WITH NEITHER ARROGANCE NOR SHAME THE RASTAS PRESENT THEMSELVES AS A WONDROUS PEOPLE
Transpersonal psychology is the acknowledgement and study of states of consciousness beyond the ego. It expands the narrow Western perspective that the material world, the individual ego, and the normal waking state are the only Reality, and looks seriously at altered states of consciousness, peak experiences, the power of symbols and myths, intuition, and the potential of achieving optimal mental health. It allows the possibility that what cannot be measured and qualified nevertheless exists, and is worthy of conscious and thoughtful investigation. Transpersonal psychology blends science and spirituality. It bridges cultures: rational, logical, scientific cultures whose focus is on the material, with mystical, spiritual, and magical cultures whose emphasis is on the state of the soul.
It is not surprising that a beautiful case study of the incredible power and depth of transpersonal principles has developed on the small heart-shaped island of Jamaica, a tiny bridge between the "cultural polarities of Africa on the one side and North America on the other." It is also not surprising that this new spirituality should spring from a people whom history has forced into a position of being in this world, but not of it: the African slave. What is surprising and a testimony to the courage and nobility of the human spirit is that the movement eschews the hatred and violence one might expect from the slave experience for peace and love and compassion for all races and all nations.
Western social scientists studying the causes of stress in children of the Kingston ghetto were told, "I am black and I wish I could be born again and become a little clearer (i.e. lighter skinned)." The opportunities that exist for the masses of poor blacks in Jamaica are barely more easily attainable than trading in a black skin for a white one. Traditional social workers and therapists employing strictly non-transpersonal methods are here presented with a formidable challenge. Born out of the Kingston ghetto, the Rastafarian movement has transformed the self-image of a people from degradation and inferiority to a confident and humble sense of self worth. They have been described as "one of the most therapeutic communities in Jamaica," and this shift has resulted in a flowering in the arts, crafts, music, and even the creation of a new linguistic form. The Rastafarian movement is a living example of the healing potential in going beyond the realities of everyday life and beyond the attempt to adjust the ego to these realities. The poignant lyrics of Bob Marley capture this healing power:
When the race gets hard to run It means you just can't take the pace. When it's time to have your fun You find the tears run on down through your face. And you stop and think a little, Are you the victim of the system? Any day now they gonna let you down. You know that Natty will be there to see you through. Ain't it good to know now Jah will be waiting there! (Bob Marley: "I Know"/Confrontation)
Jah (Jehovah-Jahovah) is the Rastafarian word for God, and in their philosophy he came to earth in the person of Ras Tafari Makonnen, or Haile Selassie I, crowned king of Ethiopia. The mythology and symbols of a people have been shown by Joseph Campbell to be much more than fairytales of a primitive state of culture. A myth is a representation, through stories, of what is absolutely transcendent and unknowable, and it expresses the eternal striving of a people to be in harmony with this spiritual essence in the universe. Rasta mythology is the story of the longing of a people for home: in this case the longing of the African people in Jamaica for Africa. Peripherally inspired by Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey's representation movement, the Rastafarian myth quickly grew beyond the dream to relocate to Africa and came to embody the "mystic migration of the life-soul to earth and back to Jah." It ceased to be Black against White, Africa against Europe, where Babylon symbolized Jamaica and the West, and Zion symbolized Africa. Instead, Babylon came to be the unseen forces and powers which keep man's soul enslaved through pettiness, greed, inhumanity, and prideful ego, and Zion came to be that ultimate goal of love, peace, and freedom which is seen as our true God-like state. It became a universal journey in which any man can be moved and inspired to continue the journey home:
Well the years have come and the years have gone Still the son of man keeps a 'troddin on. Journey, journey on. I was captured on the banks of the river Nile, Carried far beyond the seven seas. Journey, journey on. So I felt my home in the morning And I want to go home in the evening, Journey, journey on. Journey, oh journey, and I never get, never get weary-o (Jimmy Cliff, "Journey"/The Power and the Glory)
A mythology speaks powerfully to the soul, not through logic but through symbols. Symbols reach deep into the soul, touching the darkside qualities which logic and reason merely pass over. The rich symbolism of Rastafari has developed gradually over the years, and is for the most part the result of a conscious attempt to publically set themselves apart from the dominant culture. They took on the colors of the Garvey movement--red, black and green, to which the gold of Africa was eventually added. These colors have come to symbolize liberation for Africans everywhere. The lion is one of the most prominent symbols of Rastafari. Haile Selassie I (Ras Tafari Makonnen) was known as the "Conquering Lion of Judah," and always had lions as personal pets at his palace. The lion symbolizes the power and grace of things African. This lion symbolism carries over into the unusual hairstyle known as dreadlocks. Like the mane of the lion, the locks symbolize the power and freedom within man, and demonstrate the Rastafarians' proud acceptance of their African roots. The locks are also a symbol of defiance, since the natural woolly hair of the African had been a sign of inferiority in Colonial society.
