Saturday, June 1, 2019

Archiving Obsessions

One of the strange confluences of "yoga culture" and our American religious past is the predilection for austerity, self-inflicted torture, and the disapprobation for things of the material world. Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that even though it is impossible to know if you are saved by works in world, the northern bourgeois capitalism that brought prosperity to, say, the Dutch was the result of their obsession with trying to know if they were saved by hard work and their self-abnegating ethos of non-consumerism and no ostentation. Thus, they acquired wealth (to suggest that God will save them at death) and they didn't spend it.

This Protestant ethic provides the origins of the vulgar prosperity gospel that nowadays measures human worth by material success and also encourages the most vulgar expenditure. Think Osteen and the rest here. So the Protestants clearly lost the plot. But what they never understood is that being material beings in a material world is not not spiritual. (Homage usage of the double-negatives to commemorate Robert Mueller Week, "'If we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.")

Enter "yoga culture." Almost all yoga ever learned in the West originates in nivrtti or "turning away" ideologies. This would include classical yoga, Advaita, pretty much all Buddhisms, most everything. Kashmir Shaivisms, especially of the neo-varieties, have a you can have your cake and not be poorly affected by it too view which is little more than another way to rationalize _being_ in the material world but wanting to be oh so spiritual with all of your unconditional consciousness. Such bullshit.

But yogis, whether they know it or deny it, are steeped in that Protestant ethos and what they know of yoga traditions either is honest nirvrtti or souped up bypass via Kashmir Shaivism or some such thing. By "honest" nirvrtti I mean there are those who don't just say less-is-more, they say things are in the way of being a better human. By "bypass" in this case I mean that certain modern views of KS and Tantra teach that you can have a "non-attached" and "spiritual" life rooted in some purported unconditional non-material reality AND live in the material world, no problem That can be further explained and I will bother to if need be.

Rajanaka takes the old Vedic view: live long and prosper, "give to me, I will give to you" (dehi me dadami te), and try not to be too selfish, too profligate, too usury or exploitative. You know love your life, and life includes stuff, all sorts of stuff. When someone goes through some purge or burn, there's plenty of subconscious Protestant self-abnegation---"we are not so worthy as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table but Thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy."

This is how polite, rich Episcopalians tell themselves that they feel guilty about stuff and manage to tell everyone else without stuff that they shouldn't have it, much less like it. We are conflicted over stuff not just because we have a conscience about the planet or that we are involved in some or another privileged exploitation but because we have been told that we are not worthy. Marx understood this. All five of them and Karl too.

If you can possible reconcile your worth with your passions, inexplicable but usually invested in some deeper need, desire, shadow, or torment, then you immediately bump into quality and quantity problems. How do you afford what you like? Quality. And what does "quality" _mean_ to you? And how much of it or of this or that is enough? What's "enough"?

Rajanaka taught me that you might not be remembered for being generous but you'll always be remembered for being stingy. Appa suffered from his generosity but he didn't mind. He liked giving away the good stuff, as far as he could. He didn't have many material wants but I think that was largely because he had other sorts of interests, largely intellectual. He LOVED books once he could afford them. There were never too many. But he was a provider and was still taking care of everyone else up until his premature death.

Appa made sure that everyone in the family knew the value of things and never ever denied them their passions. When it was time to buy a silk sari it was only a matter of being able to afford it. No guilt in having another. You might be able to give some away too. But the point is that he loved la dolce vita and wanted you to love your life too. Material stuff is not in the way. Vedic culture is fundamentally about living well in a world that is beautifully, deliciously, sustainably material.

Sermon over. Maybe. This didn't mean to start out this way. What really happened this morning is that I got a few Japanese stationary notebooks today. So fun. I was excited to tell my friends. Don't you love FB? (<---laugh a="" am="" br="" determined="" have="" here.="" i="" laugh="" obsessed="" say="" the="" to="" way="">
Some people have obsessions and test the fault line between archives and hoarding. I qualify as one of those "some people" but I don't just have particular obsessions, I collect obsessions. I collect ideas, stories, and learning, with relentless obsession. I'm non-attached to keeping things I love---old magazines, books, notebooks, not so much of my 7th grade homework anymore.

Pieces of string, especially from India, gods, goddesses, demons, nagas, crows, monsters, kids's art, notes you've sent me, lots of stuff other people throw away, call clutter, and insist you get rid of. You know, another tirade about how you should "let go" of stuff because I have and that makes you spiritually superior. People who hold onto stuff, much less like it, are thus spiritual inferior or psychologically maladjusted. This is where the yogis and the Protestants align. (And just because you aren't Protestant doesn't mean you are immune to the cultural historicaI Kool-Aide. It's in the air, folks, you breathe it without consent.)

Personally, I have no expectation that anyone else cares about what I do and I particularly don't care what anyone thinks about my non-attachment to obsessions. I just like what I like and understand it is a privilege that hopefully does relatively little damage than other things. I'm not hoarding ammunition, dirty magazines, or running up the credit card, so having stuff _does not bother me_. In fact, I obsess over my obsessions and archive my hoardings. How very "un-yogic." Ha!

