Saturday, February 15, 2020

Who Are These People? And Who am I? Thinking About Imagination and Empathy

One of the more humanizing and presumptuous features of being human is that you might have the audacity to imagine a life you are not living and will never lead. This is actually what the "humanities" are really about though that might nowadays be a step too far. It's quite out of vogue these days because the academic crowd that dominates the discourse thinks that we're no longer allowed to imagine or to presume. There not wholly off the mark. After all, do I ever have _your_ experience? But if we fail to imagine, I say, that's far worse.

On these you can't do that anymore grounds the Boss can't write about the working joe and josephine, the Billy can't sing about Allentown, and Carole can't tell you that it's too late, baby, now it's too late. Gardner can't write Grendel to retell Beowulf so that the hero is the monster, at least from Grendel's perspective.

You'll also find yourself saying stupid things like "those evangelicals who support Trump aren't _really_ Christians" when they tell you that they are but you want to think there are "real" Christians or that you are and it's all too hard to take them at their word. There might be lots of different kinds of people calling themselves this and you have to sort out what's what and who's who.

This failure to take complexity seriously is seriously a problem. Imagining the vile bigot is a "Christian" isn't too much imagination. It's far too little. We naturally spend too much time in our bubble and maybe not enough thinking about what it would be like to be, say, _that_ person. We don't have to _like_ that person or what they are saying or doing. We have to imagine that what they are living is real for them. We know we're stuck in our own box and yet we have to get into someone else's box---and if that sounds hard or impossible, why should that stop you?

Yesterday at the grocery store---I always try to go between the rushes because I'm privileged like that---I watched a lot of struggling people. Not that many were much older than me but all with more evident issues, and those were just the issues you could _see_. These are the folks who slow you down in the aisles or in front of the produce, who don't know you're trying to get by, and you realize that you mustn't, you can't, you shouldn't get upset with in the least. They are hurting. They don't even know that they are an "inconvenience."

Instead we might try some sympathy, then compassion, then empathy, and if we really wanna go out on a limb, imagination. What's going on in their lives? Are we allowed to do that? Anymore? Ever? 

And, yeah, there was a moment too of potential road rage because that person in front of me not only did a really dangerous and stupid thing, they knew it, got made at _you_, flipped you off. What's going on in that sad, messed up life? Empathy goes all ways. Not just the ways you want it to. Empathy makes you feel things you don't want to feel but also teaches you to want things you wish didn't have to feel, just to be human.

Being human is harder than being a humanist, I mean professionally speaking. But what humanists do is try to teach us about being human. Or so I've always thought, I could be wrong about that too.
Humanists are supposed to be at once honest critics and given some kind of artistic license, the sort that gives permission to acts of the imagination.  As mental or intellectual acts we're supposed to reach into facts and ideas and situations and histories; as emotional acts we're trying, best we can, to _feel_ human enough to feel other humans. We're not them, we're like them, we're nothing but them all at once.

When you're a humanist and an educator matters get more complex still. In my college classrooms I do a fair amount of self-conscious dissimulation: I don't want my students to know what I might really think or believe. Apparently that works well enough because they often ask me, sometimes inside, sometimes outside of class. I ask them in response, "Would it make a difference what I think?" I'm trying to give them permission, even safe harbor, to disagree with me, to come to their own opinions and conclusions.

Sometimes I do tell them what I think and dare them to argue back so that they learn the difference between an argument (a good thing) and a quarrel or a fight or something that makes no difference because there's nothing to learn. So we must learn to lie professionally to see what happens. This is a kind of humanist license too. That we also do that to protect our children or friendships or other things is also being human.

Let me go further. When you teach religions, like I do, you're constantly barraging yourself with the inner question "you mean, adults think this?" Religions bring out the worst and best in people---they are usually a train and a train wreck at the same time. Wait, what? Because it can hard to believe that people think things you know are, at best, far beyond credulity. That's being kind, which is where you need to begin. But then you have to imagine how anyone could think that, believe that, do that, and ask why. And then you realize it's for worse and sometimes for better.

If you only report academically what people say or do, which is what most scholars of religion do, then you're likely just another academic coward. You have to imagine and then, dare I say it? You have to judge. And you have to learn to judge. It's not just something you do without skill. Judgments are like sky diving or scuba but people treat them like it's just a step off the curb or the kiddie pool. Listen up: You're always making judgments so you might as well put your head and heart into it. 

