things.”
In Robinson’s conversation with me many years ago, I recall him pointing out that traditional Indigenous practices are not static through the centuries yet, instead, evolved through time to express the spiritual teachings pertinent to what each generation needs, given the challenges of each historic moment.
That statement not only made profound sense but, moreover, blew out of the water the arrogant assumption of so many hard-wired Western observers, from missionaries to scholars – and even artists such as photographer Edmund S. Curtis – who all erroneously judged Indigenous peoples as frozen in time and incapable of adapting to change. Sadly, such judgements were imposed very conveniently to justify the ongoing destruction of the way of life of Indigenous people, from politics to spiritual practices.
The second conversation happened in the 1980s between Ojibwa-Cree elder Peter O’Chiese and Fred Wheatley, Ojibwa elder and Ojibwa language instructor at Trent University, Ontario. Its outcome is partly heard in Wheatley’s voice-over narration in an eloquent short film The Teaching Rocks (1987), beautifully shot and directed by Lloyd Walton, initially for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. O’Chiese, who had taken a group of Native people to live in the traditional way in the mountains of Alberta through most of his life, and who had visions, did not want to be recorded on video nor have traditional teachings written down.
O’Chiese was willing, however, to impart some of his knowledge orally to cross-cultural audiences at several traditional elders’ gatherings at Trent University during the 1980s, which I attended. I also felt very fortunate to receive insights from elders who lived their teachings experientially rather than passing on knowledge from books in which the original meanings too often were distorted. All audiences at these gatherings were forbidden, in fact, to write or tape-record and, instead, encouraged to give full attention to the oral teachings as spoken.
I encourage my readers to watch The Teaching Rocks, which imparts teachings in several ways to its viewers. For example, Fred Wheatley’s voice-over narration uses a relaxed style of oration. As for the content, he communicates the essence of the message rather than specifics. The cinematic presentation enhances this traditional approach of storytelling, mirroring the peacefulness evoked by scenes of contemporary animals and marine life in their natural settings juxtaposed to close ups on various images on the petroglyphs. The elements of the natural world – earth, fire, water and air – also are interwoven through the film.
Within the content of the narration, something else important is communicated, as per what I mentioned above. The teachings in the rock art are absolutely not static, but rather are infused with a vitality that speaks to human beings through time, in different ways that are pertinent to what needs to be understood in each era. O’Chiese even pointed out to Wheatley that not everything is meant to be known and communicated widely until human beings are living in a certain way to appreciate the messages.
Among the Peterborough petroglyphs is a large, female image that powerfully evokes the `sacred feminine.’ As I have communicated in several of my previous blog posts, the feminine principle appears to be recognized in human consciousness much more through the holistic representations of knowledge than when depicted through the linear, usually analytical and disconnected thoughts, in written forms of communication that are ubiquitous in Western culture.
Here I come full circle from referring to inner ways of knowing and the wisdom that lies beneath in regard to prehistoric pictorial art – where the fuller meanings are not immediately visible at the physical surface – and return now to the innate inner ways of knowing within us.
What I identified during my own spiritual quest and healing journey, through experiential awakening as well as extensive research, are the following inner ways of knowing: the body, feelings, intuition, imagination, dreams, the unconscious, the soul, the world of Nature, and spiritual experiences.
We deepen and expand our consciousness by developing these ways of knowing to enhance the functioning of one further way of knowing – our rational mind. The latter is essential in synthesizing, and facilitating the expression of, what we learn through acknowledging the full range of our innate capabilities.
What I would like to note, and elaborate on at a future time, is how media literacy – conventionally understood and practiced as a set of critical thinking skills to analyze popular media – has a potentially significant, and yet untapped, role by including a more holistically enhanced set of critical thinking skills. We then can direct such skills toward the fuller understanding of how humans construct all forms of knowledge, what motivated them through the ages, and why we need to pay attention to whatever, consciously and unconsciously, influences what and who we value in the past, present and future.
Doing so can help the human family better understand each other as fellow biological and spiritual beings. Through carrying out that part of our purpose here on earth, we reawaken, and practice, our innate spiritual qualities to engage more effectively in the other part of our purpose – to live on Earth more respectively, and compassionately, in order to restore the wellness of all forms of life on our planetary home.
My next blog post will focus on a fascinating book that illuminates why and how the cultural shift to the written word from pictorial images caused the demise of the feminine aspect of human consciousness and, in turn, diminished the value of women.