I have multiple obsessions one for every person in this group. I have been obsessing over all of the poets that Robert Bly mentions---hundreds. Over all the bands and singles cut by The Wrecking Crew. Over translations of the Iliad because I'm determined to get better at classical Greek and read Beowolf in Old English. Some obsessions are wonderfully mundane: bicycle derailleurs, kinds of string, Catholic saint medals, spare copies of books that I already likely have a spare.

Another one of them has to do with stationary: notebooks, pencils (ooooo, pencils...), websites specializing in Japanese obsession with stationary. I specialize in Japanese obsessions but try to avoid the really creepy ones. There isn't anything cool that Japanese folks can't obsess over: old Leicas, Fender guitars, vintage denim, nonvintage denim, old watches, niche racing bicycles, stationary. Anything westerners made or make of "quality" is usually something Japanese love, admire, collect, imitate, and often do better. There are really really cool stationary stores in Paris. Who's in them? Japanese people who have their own stationary obsession.

Some of this comes from Bushido culture with that Klingon touch: something worth doing is worth dying for in every breath. Some is Shinto purity obession (think: sushi and hand washing). Some of it is Zen discipline or just plain old discipline that gets to 10,000 hours in exactly 416.666667 days. And these are just the things I particularly share with parallel Japanese obsessions. Gladwell argued it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something. I want that 10,000 in less than 416 days (umm, do the math) and figure all of that is a down payment on real obsessions. To obsess is to hoard time. My goddess is called Kali: time, death, darkness. This is my puja.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Trying Not to Fall In Love With Lonely

Notes on Tradition and Provenance
The Value of Messages and their Messengers

There's a difference between tradition and provenance. Or at least we can imagine one. We need more space to move with boundaries and limitations. We need to feel freedom instead of just announcing its possibilities. Who we are cannot be separated from what we have been even when we lose the threads of contiguity. It's in the space where we lose connection that we can create another.

Tradition is about carrying on, the effort to bring the past with you as you. Its sweetness is to bring those past with you too. It's shadow is their weight, _their_ shadow unaddressed and incomplete. Tradition's warmth is in its invitations to participate in pasts as if they were present. And this shadow needs to be made altogether obvious: we become captive of what has been, truculent and less pliant to learning, to growth, and change when we hold too tightly. We will be lost if we abandon it all entirely.

Tradition "conserves" and when it serves us then we steward and sustain; when it does not we hoard, become passive, and, worse, merely recursive. How can change follow from recursion? The Latin is helpful, -servāre means to keep, save, pay heed to. The reply must include accident, failure, and the willingness to pay heed to these as possibilities and even gifts.

These strike me as undeniably worthy considerations that can all too easily devolve to that drowsy numbness that Keats writes about in three short but immortal stanzas sometime in 1819. The Ode on Melancholy reminds us is that these feelings are not best relieved with wolf's bane but with the joy that is _its_ shadow. We can no more know joy without that specter of grief than we will somehow transcend grief altogether.

The Japanese call this mono no aware, the empathy we feel when we recognize a deeper, gentler mourning that comes with mortal apperception. That Keats saw this before he was twenty-six should strike us as greatness nearly beyond human reach. But he knew he was dying. There was work to do. The way Zen treats mujõ, "impermanence" is more accepting and with a greater reach towards the poignant than the typical uses of the Sanskrit word anitya. But matters are more nuanced here than we might think. When anitya's impermanence is made one of the three characteristics (laksana) of reality (along with duhkha [suffering] and anataman [no-self]), it's sensibility is that it too is more asset than liability. There's no doubt that whatever asset this impermanence is cannot reach more deeply without its equally innate liabilities.

When does tradition give us weight and value? When is it a burden we bear, both to carry and from which we might be relieved? I prefer the form of questions because answers too often pursue closure. This is precisely what we cannot admit if we still find value in tradition; closure is our nemesis because it can only be another form of annihilation, a wolf's bane for truth. Traditions that pursue the absolute---the only begotten, the final truth---either suffer from shiftless righteousness or _must_ be put to an end because they were insidious from their outset. We're more confused by these issues and differences than we are usually aware. Not knowing when to hold on and when to let go is to be human. The divine is our usual bypass so we can tell ourselves that there is an eternity that knows when we don't. Pretending we know is another false finality. We're going to have to be able to change to find tradition's deeper value. Eternity presents only closure.

If that seems paradoxical you're not surprised. If we can become more alert to our losses, be not quite so drowsy as Keats urges us, then we might avoid "the ruby grape of Prosperpine" and rise instead “on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave.” Where else too but in eyes of one's beloved? This is no mean avoidance but a path to avoid bypass, which if we let it will steal our humanity by making false promises of blissful exception. There is no exceptionality to our remarkable opportunity to experience a moral life.

Keats knew we must become more stalwart in our vulnerability, not passive but more receptive lest we yield our power to more soporific babble. The more formidable task will not banish apathy nor indulge indifferent denials, it will demand we look back and forward at the same time. Tradition is only confinement when we move in only one direction, in only one form of time, captive of its arrows rather than whirling in its creative maelstrom. Chaos is never comforting even when it's necessary.

With provenance we want to draw out a comparable set of ideas but also feelings that tradition can take only forward. Provenance moves in more directions at once.