Thinking is a skill. You might not be that good at it, admit it. It takes practice. And you always need more practice just to be adequate. Whether you reveal your judgments or rather when you do is another matter entirely. You have to make judgment calls about your judgment calls. In my squirrelly world, we call that yoga but don't let that aside get in the way of the point. You learn how to imagine more selves when you are willing to imagine others _and_ take on that whole critical thinking agenda that keeps you from being stupid but might get you in trouble.

One more thing while we're imagining either religion or politics. You have to imagine the worst possible things that people might do or think. Because people will do them. You also get to imagine some of the best things people do and while that doesn't make up for things, it reminds you that darkness can't crowd out the light, that it might just be the other way around. We're in troubled, deeply troubling times: the world is burning, there's war, strife, poverty, maybe near pandemic. 
There's America led by this dangerous, imbecilic, anarchistic, vengeful sociopath and his compliant, complicit enablers and followers. And you have to try to imagine _that_ too.

You realize that no one answer will suffice to explain the malignancy. Is it their fear and desperation? Anger and projection and bigotries? Is it ignorance, willful or more strangely morally vacant and insouciant? How does any of this happen?

When we talk about the people who could lead us with some modicum of decency the knives come out. No one gets a pass, everyone needs to be accountable, there's no reason to bypass or ignore. We can ask for penance, emends, apologies when they seem due. We can demand justice and fight for that too, especially for people who don't have the means or the privileges that money buys. But then there is also this: we don't have to forgive nor ever forget. Humanism actually demands that we don't. 

Humanism demands that we don't give in to forgiveness, which is too often the easy way out. Rather it demands that people learn from their mistakes, tell us they have, and then _act_ like they have. This is called progress. This "do better" is our only honest recourse because no one---not Mandela, not Gandhi, not King, not Jesus, not the Buddha, No One---can withstand the scrutiny that demands perfection.

Everyone's got a shadow and, yes, grave mistakes if you live long enough. Can we learn from our mistakes and do better? We will be judged by all of our efforts, and sometimes it warrants sanity to say we need to judge considering the worst sins committed. But to be human we're going to have to do a few things, so lemme summarize:

*We're going to have to imagine and to empathize even when it feels bad or worse to have to do that. 

*We're going to have to assess and use our wits and look for evidence and try to ask what's true, as far as we can tell.

*We're going to see how people respond and if they are capable of sympathy, compassion, empathy---and not give in to the idea that everyone does when clearly everyone doesn't.

*And then we're going to all have to learn from, with, and still in our mistakes because not one of us is pure or perfect. It's no crime to take occasional credit for doing as much. We don't need to diminish ourselves anymore than aggrandize. When you're trying to be honest you don't forget your failures or regrets but you do try to do better.

If you can try to learn, do a little better, then you stand a chance of being able to live with yourself. And that is supposed to be the easiest and the hardest thing you ever learn to do. And wouldn't that be grand?

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Looking into Soul and the Soulless

"I urge my colleagues in the House and in the Senate: Look into your soul." ----Rep. Steny Hoyer

First a few paragraphs of sermon. Apologies in advance. This is the morning after the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. America hasn't been this divided since the brink of civil war in 1859. So let's ask about soul and what that means. We're gonna need some.

Soul? Truth is, you won't see what isn't there. Soul isn't a cosmic entity; it's not something we possess much less save or have saved. Soul is where we go in the depths of character to experiment with truth. Soul is the place where feeling and knowing converge. It is the decidedly human feat of reaching into conscience, into one's heart, into the differences that make all the difference and deciding for the truth.

When we make that kind of decision we can't mistake what it does to us. It asks something _from_ us. As the Upanishad put it, soul asks us to choose the real over what is merely preferred. We're going to have to start with the idea that the harder truths are not easy to accept even when they are plain as day.

Contemporary soul seekers tell us that this process begins with "radical acceptance." When we enter into radical acceptance to recognize the hard facts then what we feel takes hold in ways that cannot be denied in the conscious world, and _that_ is the soul, emergent from beneath it all.

Soul makes you joyful because it revels in such truth, even what that hurts. Soul leads you to the truest sorrow because it is the grief that must accompany love as its shadow. Forget the metaphysics. Soul is when your humanity wins out over all of the other possibilities. Your humanity doesn't always win. It can even choose not to feel itself at all.

