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INDIVIDUALITY: A MEDITATION ON THE FACE OF LINCOLN

TRUE AND FALSE INDIVIDUALISM

Needleman cannot emphasize too strongly that at its origin American individualism is a spiritual ideal; it is not primarily social nor economic nor – in the familiar sense – psychological. One tends to hear the word "spiritual" and associate it with what we are generally familiar with as religion – belief systems, theology, allegiance to particular doctrines. But to believe in a religious doctrine in itself implies little or nothing about the state of the soul. It all depends on how the belief is held. Inwardly, one can believe in a religious doctrine in such a way that the doctrine serves the ego. Conversely, it is possible to turn away from all religious doctrine, yet inwardly be freer and more open to experiential contact with the actuality that is called God.

Spirituality, for Needleman, is not necessarily the same thing as religiosity. The former has to do with the state of the soul; the latter often refers mainly to beliefs, opinions, or behavioural patterns. It may seem paradoxical, but the study of the great teachers and guides of the world often reveals an individual's spiritual force manifesting as a rejection of religion. At its heart, at the origin of all religions or schools, there is the experience of individual presence – the conscious presence that is as yet uncaptured by forms of thought, language or social organization. That there should exist at the centre of American culture the ideal of such a man, such a human thing, is not unusual in the history of nations and cultures. That this man should have been the most politically powerful man in the nation – that is remarkable. Needleman does not know quite how to measure Abraham Lincoln, as such, against figures and legends such as Luther, Socrates and Moses. What he does say, with some degree of certainty, is that Lincoln's face calls us to the whole question of individuality as a conscious presence that transcends the ordinary meanings of the word “individualism".

There is the materialistic narcissism of consumerism; there is the psychological narcissism of New Age self-development; there is the narcissism of political and social apathy. Against such "narcissism" is placed the duty to participate in the governance and needs of the community. The face of Lincoln is not that of a solitary or a recluse. Or perhaps we would say yes it is the face of a solitary, who in his time was, ironically, perhaps the world's greatest and chief agent of action.

THE AMERICAN IDEAL OF INDIVIDUALISM

The American ideal of individualism thus links to the ancient, timeless vision of personhood – the Zen Buddhists speak of such as one's "original face" – for Americans this idea is best represented by the face of Abraham Lincoln. We now turn to the contradictory forces in the American soul, to which we alluded earlier.

THE AMERICAN INDIAN: CRIMES OF AMERICA

CONTRADICTORY FORCES IN THE AMERICAN SOUL

The crimes of America, for Needleman, are as much a part of its meaning as its ideals, and to embrace one without the other will lead us nowhere. We need a new and more precise understanding both of what is possible for us and how we fail, and a new understanding of what we ourselves actually are, and of how we can and must change. Obviously, no search for meaning of what it is to be American can turn away from the fact that America was built on the destruction of its native peoples and on the institution of slavery. To a great extent, the material success of America rests on these crimes and others like them. The greatness of America as embodied in its Constitution and its legendary leaders stands in stark contradiction to these titanic immoralities. For Needleman, though, neither side of the contradiction eclipses the others. When the real feeling, the deep sense of pondering of each side of this contradiction appears in the American soul, something entirely new may be glimpsed in its heart and in its actions. People need to apprehend what is good in America, without self-inflation; and what is evil, without self-flagellation.

CULTURE OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN: NATURE OF PEACE

The first thing that strikes Needleman, about the American Indian, is his or her relationship to nature. For us in modern society it is only in special moments that we directly sense meaning in nature. Experientially and psychologically, nature, virgin nature, is only part of our world. For the Indian, nature is the world. We do not understand the Indian's relationship to nature, perhaps because – even with all the knowledge science brings us – we simply do not understand nature itself. Perhaps it is from the Indian that we confront the fact that we do not understand the earth – and what the earth really needs from us.

Secondly then, of all the features that characterize the Indian's vision of nature and reality, perhaps none is more mysterious and frequently overlooked or set apart than the emphasis he puts on "peace". The power of the storm and the sky; the wisdom, that is the secrets of the animals and the forest; freedom from all social artifice; and solitude, the mysterious capacity to be with oneself and the powers of the wild; and courage, the capacity to withstand pain and suffering; and silent force, the power to move through nature without making a mark, to disappear into the forest beyond all discovery; and cunning, involving fighting skill and physical prowess: what could "peace" mean to such a man?

For the American Indian – and this idea lies at the hidden root of every great spiritual teaching of the world – to be at peace means to be at peace with one's conscience. And to find such intelligence requires, in turn, an effort of exceptional people working together to respect each individual's fragment of truth until an objective, all-inclusive truth descends into the community from “above", that is, from the Great Spirit. Such an objective truth may be linked with the world "justice". To live at peace is to embrace life in all its aspects, all “four directions", all “four winds", all the creatures outside and within.

WHAT REALLY WAS DESTROYED

Our own modernity, in fact, has lost its relationship to the wisdom tradition, the seeds of which were carried in the minds and hearts of many of those who came first to American shores from Europe but were forgotten in the material expansion and success of the empire. If we are seeking to re-mythologize America, it is to capture the last drifting seeds of this wisdom and re-plant them, as it were, in a soil – our earth – that is desperate to nourish them – soon, now. The question now deepens as to what is lost in the assault on the culture of the American Indian and the incomprehensible murder of men, women and children. Not only was a way of life lost, but also a way of seeing – that is a state of being, a state of consciousness, higher than our own.

Can we now do for man and for the earth what the culture of the Indian was designed to do? Can we help bring to the world and to ourselves the energy of the Great Peace? Although America betrayed all its ideals by slaughtering the Indian, can it accept that there is no recompense for this crime except to continue the work that formed the essence of the Indian culture, to bring to the earth what the Indians brought. Without that, all other compensation and atonement, for Needleman, will be perilously incomplete. We now come to the second major American crime.

 
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