Another common theme is that of the warrior, which symbolizes the marriage of power with gentleness. A warrior is a person who, by living the life prescribed by Jah, has developed the inner strength and power to be truely peaceful. The beautiful, haunting song "Are We a Warrior" by I Man Jah Levi asks: "Are we a warrior? Let not the arrow from the bow" (Are We A Warrior). This symbol also creates the irony in Jimmy Cliff's lyric, "Peace Officer, are you a warrior?" ("Peace Officer"/Special). Rasta symbolism is not incidental, nor is it merely an outward manifestation of belief. The symbolism calls for active participation and becomes a very powerful means of changing the consciousness of the participant. The Rastas believe that the words which come out of one's mouth and the food one puts into it are of great significance in creating the warrior spirit. The Rasta diet is known as I-tal: food in its natural, unprocessed, and unrefined state. Rastas are primarily vegetarian, disdaining the eating of meat (which they call "deaders") because it is "a violent aggressive act which promotes those traits in the individual." They do not drink alcohol and do not believe in the use of salt. Rasta language is characterized by the replacement of the pronoun "me" with "I," and "us" with the plural "I and I." This has the effect of putting man at the center as subject rather than object. Rastas extend this use of "I" to replace the first syllable of significant words such as "creation," which becomes "I-ration." They also alter words freely to better express their sense of things; for example "overstand" is used to replace "understand" where the understanding is about things spiritual; the word "oppressor" becomes the much more emotionally effective "downpressor." Because Rastafari grew out of a culture which was a fusion of African spirituality and Christianity, the Bible (especially Revelations) is a powerful element of Rastafari. The vast familiarity of the Rastas with the Bible shows up in Rasta conversation, which is a colorful and lively verse interspersed with frequent biblical references.
A recent and powerful symbol of Rastafari is the Christ-like figure of reggae singer Bob Marley. Marley, born of a black mother and white father, and grandson of a rural myalman, was accidentally abandoned as a child for over a year, and died, as did Jesus, in his thirties. "Historically, certain figures sometimes emerge from stagnant, despairing and/or disintegrating cultures to reinterpret old symbols and beliefs and invest them with new meaning ..." writes Timothy White in Catch a Fire. " For Jamaicans, and ultimately for much of the Third World, Bob Marley was such a prophetic figure. He maintained that spectral emissaries invaded his sleep to enlist him as a seer. He was frightened by the responsibility, he said, but decided to assume it. 'By and by', he explained, Jah show every mon his hand, and Jah has shown I mine.' A man who looked like a skinny lion, moved like a spider and lived like a ghost, Bob Marley died trying to control the duppies within himself."
The methods used by the Rastas to achieve transcendence are the sacred herb ganja, the process they call "reasoning," and the use of music and movement. Ganja is smoked by the Rastas as a spiritual ritual and is believed to "reveal yourself to you ... and mek you meditate." It is believed that it can help one to get beyond the brainwashing one receives from the outside. Leonard Barrett in the revision of his book The Rastafarians notes that the movement was not thrown off center by the death of Haile Selassie because "the real center of the movement's religiosity is the revelatory dimensions brought about by the impact of the holy herb." He quotes a leading Rastafarian: "Man basically is God, but this insight can come to man only with the use of the herb. When you use the herb, you experience yourself as God. With the use of the herb you can exist in this dismal state of reality that now exists in Jamaica. You cannot change man, but you can change yourself by the use of the herb. When you are God you deal or relate to people like a God. In this way you let your light shine and when each of us lets his light shine we are creating a God-like culture and this is the cosmic unity that we try to achieve in the Rasta community." Reasoning is sharing the "knowings" which are constantly being discovered from the soul which has been "loosened up" by the herb. A Catholic priest who has written a beautiful study of the movement from his experience living among the Rastas, describes such a session: "The present writer can attest that the reasoning heard during sessions when ganja was smoked was quite inspiring and altogether unlike anything heard from men who are not upon things sacred, not to speak of men in the rum bars."