Not everyone evolves their soul because we have to want to, we have to learn how, we can always ignore it. And it's easy to lose it because even the best of us do, sometimes. The longing to find and re-find our soul is the process of feeling more human and so more humane. Soul is when your humankind-ness becomes human-kindness.

But it's also possible to lose your soul. Entirely, even forever. You can want to do that because you have your reasons, your goals. Goals are a way of postponing the longer look into your soul. Goals substitute for meaning because goals can be achieved but meaning has to be made. The hard way. That's breaking into the soul and sometimes breaks the soul.

Not to worry. A broken soul hurts but if you know its broken then you can take up the broken pieces and make more. Sometimes other people will help too with their broken pieces and together you can make a soul that feels its worth. But when you decide to lose your soul or give up on it? There are consequences. It's decidedly human to want what you want more than anything that is true. You can be soulless. That is human too.

So back to the point of Representative Hoyer's plea. America's soullessness doesn't end with these elected Republicans. It extends into Fox Culture (I know, I know, an oxymoron). The soulless now include a significant number of rural whites who form the Fox Base. Why am I so hard on them? Because they don't want to look for anything more, anything else that moves them to look again, more deeply. They would rather have their souls saved by something other than their own efforts to look into self.  They want to be forgiven rather than learn from their mistakes. They would rather revel in their grievance culture and claims of victimhood than take up their soul work. Most don't even know that the soul needs work and that that work will be the hardest thing they ever do.

But the story gets worse because there are educated suburbanites and exurbanites who you'd think_could_ know better but they've chosen soullessness. Why? Because they have "goals" and that gets simpler still: it's really only about the money. Meaning is for losers, only goals matter. There are no moral considerations, no matters of character that they will prioritize over their "kitchen table issues"---their ethics are purely transactional and amenable to Trumpism's soullessness because they care more about money than anything else. They have personal goals, goals for their families, and nothing else has priority. This is why the Republican Party is a pathology and, more dangerously, a political force in an America that has lost its way.

All is not lost. We can look for America's soul when we look into our own and ask what more we want from life that makes ourselves a gift to others and to those deeper feelings of truth. It's the long way home.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

So? "Hwaet" or Wait, what? He Said That?

"Hwaet" or Wait, what? He Said That? So?

Say "hwaet" as if you were saying "wait," only a little breathy to start. Hwaet is the first word of Beowulf. The whole line reads in the original like this:

Hwaet wē Gār-Dena in geā-dagum, p(th)ēod-cyininga p(th)yrm gefrūnon, hū dā-aep(th)lingas ellen fremedon. 

You can figure out a slim bit of what it means, just sort of sound it out, that's the first trick to reading Old English. There's an even better way. Take three long shots of any Irish or Scots-Gaelic whisky, let the feeling go directly from the warm rush in your brain to your tongue, and you will be realizing that "whisky" is really the older word "uisce" from which we get, yes, you guessed it "water." Thus drinking whisky is drinking water. My father thought that.

If you take a few more shots sitting beside, say, the River Usk in Britain and you might as well be anywhere because you'll be teetering happily beside the River Uisce, which is in the modern tongue is the River Whisky. I was sitting not beside that river but in it about half way down a bottle of Jameson while reading three books. But all of this is to say that reading Old English begins to happen when you say the sounds on the page as if you've had a few too many. Or just have a few too many and read Beowulf, which is what I was doing late last night or really very early this morning. Either way. You may need a few other tricks to work out the intricacies of phonology and syntax, but I assure you it's easier than Vedic or Tocharian B.

Translating from English to English, Our Poem begins: "Wait. The Spear-Danes in bygone days, and their ruling kings of courage and greatness, We've heard of those princes' heroic campaigns."

There are a lot of interesting words here but let's just look at how the text begins. Usually "hwaet" is translated something like "behold" or "lo". I hate it when translators regress into Anglican Book of Common Prayer speech to try to capture the dignified tones of Downtown Abbey. Really, we can do better than that.

'Hwaet' can mean 'listen up', 'attend here', or even lookie here, yo. It's not quite 'hey, numb nut!" If we compare it then, hwaet, it's functioning not unlike the way the word "atha" often behaves in Sanskrit. Words can behave and misbehave but that is another essay entirely. In fact, 'hwaet' is doing two different things at the same time, which is why it does indeed function more like Sanskrit's "atha" and less like other exclamations like "bho". (You often find 'bho bho' in Sanskrit as an exclamation that both means to cheer something and as a way of getting someone's attention, the way we might use "yo!" on the streets of Jersey.)