Etymology is not definition but every Sanskritist has this weakness and too few consider how usage alone discards meaning as if there were no archetypal values. What resides in the root becomes the possibilities emerging above. Provenance has to do with origin and production, from the Middle French provenir "come forth, arise, originate," from Latin provenire "come forth, originate, appear, arise." But the -ven(ire) is to come, and has the sense of an onslaught, even an attack. (The Sanskrit cognate is likely /gam, as in āgama, that which is coming _all the way_, [prefix ā- plus root /gam]).

Thus provenance is there from the start and comes all the way, it comes through and with. We do not carry on, as in tradition, but carry forward and _towards_ and _with_. Who do you carry _with_ you when you step forward? That is your provenance. What is coming at you from behind as you turn to take your stand in the world, knowing you must also keep moving? That is provenance.

Tradition does not like to admit mistakes much less learn from them or correct them. That's not its job. Its job is to not forget what was. But provenance tells us who have been and that that is still coming towards us as we go forward. Provenance is more willing to change because it does not fix us in a past but point from the past into the future.

If we fail at both tradition and provenance then we desiccate conversation and consign it only to an eternal present. However much we might insist on remaking every self as the moment this strategy of the always be here now is interesting for its requisite denials. When we deny our intellectual ancestors we become captive of our limitation when we might actually be freed by provenance.

In the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau made this mistake. He wrote, "I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of value or earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose."

I can admire Thoreau's petulant rebellion, his deep desire to be unshackled and willing to take his own steps forward. It seems remarkable to me that he should refuse his mentor Emerson's advice in Nature, but creativity often yearns for something new. Innovation knows something more from the past and might spare the folly of believing we invented this inner fire. Thoreau burns within but with too little love for the source of his message and its messenger.

Agni is the first word and the first god of the Veda. (cf., Latin ignītus, past participle of ignīre to set on fire, ignite, equivalent to ign(is) fire + -ītus.) Provenance reminds us that Agni invented us no matter how we cultured ourselves with its messages. Agni is the source, the messenger we are seeking inside and conveys the message when we offer something of value. Provenance is sacred because without it we can only invent ourselves.

If you fall in love with lonely you'll end up that way. Please don't.

Without our offerings to Agni, the fire within burns with the delusion that we have invented ourselves without each other and those fires we cannot see. Provenance is our willingness to acknowledge that the messages we create now, in our present, also come from these inner messengers of time and fire and life's ever kindling memory.

Provenance is more than acknowledging or honoring the ancestral fire that burns in us now. It is the effort to do what feels wholly impossible. The old Zen adage puts it right, "to surpass the teacher is to repay the debt." But it is the feeling that this can't be done but must be tried, with al our heart, in every effort, not to achieve perfection or finality but instead to carrying on and forward---this is the value of provenance.

Try something impossible not merely revering the past but creating from it what you imagine could be. When we live in between what is and who we hope to be then we have found the seam between tradition and provenance. That is a space we might seek in both memory and the present if there is to be a future worth living.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Letter composed on 9.11.2001

I wrote this to friends on the day the Towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, the fields of Pennsylvania left more death---and America began its own Mahabharata.

Brothers and sisters,

Surely these are trying times for all the people of our planet. Lives

we have not yet even imagined to be affected by recent events will be

unwittingly drawn more directly and deeply into the conflict, just as

so many have already been so deeply changed by events so far. Innocent

people are destined to die, just as innocent people have already seen

their lives end without the slightest moment's notice. What lies before

us is a conflagration that promises even more devastation of lives and

we will constantly be asking ourselves if we have the moral wherewithal

to lay claim to notions of justice, goodness, or the right.

These are important issues within the Mahabharata, one of the sources

from which we can gain a deeper understanding of what lies before us.

Scriptural resources of our tradition are as rich in solace and comfort as they are in wisdom and

reflection. Sometimes that reflection and wisdom is unresolved, it means

not to offer answers but to consider possibilities, realities, and

stubborn facts about nature and civilization.

The Mahabharata includes within it, as you know, the Bhagavadgita whose

Voice of Divinity is a call to action even as it demands a deeper

contemplation of life in every form of the everyday as well as in its

ultimacy. There is also a sober message that we might resist as

peace-loving and non-violent people and that is what I wish to bring out

here, not as an advocate of such views

but simply for reflection. There are teachings here we may find a

valuable resource not for their solace but for the wisdom that might

emerge from reflection upon them.

So allow me a moment to turn to events in the Epic as an instruction in

matters that we can usually resist taking seriously because we don't

have to. Now I think we need to take them to heart and choose for

ourselves what to do and what sorts of persons we are and wish to


First, it is crucial to remember that the struggle that emerges in the

Epic is of one family with many branches. We are one humanity and yet

we have different mothers and fathers, different up-bringings, different

understandings from the experiences that have informed our lives. We

are one human family but with genuine differences. We must remember

that there is as much to lament, regret, forgive, forget, and remember

as to celebrate and affirm. There is no polly-anna-ish vision of

spiritual goodness in the Mahabharata: good people make serious mistakes

and are admonished to learn by acknowledging them and turning to a

deeper reality, one of Divine Goodness in the Self. We are born of God

and born to uncover that Divinity in our hearts. That, we are told time

and again, is our most noble purpose even in the face of other stubborn


As Mahabharata unfolds we learn that Dharma, manifesting as the heir to

the throne in the form of a man named Yudhisthira must assume the

responsibilities of leadership. Yudhisthira is a reluctant king, as all

those with such power must be. He would prefer transcendence and

retirement to worldliness and engagement. He seeks the noble purposes

and goals of human life. And yet as the Epic evolves he is drawn deeper

and deeper into his responsibility as King, as the leader of the Pandava

branch of the family, and the leader of civilization itself.

