Somewhere along the way to three cars in every garage, American society lost or misplaced something important: its enchantment with life and the world. Such a loss threatens an even greater loss-that of the soul.
In his first two bestsellers, Care of the Soul and Soul Mates, author Thomas Moore dished out a large dose of preventative medicine for the preservation of our individual and collective souls. Moore’s latest book, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (Harper Collins, 1996), leads the tentatively restored soul along the magical path of a charming, gently revisioned everyday reality.
His book asks us to view the events and circumstances of our lives with new eyes, so that our souls can dance with nature, home, art, literature, cooking, politics, and the sacred in an enchanted, passionate, wonder-filled way. In this way, we can once again experience our profound connection with the fundamental mystery of existence.
In order to experience the world in an enchanted way, there are certain characteristics one has either to be born with or to develop. One of these is the ability to “be” the perceived, to “be” that other thing you are looking at. Do you have some suggestions for how to develop this trait?
Thomas Moore: That’s a tough question, because our disenchanted culture is so full of ego, so we are mainly interested in self. The answer to your question is that we have to give up some of that “self’ consciousness. So many people, whether in psychology or in the spiritual world or in business, are trying to make a “self,” to build up a sense of self as though somehow it’s really hard to get a feeling of really being somebody.
This problem interferes with enchantment because the enchanted world requires that you let go of all that ego and let the world have its own being. It requires us to be more receptive than active. But that’s unAmerican. It doesn’t go with American values at all.
Another piece of that is we’re just too smart for ourselves. Sometimes; we have to allow things to not be understood, just simply “be.” Then we can have a more primal experience of the world we live in. I think that’s the secret.
Another way to perceive and see enchantment is fostered by a metaphoric mind, yet we’re such a literal culture. Moore:Enchantment is inhibited by literalism. To think more metaphorically is the source of enchantment. One way to foster metaphoric thinking is for our therapists and our religions to find a way to play our stories, like in group therapy. Then we could hear our stories and not focus so much on the interpretation of the story but on the story telling. And of course churches have become guardians of their own interpretations rather than protectors of the stories, so playing the stories would help break down some of the literalism. And we need great stories!
And then there’s Hollywood and Burbank, who give us stories, but they don’t give us good stories. They’re stories that manipulate our emotions and the endings. They don’t let characters be themselves. So these are three big areas: church, therapy, and even education and television.
Perhaps the answer to all that literalism is to somehow nurture our children’s inherently metaphoric minds.
Moore: We enrolled our kids in a school where they could be taught poetically, a poetic diet. Everything is taught â€” mathematics, history, languages, everything along with poetry, song, gesture, and dance, and it can be done without any cost. They don’t need computers and fancy equipment, just people who are sensitive to the kids’ poetic minds, and can let that poetic mind be and not translate it into something else.
And so that comes full circle to the issue that for literalist societies, how do you find the people who are sensitive to the kids’ poetic minds?
Moore: I tell the people who come to my workshops to be more vocal. Let people know what your vision is. The people who are the poets of our society, in the broad sense, feel so apart from the culture as a whole. They are not terribly secure and don’t feel people understand them, or they feel too odd if they come out and say what they really think and what’s important.
So we are allowing just a few people to run our world, including our educational world. We need to adjust and maybe create schools Some of the best schools are those created by communities. Radically, you could say maybe we ought to do what was said years ago: “Dc-school society, educate instead of schooling.” What we can do as individuals is add our own piece of metaphor, which is: You’re doing it, and I’m doing it, and it has some effect!
The fact that your books are bestsellers suggests there’s a great hunger for metaphoric, poetic community. Have discussion groups connected around the country around your books?
Moore: I hear about them everywhere, and in Europe as well. When I sign books, several people usually tell me they’re in a discussion group. That’s a kind of an education, for people to do that together. Libraries and book stores are also doing a lot for creating these communities.
The libraries have reading programs, and story telling programs for kids where they make things and tell the stories. They’re making sure the kids have exposure to books in a playful way. And the bookstores are really now a kind of community center. They’re doing a lot more than just selling books.
Another characteristic I think is necessary in order to experience the enchantments is an inborn “taste for the infinite.” We all have that inborn taste, but not everyone is aware of or expressive of it, but it needs to be there and it needs to be acknowledged.