Hwaet functions in these multiple ways too, that is, it means to cheer, to call you to attention, and to invite you to something worthy of your being excited, interested, usually for better not for worse. Hwaet, like atha, portends something that is asking something _from_ you and _of_ you, not just taking up space. But there is also tad more going on here.

My daughter Charlotte was the first in our family to do the, "Wait. What?" as manner of pausing to think, to be stunned, offer a deer in the headlights look, express being confounded or a bit confused about what just happened or was said. Thus, "wait." means I need to stop for a second and rethink, revise, express incredulity, doubt, wonder, wtf-ness. The "what" gets in both the content of what and the wtf-ness of what _I think you just said_. All of this might be my imaginings of some millennial affectation but it's now all standard faire in our house.

Wait. What? Someone says something that causes the need for delay and punctuation, as if something happened, we are not quite sure what, and need to express both doubt and our own introverted shock. We wonder if we are on the spectrum or if the world could possibly be what we just thought we heard. The wonder of all is directed outwardly towards the wtf-just-happened part and inwardly to the I-think-I-didn't-get-that-but-if-I-did-then-wtf part. 

Where this comes back atcha' in Beowulf's "hweat" it is dialectically like a streets of Jersey argot I would hear in my youth. When someone would say something that was supposed to have been important or meaningful we would stop them in their tracks and stop ourselves too. We'd say in reply, "So?" Not as a declaration of pause only, which is how Heaney wants us to take 'hwaet' to arrest and thereby obliterate all previous narrative before going forward but also with something like the need for more. "So?" includes a bit of confrontation, which may not be in Beowulf except as an underbelly of danger, but danger is always in the game, anywhere. Thus---this being another kind of 'hwaet' where we are being both stopped and being told urgently to keep going. Listen and Go, at the same time.  We are being confronted but, you know, in a good way.

So? Someone would say something like, "You know, it's gonna be cold on Sunday..." And taking the "you know" to be yet another version of 'hwaet', you'd say in reply, "So?" Meaning, that's important because? I should stop and think about that coldness for a reason? Why are you telling me this? I think all of this is also included in Beowulf's "Hwaet." Now it's not nearly as elegant to put the question mark after the "So." So?

I think Heaney is right when he says that the word means to stop us in our tracks. But I think it's also working like an ellipsis or even a question, that is it is literally waiting for the next sentence, it's got anticipation too, so not just a stop sign. It's a then, an atha. Heaney puts down the period and thus: "So. The Spear-Danes..." But like Sanskrit's "atha" (think: atha yoganuśāsanam), we actually not supposed to stop the previous narratives (i.e, the things we are supposed to know beforehand), but rather include them. Meaning "take all of what came before up to this point and NOW go forward" is closer to the sense.

But Heaney isn't wrong that sumthin'big is about to be said  (invoke Tom Petty's voice here to get the proper effect) and we are being called to attention and asked if we know about that. It's the ask that is coming with the 'hwaet'. There's more coming, we're not being halted only. Read it: "So? You know those Spear-Dane Kings, well, I got something here for you..." You would have to already know something about spears and their bit with Danes and their Kings, and off we go. Just like "atha" means "now" both in the sense of 'you _are_ ready for this even though it makes you wait..." and 'are you ready for this? 'cause incoming!'

Hwaet.
Who am I to argue with the great Seamus Heaney and his "big voiced Scullions" whose every utterance was closer to a pronouncement from Scripture quoting the Lord Almighty than it was a mere sentence. But I think he might take up the idea that being stopped in your tracks is not only meant to arrest all as you begin something of Great Import. It is also to be confounded, be-wondered, lost a bit in what just happened and asking for more, asking itself, being asked to bring the past forward, being asked to see how the future will change the present if you create an opening, how what comes next is just as important as being halted to pay attention to the moment. Wait. What? What did he just say? Right. Like that.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Learning to Dream Yourself into Being

A student asked me a question today that drifted into personal matters, the sort that I usually try to deflect, at least at the University. I try not to let on too much about myself or my personal reasons for study---they should learn the history of religions and take what they want for themselves without my personal bias known to them. This way they don't feel any compulsion to approve of my opinions or deal with my overt bias, they should be able to think and express themselves without fear of offending my bias. I'm not saying that I don't have bias. I'm saying that they should not fear not to share my bias.