Civilization, we learn, is the only context in which we can uncover our

common humanity and reveal our essential and common divinity. Without

civilization we are as less than animals: surviving merely to eat and to

persist without higher or nobler aims.

Duryodana, his cousin and adversary, believes he and his side of the

human family have been disinherited unjustly and that their portion of

the kingdom cannot suffice to satisfy their claim on all of it. Despite

the entreaties of his father, Dhrtarastra, Duryodana ultimately rejects

Yudhisthira's final request for peace, just five villages in which to

live in obscurity. Duryodana will settle for nothing less than the

destruction of his cousins. He seeks to deny them life itself, the very

right to be.

We can wonder how people, such as Duryodana, come to such destructive,

dare I say, evil aspirations. For to deny others the right to live, to

be, is indeed at least some definition of evil, as is the hope to make

others' lives as miserable as possible to satisfy one's own interests.

Evil has more than one face, more than one form, just as does the

Divine. It is difficult to comprehend Duryodana's "irrationality" but he

seeks first to terrorize his cousins and then to destroy them finally,

unequivocally, without mercy or care for the destruction he may bring to

his own people. (The episode of the cattle raid during the Pandava

exile, in which Duryodana and his lot come to disturb even the withdrawn

lives of their cousins, is indeed "terror" made manifest, even if it

fails and backfires against them. The Pandava end up saving their

terrorist cousins and retreat again to the forest to serve their term in

hopes of peace.)

How can such devastating evil arise and sustain itself? Doesn't

Duryodana know that he will bring upon himself and those he loves even

more pain and devastation?

Mahabharata makes clear that desire, fear, anger, hatred, and delusion

can indeed infect a human heart and that as they grow and mutate, they

seek to perpetuate themselves at whatever cost to that heart. Evil is a

cancer, a virus, a reality defined as that which self-destructs even as

it seeks to foster its own presence in its host. Evil is a corruption

of the Goodness that is the Heart, a corruption that is permitted

because human spirits are free to choose and to manifest the conditions

that permit its growth because we are made Free. But it is plain as

well that Mahabharata does not always consider "redemption" possible in

this civilized world if the contagion of evil has reached a stage of

growth in which its course is sure

self-destruction. No, like cancer in advanced stages, unfortunately

not detected when less violent or drastic means might have prevented its

spread, the Mahabharata offers in Duryodana the example of an evil that

must be rooted out before it destroys that which gives civilization its


And so we turn again to Yudhisthira who is responsible not only for

nurturing and protecting the good but facing those situations in which

there is no alternative but to face the reality that evil will not

contain itself. We admire Yudhisthira's constant hope for peace and

reconciliation, hi willingness to turn his cheek and to accept

responsibility for the injustices his own family has perpetrated against

their cousins. We wonder how far he will go in making amends, how

deeply his instincts for peace and non-violence will serve his family's

interests, how far he is willing to go to protect what is rightfully

theirs. Yudhisthira ponders and reflects; he often appears indecisive

for his patience. But he understands, certainly better than any of his

brothers and perhaps even his elders, that as soon as he acts to counter

the threat of genuine evil taken root, he runs the risk of becoming that

evil or, at least, succumbing to the moral bankruptcy that expends

whatever goodness motivated his actions. In short, Yudhisthira knows

that cutting out the cancer of this evil will cost him and his family

their dignity, their moral claims to goodness; he knows that he will

kill innocents even as he seeks to destroy only that which is bent upon

the destruction of his family. He knows that by "winning" he will lose

some part of himself. He knows that by "losing" he puts at risk the

very notion of civilization itself. He knows that it is possible to

co-exist, to live in difference and with difference, that we need not

agree to agree that we all have the right to live. He wonders why

others cannot share this conviction.

Mahabharata presents a reality that accepts the possibility that others

may insist their differences are irreconcilable, that some may reach the

point of conviction and action in which our very existence is beyond

their willingness to admit. Mahabharata presents to us the fact that

their position, their vision of uncompromising destruction violates the

deepest principles of civilization itself. And Mahabharata understands

that those who must defend civilization even as they contemplate the

meaning of justice itself are not just liable but assured of inflicting

upon themselves the curse of acting in uncivilized ways.

There are no "good guys" in the Epic, not in the sense of untainted

warriors whose principles remain uncompromised by their deeds. No,

everyone and especially Yudhisthira is morally compromised. And yet

Krishna ( a deity) insists that Yudhisthira act as he does, that he not

allow the evil that has arisen---even if he, Yudhisthira has helped

create it and is, at least in part, guilty of creating it---to sit by

idly and accept his own destruction. Krishna insists that the Pandava

have a right to life itself and that they not, in the contemplation of

their own creation of the evil of their cousins and their complicity in

their oppression, fail to understand their grim duty.

There is no glory in the Epic's war. It is war in the truest sense of

irreconcilable differences resolved by violent means and unremitting

will. It is painful, horrible, ugly: the longest book of the

Mahabharata, the sixth, is called ironically the "Shanti parva," the

book of "peace" because here begins the war and the nearly endless

descriptions of devastation and battlefields strewn with innocents as

well as warriors.

