May 19, 2010

The Genie and James Arthur Ray

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The other night I was watching an old X-Files episode; the one about the genie, or jinniyah, who makes all kinds of trouble by giving people exactly what they wish for. The problem, she finally explains to Mulder, is that people always wish for the wrong things: "Without fail. It's like giving a chimpanzee a revolver." So naturally, I thought of James Arthur Ray.

Remember this sterling bit of wisdom from Ray in The Secret?

As with so much of The Secret, I found the genie comparison disturbingly arrogant. The universe is not here to serve your ego. Your ego is what separates you from the awareness that you are the universe.

His choice of the Aladdin story makes sense, though. It is, after all, the tale of a feckless ne'er do well who stumbles into a get rich quick scheme. He has a few challenges with an evil sorcerer but things turn out in the end. Many genie stories don't end so well.

Sometimes playful, sometimes malicious, genies are usually depicted as tricksters. The genie (jinni, djinni) has its origins in pre-Islamic, Arab myth. They are sentient beings from a parallel dimension with a complex hierarchy. They also find their way into the Qur'an, where one becomes the ultimate trickster.

According to the Qur’ān, there are two creations that have free will: humans and jinn. We do not know many details about them; however, the Qur’an mentions that jinn are made of smokeless flame, and they form communities just like humans, and, just like humans, they can be good or evil.[1]

The jinn are mentioned frequently in the Qur’an, and there is a surah entitled Sūrat al-Jinn. While Christian tradition suggests that Lucifer was an angel that rebelled against God's orders, Islam maintains that Iblīs was a jinni who was granted special privilege to live amongst angels prior to his rebellion.[2] After the rebellion, he was granted a respite to lead humans astray until the Day of Judgment. However, Iblis has no power to mislead true believers in God.

In Western mythos, the genie is a more mundane magical being and genie lore has merged with other trickster themes.

The [Western interpretation of the genie is based on the Aladdin tale in the Western version of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, which told of a genie that lived in an oil lamp and granted wishes to whoever freed him from the lamp by polishing it. The number and frequency of wishes varies, but typically it is limited to three wishes.

Many stories about genies tend to follow the same vein as the famous short story The Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, with the overriding theme of "be careful what you wish for"; in these stories, wishes can have disastrous, horrific and sometimes fatal consequences. Often, the genie causes harm to the loved ones or innocent people surrounding the wisher, making others pay for its master's greed or ignorance.

Exploiting loopholes or twisting interpretations of wishes is a classic trait amongst genies in Western fiction. For example, in one episode of wikipedia:The Twilight Zone, a poor shopkeeper who finds a genie wishes to become a leader of a great nation - and is transformed into Adolf Hitler at the very end of wikipedia:World War II. Often, these stories end with the genie's master wishing to have never found the genie, all his previous wishes never to have happened, or a similar wish to cancel all the fouled wishes that have come before.

To complete the aphorism: "Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it." The message in genie and other stories of the 3 wishes variety is not that the universe is here to serve your wishes to the letter so that you can live happily ever after. It's that when you seek after your desires, you may or may not get some version of them, but either way, there will be a period of painful readjustment. And there is always at least some manifestation of the trickster. In the Aladdin story, the trickster is the sorcerer, not the genie, but it's in there. Sometimes, like in The Handless Maiden, recounted so beautifully in Women Who Run With the Wolves, it's the devil.

I've learned some very personal lessons with trickster archetypes. Some years ago, coyote had a bit of fun with me. We were living in an area where wild packs of coyotes roamed and hunted every night. And every night we fell asleep to periodic eruptions of that strange, unearthly yip/howl of coyotes, knowing that they'd found a rabbit or a neighbor's unfortunate cat. Leave say, it was an interesting and challenging period in my life. There were many unanticipated changes; pregnancy, childbirth, 9/11, war... It was a rough few years... The lesson of tricksters like coyote is that we are not in control. Tricksters challenge us at the ego level. They remind us that whatever path we think we're on it may take strange turns or abruptly end leaving us lost in the wilderness. They remind us, to quote another aphorism, that "life is what happens when you're planning something else." And they remind us that there are much greater influences at work in our lives than our minds can comprehend, let alone, control. Far from flattering our egos, tricksters teach us humility... and a certain sense of wonder.

Another element of these classic stories, including Aladdin, is this simple theme: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." Making extraordinary promises is the stuff of confidence tricksters, aka, con men. And it's the stuff of The Secret.

James Arthur Ray tells us that he "understands how the universe works," and that our wish is its command. How's that workin' out for him? Sure. He manifested some successful books and seminars, television appearances, multiple properties... Now four people are dead, he's under indictment, and he's apparently broke. Chimpanzee with a revolver, indeed.

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