The question was how did I choose the study of India at such a young age (I was 18 and think now how late I was to the dream...)  But a life of language and literature, art and philosophy, and especially India's religions--- and what possessed me to go to India and accept the invitation to take up a life of cultural immersion, stay so long away from home, live like that?  And then on to what seems to be nothing less than obsession with literacy and studies in language, literature, philosophy in the west, without much reference to my academic speciality.  She put all of this out there and seemed determined to wait for an answer.

What prompted the question?  Well, I had been talking about how much of the mythological material we have been learning is not in printed sources, that comes from oral traditions. How did I gain access to that material, to the world that created those stories? This led to some explanation of how I came to learn from Appa and the further connections that arose came from those experiences. I had also mentioned in passing that I am going to teach the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings in my course next semester on comparative mythologies---eyes lifted, smiles all 'round.

My answer will not likely surprise but I thought you might find it, maybe, amusing.

We're all dreamers, sooner or later. What we dream isn't pure self-invention and that's where we must start. We come into the world in fact made by other people's dreams and hopes and aspirations and decisions and choices, successes and failures. We are made well before we begin to make ourselves because history and circumstance, context and culture, happenstance and structural facts invent us before we begin any process of breaking into those facts to shape ourselves to our own dreams. We're not helpless to create ourselves but we have to begin with all that had to have happened just to be here at all. We didn't choose our birth and we don't merely invent ourselves through the powers of individuality without myriad forces and circumstances in place, doing the shaping for us. Prelude done.

There's a pretty simple thing that happens once you are privileged enough to be able to dream. Of course it's hard to dream if you are just trying to survive or if you are being abused or hurt in ways that stifle or demean or cripple your dreaming. So you need some of The Lucky to be a dreamer at all. Maybe a lot of it since it goes back to that way you are invented by the world first. Anyways, I can think of at least a few things that went down like this:

(1) Wait. What is _that_? What just happened?

(2) _That_ is cool, I think I really love _that_.

(3) Wait. You mean you could _do_ that? Because here it is, being done.

(4) I really really _want_ to do _that_. If they did that, could I do that?

(5) I'm going to do _that_ and nothing is going to stop me.

If you can figure out what makes this happen for you then you are beginning to learn how to dream and how to dream yourself into a life of living dreams. It's not the same as making a career or a living. It's about deciding who you want to be because your dreams decide that at least as much as all the rest you have to do to live.

Let me give you a few of my own personal benchmarks for the Dreamer's Dream.

---I was seven years old when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. That night I said to myself: THAT is what I want to be able to do.

---At 12 I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Everything changed. There were worlds of language and learning, power and conflict, goodness, friendship, love, loss, evil, pain, imagination, myth. And they weren't literal Christian nonsense. Myth became as meaningful and as profound as music. I wanted not only to be Gandalf, I wanted to be Tolkien: learned enough to invent Middle Earth and their languages and endless histories.

---At 14 or so, Hesse, Siddhartha, then I met the Buddha, then came my first real taste of the Hindus in art and images and little bits of teachings of an ancient India filled with its own gods and demons, dreams and artistry, languages and cultures, all of which went right to the core, to the same place, the same feeling that was like seeing The Beatles or reading Tolkien. What is THAT? You could learn to do that? You could understand that? You could want that? I want that. Oh, you mean it's hard and going to take every breathing minute of your life to even get close to that at all? Okay, sign me up.

---At 18 India was going to happen and within those next few years meeting a handful human beings who had dreamt lives and done the real work to achieve despite all the travail, no matter what the world demanded. I was lucky again. I had examples, guides, and a helping hand because they had dared to live their dreams.

The last thing I said to this student was that it's not that important what I saw or liked or wanted or dreamt about. It's only important to have your curiosity, to like what you like, to imagine its value, to create your own dream and go live that. Now. Do that now. Keep doing that.  That you are.  Perhaps that's another take on tat tvam asi.




Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Faith, Complexity, and Choice: Making Yoga to Address Ordinary Chaos

In the first years of my Harvard doctoral program W. C. Smith spent a good deal of time talking about his book entitled Faith and Belief. We had more than one very difficult conversation about this book's thesis and it wasn't easy being the only implacable dissenter in a sea of the...umm, faithful. I've always been accused of not understanding his point. I merely read out of the book and replied. (Here's a bit of advice to anyone in a very competitive and merciless graduate program: think twice before arguing with the Chairman of the program because it will put you at real risk. Smith at least twice tried to have me removed.)