Throughout Mahabharata we need to take note of a few persistent points

of contemplation:

* Yudhisthira never takes delight in the destruction of his enemies,

even as he realizes that there can be such a thing as an enemy. Instead

he is sobered by the ways his own dignity and goodness are invariably

compromised. He constantly seeks peace even in the midst of war.

* It is wrong, plain wrong, to allow the contagion of evil to persist.

Even as we seek to foster the cures for such evil in ourselves and

others, we cannot allow it to wreak its havoc. The Mahabharata is not

passivist nor does it wholly reject violence as a "solution." Instead

it means to explore the implications of the moral compromises that

violence as a solution will bring to those who seek justice. It means to

point out how it is possible to discern the difference between

justice and vengeance or terror.

We as an American nation are on the brink of this last stage of moral

compromise in which we will certainly have no unequivocal or untainted

claim to being the just or the "good guys." That could not be plainer

to me. Let us pray that we retain some deeply rooted and serious

capacity to reflect upon our moral responsibilities. Surely the

American nation will act and respond to this horror with violence. I do

not mean either to exalt or condemn such a response but merely to

suggest that we have sources that enable us to reflect upon violence as

a course of action. Less clear to me is how we Americans will avoid

triumphalism and prevent our banners, our flags from becoming symbols of

vengeance and anger just as they represent "evil" to those who oppose us

or use them to represent their own pain and discontent. We have within

our military power such devastating means. What remains to be seen is

the character of our will.

I was deeply moved by the statement of the Dalai Lama who has, in the

traditions of Buddhism, made clear that violence begets violence. But

the sobering reality of a pernicious evil, be it cancer or human

intolerance, is in the view of the Mahabharata a fact that must lead us

to reflect more and more deeply on violence itself. We are born

violently, lovingly cut from the cord that gives us life as we are

pushed into the world from the womb of a mother who loves us

unconditionally. This is a fact of life itself and how Life seeks to

remind us that we exist only by Grace and Love.

But if we allow those who deny life itself to become the paradigm of

civilization then life will surely not be worth living at all. That is

surely one important teaching of the Mahabharata.

I am not advocating a view here and do not mean to propose solutions.

I've tried not to interpret the Epic in ways that reflect a particular

bias but merely to present to you its ancient understandings as I have

reflected upon them. We are warned not to become the evil we must

confront, but we are also reminded that the failure to confront that

evil consigns us to a death of ignominy and a future in which there is no possible co-existence of

differences. We must somehow seek to remind ourselves that justice is

the foundation upon which we create a context for civilization and that

civilization, however fragile it may be, is our collective, human


I hope you will forgive me the vanity this missive suggests.

I find no self-importance in all of this. Instead I mean

merely to reflect aloud in a reasoned voice with those whom I love and

respect and who I believe will love me for who I am even if we come to

differences of understanding or opinion. In my heart I seek to

experience the deeper unity in which the Self is One and in my life I

hope to live in ways that reflect how that Oneness assumes the infinite

forms of difference that make the universe so remarkably sublime.

with great love,

Douglas Brooks Professor of Religion University of Rochester Rochester,



Thursday, May 9, 2019

About Those Crows

You've been seeing a lot of crows lately.  And we’ve been talking about the serpents.  The crows and snakes come together. That's the secret we need to begin with.  The snakes feature in the stories as the representatives of true source, the unconscious, the deepest and most primal forms of desire, fear, beauty, and awakening. The Hindus tells us that the snakes are the sons of Kadru whose sister Vinita is the mother of birds.  The myths never lie.  Or to put it more properly, the myths lie so that we can find the deeper truth.

While the mythologies of the snakes describe the self in three selfsame forms, the birds are more varied, more complex because they come as messengers, vehicles, from above rather than below. While the raptors soar above and the songbirds and peacocks make themselves known more proximate, crows are the birds of the in-between worlds. They are here and there, above and below but also neither because they reside in the seam. This seam, the place of in-between is where we reside as beings of paradox. We want to be close but not held too tightly. We want to be free but not left to loneliness. We want the blessings of capacious memory but know that every form of light casts its own shadow.

Those messages we are not always keen to hear but they come in the unmistakeable sound of the crow. What we can learn from the crow comes from a deeper place but that means coming close to them, keeping their intimate company. More about this as we carry forward. Mythic worlds never leave out the serpents and birds. Hindus know they are step-siblings and that their father Kashyapa is the sage of light.

Crows have storied histories as shadows, messengers, harbingers of prophecy. All of us share the same “prophecy”—we mortals are born from the depths of memory, from the unconscious into evanescent forms that must return to that common source in death. In the meantime we share the gift of life because of the dead who’ve come before us and who will inevitably join. It’s not all so maudlin—the crows coo, growl, nuzzle, and love deeply. We rarely hear those intimate conversations because they are held close but never mistake their public announcements.

Where there are crows there is food, life, often in the form of death. Without the carrion-eaters the world of food—always rife with danger— is even less safe, less pure, less “clean.” It’s a ceaseless and settled matter that we find our way through life to death but are as much in avoidance, delay, and circumvention. We retreat from the truth when it comes in black because its announcement is unmistakable.