Moore: Yes, that’s a very big part of it, but I don’t see it much. In the churches and often, in people interested in spiritual groups, you’d expect to find it, but even there! don’t find it. I think the churches have forgotten what that means. And, when you go to school to study literature, it’s treated as though it were a secular thing. But even the so-called secular writers are very interested in ultimate Mysteries. I don’t think, though, that the tiniest portion of people in our society are even aware of that possibility.
I like your phrase “the philosophy of enchantment.” I was imagining how it might be applied to some of the problems in the world today. For instance, how would you apply this philosophy to the health-care crisis?
Moore: I’m planning a book, to be called Healing and Teaching, which puts therapy, education, medicine, and healing together and explores them from an enchantment point of view.
I have a friend in Africa, Medicine Man, who works with a little bit of Western Medicine, but works mostly with the plants and herbs, keeping the traditional notions and teachings in his community and the rituals that are connected to their religion, and the stories that make sense in the world they live in. All of these things are part of the medical treatment.
What we do here is take materials from plants and abstract them from the situation, history, tradition, and lore of imagination around the plant and then we extract it into a chemical, which is a form of abstraction just like we have an intellectual abstraction. Then we think the essence, whatever it is we have abstracted, is what is potent and will do the same job.
We do this in other ways, too. For instance, we go to India and abstract a technique of meditation and bring it over here and try to practice it. So we take all of these abstractions away from their contexts that are full of imagination and try to Westernize them by using them as just very simple things. But they aren’t going to affect the way we think and feel and imagine at all. They have no fantasy whatsoever. They are materialistic, and a disenchanted approach.
An enchanted approach would be to return to the lore, return to the history and legend. I am reminded of another issue, such as a book written by Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World, where he recommends we get rid of any superstition and legend. So this book is going the exact opposite direction I’m moving in. I would want to go back to superstition, not in the negative sense, but in the sense of lives of fantasy and imagination. So, re-enchanting really is a “going back,” to times and places where people practice things like medicine in an enchanted world.
And how could religion be re-enchanted?
Moore: Well the Catholic church had magic, and they’ve lost it. I was in a Catholic Seminary and Monastery in the days when the Vatican Council was held and they made the move from Latin to English. I thought it would be wonderful to have a ritual where people could understand what was going on, and of course, the Episcopal churches have done that for years and kept some of that magic, so I don’t think it was just the loss of Latin. I never thought we’d lose massive magic by losing Latin, but I think what happened is more than that.
What came along with it was an attempt to be clear, to communicate. Issues of religion are never clear. What must be done is protect the mysterious rather than try to explain it. I think it was that spirit that threw a lot of the magic out. At this point the Catholic Church has become very political and moralistic, more than it ever was. I think it’s an awful shame. It used to be the last place you could finally go and know there would be some mystery left.
How would you tie re-enchantment to the reality of homelessness?
Moore: One way might be to recognize that most of our social symptoms and problems are manifestations of the whole society’s problem. The problem is not just with people who are on the street. They are a symptom of where our society is, of our inability to include everybody in our society.
We have very strong, highly populated prisons, and we keep people in school trying to make sure they learn our way. We have laws than maintain our narrow band way of looking at things. We imprison people on the basis of what we call their mental illness. If someone doesn’t fit our notion of normal, we put them in a hospital against their will. So there are lots of ways in which we do not give a home we create a lot of homelessness.
Another way we do it is the very people talking about family values are the ones supporting corporations who are downsizing and forcing families to be split apart and homeless and not have any income, not be able to take care of themselves. Right now there are probably five families within my extended family who are victims of downsizing.
In one case, my cousin worked for 30 years with one company and suddenly they called him in and took away his seniority, his vacations, and added night work. His wife has the same problem, so now they can’t even see each other. They aren’t able to visit us. That’s what’s happening. We are making people homeless, we are breaking families apart, and rationalizing it as downsizing. But what it really means essentially is that shareholders and CEOs are making a hate living at the expense of the families that may not hold together. Now that is homelessness.
Still another way is that some of us live in houses-but not necessarily homes. The sense of neighborhood has diminished so much, because we force people to constantly move, and because we tear neighborhoods apart by putting up buildings in such a way the neighborhoods can’t even exist anymore. So, we are breaking apart all sense of home. Home is a spirit, it is not just a place.
It is a spirit, not just a shelter. It’s a feeling of security and comfort and being held emotionally, and we are destroying it piece by piece in the name of progress. So the homelessness is something we are doing. Those people are not the homeless ones, we are all implicated. We have a homeless mentality, period, and we just have some people who embody it.