Smith argues that there is a human quality called "faith" that is not to be confused with belief. "Faith," he argues, must be distinguished from belief because the latter is subject to methods of verification, can and should be revised whereas faith is something that puts us in a religious frame of reference since it is a feeling that one has. Smith maintained that not only was this the key to religious being as such but that all people had this feeling. I objected on at least two grounds.

First, what if someone didn't have this feeling or claimed they didn't. . One would be in the position of having to tell someone that they weren't somehow human or human enough. The result is that the faith-thesis becomes a declaration imposed: you see, you have it but you don't know you do. The patriarchal imposition was far more than I would tolerate.  Once again The Man is telling us what we feel, what we must want, why we do things because he orders as much.  Order is the problem, as we shall see.  And it is not one we can solve.

Second, how could one claim to know another's feelings as such, much less something ethereal? When Rudolf Otto argued for "the holy" he said _on the first page_ of the text that if you didn't share his feeling that you need not read on. I would have taken his advice had it not been a requirement to read the book. It wasn't faith that moved me to do my duty; duty can be coercive or rooted in other feelings like anger or fear and prove to be just as motivating. It may matter what motivates you but it is not necessarily one's faith or feeling in an abiding value of something sublime. Why must it be?

Further, and this may be a third reason depending on how you think about it: we have any number of compelling . religious-minded behaviors or religions that demand we _not_ use either belief nor some inner feeling of earnestness and positivity to procure its promises (or results). Vedic ritual is as perfectly faithless as anything I can imagine insofar as it is, as Staal argued, acts of material transaction, which I called then "information exchange." This was disputed by another graduate student who was studying Veda and I still maintain that Vaidikas don't need faith to carry out their commitments to the ceaseless ritual life of information exchange but merely a context of social compulsions: it is what they _do_ to be human in their world. In other words, how people feel about what they are doing may not matter whatsoever if they somehow understand that what they are doing must be done. I don't stop at Stop signs because I have faith. I stop for, umm, other reasons. Professor Smith never agreed.

I never relented. I repeat: when you argue with the boss, the boss can fire you. Unless you have an ace. I try not to enter an argument with these kinds of consequences without an ace. You can still lose for any number of reasons but, as Krishna reminds Arjuna, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do---and when you do, don't be fool enough to set yourself up to lose because that's just plain dumb. No sheep to the slaughter; follow no such shepherd. When I tried to make my impudent metaphor stick, reminding all that it was not _my_ metaphor but theirs, Professor Smith was displeased at my seemingly anti-Christian sentiments. I merely reminded him that a homegrown metaphor tells us a great deal more about feelings than claims about feelings, like faith. Good thing that the Sanskrit Professor was willing to offer me a parachute---and bless his ace, offered not because he had faith in me but because in the cruel world of can you do it or can't you, I could do it. To wit, further evidence that there is information more determinative than "he liked me" and the other guy didn't. Definitely, the other guy didn't and with the Sanskrit Professor, well, you just never knew about likes or dislikes
.
I'm drawn to these recollections today because the people of faith are once again proving that it is not faith that moves them but rather that different bits of information that are working on them to create a complexity. Complex things are not merely complicated or confusing. Following a recipe for Thanskgiving chutney can be both complicated and confusing because you can make any number of mistakes along the way. But it could also be complex if several things have to happen _at the same time_, which makes their execution harder by matrices. 

Think of having two things, let's call them A and B. If you put them in a row you have two choices, just two. If you add C then you have six choices. If you get to J, that's 10 things, well that's 3,628,800 ways you can put them in a one row. That's complexity because all of these little things add more choices just by adding them to the mix. The world we live in is complex simply because there are lots of things and we see or need or make or don't arrangements. That's order, that's Dharma.

When things fall apart putting them back to their original order is darn near impossible. Let's say you have all 10 things lined up just so, in a way you somehow want them to be. Now they fall off your desk. Putting them back in exactly the same order might take a long time---there are over 3 million ways. If there were only 2 or even 3 things? It's a lot easier.