In Hindu worlds, the crows and ravens are the keepers of memory, conversant with ancestors, the vahana of Lord Shani, who offers the saturnine dispensations of karma. Each day before food, a pinda or ball of rice is thrown upon the roof so that the crows will eat first—feed your shadow, nourish memory, honor those who’ve come before, keep the company of the entirety of self. That pinda-feeding is done by the cook so there is no further intermediary. Crows are what we call “first category beings,” and first category is food—it comes before sex, survival, relationship, even death. To understand the priorities of the world is to see food first because we have arrived, we are messengers from death come into life, the living eat, the dead will be eaten again.

Such is the nature of reality itself—to have become food is to live, to thrive, to carry forward all that has come before. No less an authority than Taittiriya Upanishad makes our point, and it’s worth quoting at length. We learn that “food” means every kind of food, be that for the body, the mind, or soul.

 Here we go:

annadvai prajah prajayante, “…from food all living things live,”
yah kashcha prithivim shritah, “…whatsoever dwells upon earth,”
atho annenaiva jivanti “by food alone then do they live,”
athainadapi yantyantatah “and to food in the end they return,”
annam hi bhutanam jyeshtham “for food alone is the eldest, ‘most victorious’, of beings,”
tasmat sarvaushadhamuchyate “this is why it is called ‘the medicine for all,”
sarvam vai te annamapnuvanti ye annam brahmopasate “for those keeping food close as the Creative obtain all food,”
annam hi bhutanam jyeshtham “for food is the ‘most victorious’, the eldest of beings,”
tasmat sarvaushadhamuchyate “this is why it is called ‘the medicine for all,”
annad bhutani jayante “from food creatures are born,”
jatanyannena vardhante “by food when born they grow,”
adyate atti cha bhutani tasmadannam taduchyata iti. “because it is eaten and because it eats beings, this is why it is called ‘food.’” (TU, 2.1)

We feed the crows to feed ourselves, especially those parts of ourselves we cannot remember or choose to forget. We feed the crows so that they will leave and come back everyday. We may not always welcome their messages but without them we starve in only the light, we cannot rest deeply in the darkness that restores us because we must close our eyes to rest. The crows watch while we sleep in the unconscious, wander in dreams, digest the food of thought and feeling to transform it into more memory.

Of course, we fear our memories as much as we treasure them; we lose more than we ever can recall but the crows bring them back and forth from the immense serpentine self that resides below. All medicines put us at risk, for what heals and nourishes challenges and includes some or another toxicity that we must also assimilate. The crows are our shadow messengers and when they appear, when we hear them caw, we need to come closer, to become them so that the songs of intimacy that coo and growl can be heard and shared.

Crows, like selves, come in threes. When you see two in a tree, look for the third usually feeding not the dangerous below. But they are like the star of the same name (3 Corvi) because they appear as one, like the self in its triadic singularity: I’m not you, I’m like you, I’m nothing but you. As the messengers of Apollo, the crow is perched on the back of the snake Hydra where it cannot be eaten because it has decided that this most dangerous place is the safest place from which to see more. The Greeks also tell us that the crow may even take the rare white form to dispel some of that serpentine anxiety: the messenger does not, after all, always presage dark news. 

None of like to “eat crow,” that is, to acknowledge that our certainties have failed, that our claims have been overwritten by time or circumstance or some other better truth.

We become twice-eaters because the crows have already eaten, whether that is the fresh rice of the day on the sun burnt rooftop or the carrion that comes day or night. But it’s when we become twice-eaters of light and shadow that we alchemize into greater souls, nourished by the cycles of death and rebirth in each breath.

There's more because the archetypes carry across multiple cultures and many, many histories. I'll be writing about this more than you can stand. You know being a crow and a serpent every now and then.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sarpa, Ahi, & Naga, On Being Your Serpentine Self

Be yourself.

How many times have you heard this one, followed up by the joke ‘cause ya’ can’t be anyone else?

Advaita Vedanta wants you to know that you’ve always been and only been yourself and that any experience that compares selves or even claims to comprehend self is, you know, some sort of mistake.  The One True Self cannot apparently tolerate that it might have broken, missing, or extra selves. The Buddhists insist you’ve never been a yourself except maybe in some sort of heuristic imagination, and so self is a device meant to remind you that you’ve never been yourself ever.  You're a collection of impressions created by impressions that have collected even before any you appeared.  There's genius in this but the story might just be starting here rather than finishing.
Being yourself is no small matter.  Of all the people you have to live with, yourself comes first because it's there even before you are and last because it is always the next self you experience.  We slither and slide through self because what we invent makes us and that we have been invented is why we seek ourselves.  We call this process of skidding and skating the serpentine self.  

Here are three Rajanaka sutras meant to create some perspective and also demand a little thinking about that serpentine self.  The key terms here are all Sanskrit words for "snake" but each has a different sensibility, as we will see.  What each suggests is that a life of deep engagement---let's call that "yoga"---is created by three serpentine facts: crisis, anxiety, and invited discomfort.  Now before you run away in the other direction as fast as possible, let's make a few things clear.  Such a serpentine self doesn't cast us out of the garden or reduce us to a problem.  Nothing about these facts of life consign us to helplessness, horror, or failure.  Rather, a life of yoga, living in the serpentine self means that these vulnerabilities, these facts about our self, hold within them possibilities, the best being that we might thrive. This is possible not despite our nature but with it, through it, and in deeper relationships of choice and chance.  We are, after all, mortal beings looking to find our way through the world and whatever else we imagine ourselves to be depends on our willingness to create narratives that contend with facts as we tender further possibilities.