The African spirit has always been inextricably bound up with music and rhythm. For Africans, music, especially drumming, was the most effective vehicle for keeping their culture alive in a strange land. The planter class, and later the Western churches, were very conscious of the powerful, emotionally unifying elements in African music. Laws were passed during slavery days banning native drumming, and after emancipation it continued to be discouraged for decades. Dennis Forsythe, a current-day Jamaican sociologist, remembers: "At the age of fourteen I was ordained as a member of the local Presbyterian church, but I remember distinctly that we had to be circumspect in our movements: no clapping and not the slightest tendency of getting 'carried away' and definitely no drumming." The heavy emphasis on drums and bass in African music tends to awaken those subjective traits which the dominant culture finds threatening. "Physiologically, depending on its pitch and loudness, bass resonates the facial mask, the abdominal cavity and even the pelvic area. Riddims, being low in pitch and under the arrangement, tend to bypass the intellectual mind and communicate directly with the heart by actually massaging it in rhythm. It's no accident that all over the world reggae is proclaimed 'music of the heart.' In fact the tempo of Jamaican records compares remarkably with the human pulse rate."
Reggae music, the vehicle which has spread the philosophy of Rastafari through the world, is not a Rastafari invention, but a natural organic development. Reggae music is a combination of the spiritual praises and celebration of Rastafari with the popular music which grew out of urbanization and which was influenced by swing and rhythm and blues coming out of America. This combination resulted in a spiritual music that also voices and protests the pain and struggles of the sufferer. It is an incredibly powerful fusion, and while there are some pulls and tugs (exemplified in the relationship of the lifelong friends Bob Marley, who chose to emphasize the protest aspect of the music, and Bunny Wailer, who was inclined to the more purely spiritual and mystic aspects), reggae is the voice of the African spirit singing openly and proudly once again.
Reggae is roots music, and it is a beautiful truth which the romantic historian Johann Herder and the mythologist Joseph Campbell knew: that a culture which is in tune with its roots and its own uniqueness is then, and only then, able to recognize the universal elements within its own culture. In Marley's words: "Reggae music is a feeling, but reggae music is not the first time that feeling come to the earth. That feeling is always there with the people, black and white."
True worship is not about belief; it is about intuitive knowing -- remembering what is and always has been within the soul, rather than what has been taught through elaborate, external doctrine. "I no put me OUT of myself because out of myself, me couldn't know nothing. IN myself, could I see out. You not stay OUT and see IN; you stay IN and see OUT." Jah does not reside in a remote heaven, but on earth. He is not found in a church building but within the temple which is the human body, and the Rastas honor Jah not by burning incense at the church alter, but by taking into the body-temple the purifying herb. The Supreme Comforter expresses through all his earthly creations and can be experienced in the bubbling brook, or the song of the bird:
Rise up this morning, smile with the rising sun. Three little birds sit by my doorstep Singing sweet songs, melody pure and true Singing, "This is my message to you: Don't worry about a thing Cause every little thing's gonna be alright." (Bob Marley: "Three Little Birds"/Exodus)
The road to a peaceful and loving world is through the development of wholeness in the individual. The Rasta journey is first and foremost a personal journey. The focus is on individual responsibility and strict personal adherence to a "universal" code of morality and integrity in one's daily dealings. In Catch a Fire Timothy White relates Bob Marley's producer's experience in Jamaica: "[Blackwell] learned something else about the Rastas the following year while he was running a business renting motor scooters in Kingston: the Rastas were the only ones who puttered by regularly to pay up." For Rastas, the impulse and power to relieve suffering on this planet springs from the individual journey. It is not imposed but shines out through their living example. Bob Marley became one of the wealthiest men in Jamaica, and he gave his money quietly away to hospitals, schools--"just giving it away where he felt it should go." Bunny Wailer returned to the land, and while he journeys to Kingston every few months to record, the majority of his time is spent on his goal of growing enough food to feed all of Jamaica. Sometimes this impulse is subtle, the natural result of being in tune with the surroundings. When the poverty and hopelessness of the ghetto was about to explode into violence, the beat of Rasta music slowed down significantly as if to cool down a nation on the verge of boiling over.
The Rastas see themselves as the bringers of a new truth, a new energy of redemption and peace for an ailing planet, and they spread this message to the world through their music. To the background of the African drumbeat, Jimmy Cliff announces:
Bongo Man has come, come, come. I'm giving you the warning. A new day is dawning. I hope you are prepared. The Bongo Man is here. If you follow politicians you will never come at all, Never come at all, you will never come at all. If you follow heads of churches you will never come at all. We are going to Zion.
Click on Jamaican Flag below for Rastafari in Barbados
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