Life never really gets easier because there are never really fewer things and, for that matter, arrangements rarely go as planned. Complexity is a real thing, not to be trifled with if you are looking for arrangements or, as we might put it, Dharma. Back to the faithful and their seeming bad faith that some say misaligns with "true" Christian values---I mean, of course, the intransigent support of the Trump Cult. Do note that nearly all of them demand our acknowledgement that they are faithful. What we might suggest is that this is yet another piece of information, albeit a crucial one that helps us understand the seeming incongruity between their professed "values" (think: mercy, the poor, turning the other cheek, loving thy neighbor, etc.) and their behavior, which entails an imperturbable tolerance for venality. It is not that they are merely discreditable hypocrites, however true that may be if we assign the matter to bad faith. It is that they have _complex_ reasons, all of which suit their ends.

Before we turn to their psychological desire to be led which is aligned to their need to believe (rather than doubt, a trait that we know distinguishes conservatives from liberals), let's try not to get lost in all of the reasons they are "with Trump." I refer you here to a fine piece in Psychology Today that makes sure we understand the _many_ reasons the Trump supporter is with him to the end. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-in-the-machine/201812/complete-psychological-analysis-trumps-support?fbclid=IwAR1pv1afrI6ylOFuRAHCJiKGU5b4-JYEILGRs3Zuba8Fbu5vMXtK98bk_9o)

The author means to explain that they are not merely deranged, that they have multiple and _different_ reasons for their choice. I find that indisputable if not at all comforting. But the author doesn't get to the heart of the matter: the matter is the complexity itself, not its contents. 

When we think the past was simpler we may not be wrong. The sheer number of different forms and kinds of information we encounter everyday has increased exponentially. And as we've made clear it only takes 10 things to make 3.6 million arrangements: now try making some and you are quickly overwhelmed by how many choices you have, without even trying. Thus, we attempt to reduce, at least partly out of subconscious frustration and feelings of being daunted and overwhelmed, and because living in a complex world requires much more than we expected---unless we have faith. Wait. What? 

Faith is the great reducer, the one thing that can re-procure simplicity, that is fewer number of things we _think_ we have to deal with. Faith tells that one god or one person or one thing can do all the arranging for us or that we needn't arrange at all. Faith tells us we aren't the arrangers, that there is another presiding agency to do that for us; we must live in the mysteries of faith. What this, of course, does is bypass complexity because complexity is real, it _is_ daunting---just go back to just 10 things arranged the one way you want them. Now we can get a better grasp of the underlying problem.

Faith makes complexity "go away" but in fact _it does not_. Faith lets us _believe_ that complexity can be solved when _it can't_. Do you have time enough to arrange 10 things in all the possible ways? Of course not. So once you get that one way you've decided is _your_ way you don't want them to fall apart. But as Yeats reminds us, "the centre cannot hold." "Faith" isn't a feeling so much as it is a way of deflecting and dealing with complexity that so deeply disturbs our sense of order.

Trump's faithful, like all of us, want to feel safe, to find meaning, or make something out of chaos, despair for a world that we cannot manage or control. They seek control, as much as they can. We all do, just to get out of bed. But the world cannot be controlled with so many variables at work at once---this being the very definition of complexity. The result is that _changing your mind_ is a lot like dropping those 10 things arranged just the way you want them off your desk. The outcomes now are chaotic because there are too many ways they need to be re-arranged just to get back to the original preferred arrangement. But it isn't just that we want the preferred arrangement, it's that we feel the chaos and, frankly, most don't like that and don't know what to do about it. Thus, the task of re-arranging your ideas, beliefs, and feelings uses faith to tell you that you don't in fact have to live in the complex world that you do.

The dissonance should be clear: there is no avoiding complexity and the world is not getting simpler, no matter what you do or say to make that happen. Unless you check out. Don't do that. What we have is a situation where people rather understandably can't fathom complexity because it is never less daunting. Faith becomes bypass because we all really do want the information to take care of itself. It won't but why should that stop us? Thus, in Trump Cult Land there is an already built in value that makes a complex world not less complex but rather lessens the requirement to address it. You can simply not change or rather say you don't because change creates too many other variables and leads to the daunting, dislikable feeling of chaos.