Your self is always in crisis when you’re paying attention.

Being yourself can feel easy, natural, and fluent. But there are two very different orders of experience that create such impressions of repose and security. The first involves having ordinary needs met without having to be attentive to all that might otherwise become precipitously catastrophic. If that is your only experience don’t expect the serpentine self to flourish. It may have trouble even surviving and that’s assuredly a problem. The other order of crisis experience is keenly aware that every moment of comfort and contentment is real because it is evanescent, because the impression of safety is necessarily elusory. Whatever you are enjoying now can in another moment become the source of danger or misery.  To cultivate our more evasive and subtle selves we’ll need more sarpa-drishti, that's the “serpent’s sight.” It’s called “serpent sight” because the serpent, the sarpa, uses all of its senses to see, every part of itself to experience change---even while remaining wholly still. When we are vigilantly attentive to change, collecting the dynamics of somatic and emotional life, we aver catastrophe by making every contingency feel conventional. This is not because we have arrested the self in crisis but because we have attended to it. It is not because we have reduced the self to some impervious or invulnerable state but rather have made more selves, more ways of seeing how near the crisis needs to be. We learn to move in the crisis, with the crisis, we begin to see that the self is itself made of crisis that fends off catastrophe and tries to make that look and feel easy even when it is not. We’re not going to evade our crisis because that would be avoiding ourselves, our very nature.  But instead we are going to create the means to engage it, to engage ourselves. With what? How? We going to need to inhabit a greater sense of the power of consciousness to meet itself. You are that sarpa, that serpent in the garden of consciousness. You are not alone there because you live there with all of your selves, including the ones hidden from you, the selves of light and shadow. You live with friends and enemies too, with possibilities and much that has already been decided, like it or not. As Voltaire reminds us, you’re going to need to tend your garden. It’s there in that garden, being those selves that makes everything grow: it is what you plant, what has planted itself, and all that needs tending. There’s a snake in your garden, it’s you. Try not to be too afraid. You’ll need to know when. You'll need the courage to be yourself just to be yourself.

The crisis of being yourself makes you anxious.

Another word for the sarpa, the serpent, is ahi. That’s right: angst, anxiety, and so back to the serpentine self.  More cousin words from Sanskrit to English.  The serpent doesn’t merely possess anxiety, it is anxiety. The difference between being enervated by the anxious self and empowered by it makes all the difference a difference can make. It’s in that space of the in-between that we’ll have to learn to move. We’re made this ahi-way---there’s no point denying it--- and there’s nothing we could do to rid ourselves of it even if we thought that was a good idea. It’s not. We don’t need to repair it, fix it, or replace it. We need to invest, license, commission, and legitimize that anxious self because being yourself means you will feel yourself, your anxiety. That anxiety is yourself.  It's not separate or something else. Don’t run from it, move with it. How did we turn out this way? It’s a vital part of how we have survived and it can become a crucial part of how we learn to flourish. We have to inhabit that seam between the anxiety that threatens us and the kind that we can experience as an asset and develop into a resource.  This seam is also the ahi-self, it is the one that moves and dodges and deliberates before and while it moves and dodges.  It moves with you because it is you.  To make that seam of self we need boundaries and it is the boundaries of the self create the seam. These boundaries are also moving because they too are serpentine. They will contract if you don’t tend to them and expand if you know how. How do we recognize those boundaries? Reach for these two edges of self: you are who you are and who you wish you were. You are a reality and a dream: these are your boundaries. It will be no small matter to recognize either but the seam between them is who you want to be. That too twists and turns, contracts and expands, it moves with and without your consent because there is more than what you decide or choose that creates you. You are the boundaries and the seam, which means that the anxious self moves three ways at once.  It moves as who you are, who you wish you were, and who you want to be.  Keep these features of the serpentine self in conversation and you stand a chance, you might even flourish.

To be yourself you’re going to have to move deliberately into more crisis, into uncomfortable spaces.

The most familiar term in Sanskrit for snake is naga, and these too are word-cousins, related etymologically over long time and distant place. The serpentine self is triadic. As sarpa it’s the crisis of being born with conditions endemic to existence, your existence. Thus the sarpa-self invites us to embrace the gift of being born with all of its natural trauma and necessary contingencies. Life is never less precarious once we are paying attention to our nature and its potential. The ahi-self makes the crisis of being born an experiment in flourishing in a world that makes no promises you will even survive. When we alchemize our anxiety into attention then the self makes connection and learns when to disconnect, to create space for engagement and disengagement. The naga-self turns crisis and anxiety into the artistry of living in your skin.  The naga-self can grow but that will require nourishment, good luck, and no small amount of effort.  You’ll shed skins when you need to, when you outgrow them or they outgrow you, but there will always be another and another as you grow and shed and reclaim your next self in new skin. All that was there is still there but now it integrates and actualizes as more self. The naga-self invites as many selves as you can imagine and all the ones you can’t or won’t.

Our sarpa-ahi-naga triadic selves live in both light and darkness, they burn and shade, they have venom and constriction and cannot live or thrive without their shadows. From these selves we learn that we are each different but never separate, that what we have been is included in all we will become, that all we might be depends on how deeply we are willing to go into the lairs of the serpentine self that is made of all possible selves. What we long for is connection; what we fear most is loneliness; what we must learn how to do is live with both. The naga finds comfort in uncomfortable places because no comfortable place will stay that way for long, not if you want to thrive. Our discomforts are always an invitation to move, even when that means keeping still for a time. The sarpa says I am myself, the ahi says I am not you, the naga tells us we are all alike one way or another. What remains to be uncovered is another self but that demands something from you, something that will place demands on a demanding world that may not cooperate. That’s okay, in the challenge and conflict one finds a crisis worthy of self attention. And in the end you will find out how to live with all of your serpentine selves. That’s what we call freedom.  Freedom is what we seek so long as we are bound.  But being bound is also not a problem we solve but a paradox we embrace. That bondage that liberates is the crow.  And that's another story.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

In the Name of Humanity

My father was an architect more interested in meeting human needs than building monuments. But I know he cared about beautiful things, things he could build, just like he cared about people. Another sermon here, I'm afraid.
Notre Dame and Louisiana
In the Name of Humanity

From the very beginnings of human civilization architecture has been a testimony of lasting human needs. It has been art and the vessel of artistry. It is the art that “builds,”as the Greeks remind us, tektōn and it is of “chief,” arkhi concern. It can be pre-made like the caves of Chauvet or Altamira but what is contained within them is as much what we mean when we feel the importance of place. What we place within the architecture of human need speaks to our great stories and, perhaps as importantly, tells us a story that we think transcends even humanity.

One needs to think of Notre Dame as a narrative not only of the past but of our deeper need for eternity expressing achievement, the developments we have made, the travails we have endured over the ages. Notre Dame survived the wars and it has survived Christianity, which might be the real miracle. It is about the power of human ingenuity and human hope representing the power of the divine. It doesn’t matter what you think about that “divine” or even if it exists, it matters that there is something more than our brief, individual lives. It matters that we make something that attends to the “more.”

This “more” that we need is a complex matter and it is no zero sum game. We can want the majesty of the monument and not address the needs of human community. We can want a richer sense of human community without the monuments.  We can have both.

When we compare the burning of Notre Dame to the devastation of people whose churches have been burned down by arson we witness the inverse of that testimony to collective greatness. We see too that humans have possibilities for nihilism and hate and that these are powerful, motivating, and disturbing. When we grieve for our nihilism we show our better angels. When we grieve for those who have lost their community’s center, we find in grief the companions of those same angels. There is something about grief that tells us what matters.

With the GoFundMe campaign to restore the Louisiana churches we are witness to human goodness and care. When we see billionaires pledging to restore Notre Dame we see an old story of history about power and with President Macron vowing restoration we see that we have a need too for monuments of culture. But these matters are easily mixed up and I think they are not the same nor are they exclusionary.

What we have in Notre Dame is our desire for majesty. What we have seen in Louisiana is a story about caring for each other. Both can be directive from culture about the kinds of culture we want and need. If this were the same story we’d have understood from the outset that accidents are not like intentions and that goodness is not the same as the human need for magisterial awe.

What we write when we create place are complex stories of human desire. Our need for each other and for the story of majesty are not the same need. We may need to make art and to construct the enduring material projects of the imagination. But we surely need each other, even when we seem intent upon destroying the world.

Traditions are not built merely on monuments. They converge on human feelings, as ephemeral as they are and as misdirected as they can be. Whether or not people have the privilege and power to build great stone churches or temples to commerce or other spaces of grandeur, what we want to know is if they must have already learned to care for each other.

Architecture began before writing but as it evolved it has proven capable of telling more stories than were originally intended. Writing meets the human need to connect to one another across time and place. Architecture defines itself in place, contains other kinds of stories, like art, and invites our connection to itself and to those things. Great works of architecture want to place a seal upon tradition, they want to claim their value apart from our mortal coil. But because we are so very human, that is not enough even when it outlasts us. We are going to need each other and, as far as I can tell, that is the story we tell when we help good people rebuild their communities.

Long before architecture wrote its story, humanity has had to ask what more we want from ourselves and from each other. We’ve proven ourselves capable of everything from debased, amoral venality to altruism and love for neighbor we don’t even know. We need not exclude one kind of need from another. What we can do instead is try to feel the breadth and meaning of our needs and admit that their complexity often confuses us. What is clear is that there is always more to the story than what we can express in words, which is why we grieve and applaud and wonder at all of the things that humans create.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Twenty Five Years in April

Another morning’s come in April without you.
It’s that time again
but not how I ever wanted it to be,
There’s no right in being right
without you and me and all that you left here

Gift for gift, love for love, goodbye good day good night
another day another time to come, another year in April
It was once upon a time together
when the people looked because they knew
when I was there for you
and you're here now
but not for me to choose

You know what I would do
if I could do it again
just to be to be with you again
what I would do if I could do it again
on another day in April

Gift for gift, love for love, goodbye good night good day
another day another time to come,
because time has done what time will do
when it’s not for us to choose
before the end that comes again another year in April

Gift for gift, love for love, we're here with you
who love you now