The kind of chaos, distraction, noise, and nihilism that Trump uses are likewise because he cannot personally deal with _any_ complexity and thus reduces "truth" to the moment, to oneness which is the most pernicious form of false order. There is no solution for those with faith in their one. To change their minds would not free them but rather _invoke_ chaos. That is, it would force them to deal with at least 10 things and so millions of variables. For many it is complexity itself that requires the reductive power of faith to "solve." But that is no solution. It is merely a way of dealing with a world that creates too many choices, feelings, things that we must understand are literally beyond time we have to deal with them.

So rather than reduce yourself to the false simplicities that let faith do the work, we can make a few alternative proposals.
(1) The world is never going to be more amenable to faith providing much help because it is never going to be more simple. Just count how many things are on your desk at any given moment.
(2) Thus complexity, made of many simpler things by quantity (or the illusion thereof), will not reduce and this fact means that too-much-ness is our ordinary crisis of chaos.
(3) The "solution" is not to reduce---the faith bypass being one of the worst choices. Rather it is to live in complexity with an appreciation of what cannot be done---real limitations---and what you are willing to do, or what can be attempted knowing it may or may not be able to be done.
(4) Living in the space between what cannot be done because we are complex beings living in an increasingly complex world and what you _want_ to achieve is what Rajanaka calls yoga. 

Yoga is engaging yourself as a complex being. That means not merely "accepting" or recognizing complexity as ordinary crisis made of everyday complexity; it means finding room to embrace boundaries that move in ways we can control in limited ways and can't control because otherwise complexity will consume us.

Time (kālā) becomes finite when we realize that infinite is, like faith, a reduction, a bypass, a choice not to deal with complexity. What we need instead is to learn how to savor the complexity, the crisis itself, the fact of chaos being the best choice. You can learn to live with the risks or become simple. But simplicity is by far the less interesting life and one that puts you at even greater risk. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On Karma, Meaninglessness, and Moral Creativity

We've been having a conversation about karma. I will not implicate the other protagonists here but I thought it might be useful to bring a few comments to our broader context.

The premise is simple enough. Karma is used in Indian thought as what I have called "the explanation of everything." When people think that everything happens for a reason they can be confused and comforted all at once. They don't want the confusion; they are reaching for comfort, for the comfort of meaning.

Of course, this meaning-comfort almost immediately bumps into emotional dissonance that leaves us in more narrative. It's not unlike lying where we always need another story to keep a story together. Sometimes that's a good thing but in this case, in the meaning-comfort matter, it's anything but, it's more like a lie that the sub-conscious knows is a lie. Our cognitive dissonance is not far behind here because karma seems even more cruel and pointless than even the capricious God of mystery (ask Job if you doubt that). We are desperate for meaning because we crave consolation in a world that offers only what we can create.  Why do bad things happen to innocent people?  How could _that_ happen and why did it happen?  So what then are we to make things?

It sounds too cool, too much Spock to say but it can be so helpful to remember that natural facts are never moral facts. The natural world has no ethical purpose; only humans create virtue or vice. There is love and compassion when there is mutuality and care---that's indisputable. Witness the wonder of elephants or that baby raccoon rescued and imprinted by humans who must then figure out how to get that creature back into its world. But with human beings our feelings and instincts, our emotional lives are inextricably woven into the lessons and experiences of nurture. What we _can_ do and who we _could_ be are matters of more than instinct and imprint. We make our worlds no matter how the world has made us. Please, a bit more?

The story here is part of humanity's "easy way out" reckonings. Karma is an important part of India's easy way out, it's bypass. It's not unlike Calvinism's predestination, Luthern submission to "God's will," the basic Christian claim that the omniscient and merciful God has a plan. Good luck with that. Feel consoled? Got meaning?

The idea is that somehow divine or cosmic determinism provides explanation and comfort when the world presents itself instead as indifferent and lila presents itself as anything can happen without our moral needs or personal preferences for meaning. We might well ask ourselves why humans do this, why they seem seem to need this kind of totalizing claim for meaning.

My reply won't surprise you. It hinges on two matters. First, we humans really do _need_ meaning and when we are confronted with more than the mere potential of meaninglessness. We must face instead the _potency_ of meaninglessness as another fact of human existence. Second, _making_ meaning in a world that includes lila is a difficult, complex task that depends on human vulnerability, provisionality, and our fragile co-dependence.

_We_ must provide our "stand," our must become the "pillar." Krishna says literally "stand in yoga" long before he offers the bypass of divine consolation. We might argue the latter comes not as a remedy but as itself a consolation to those who cannot fully ground themselves, that is, _stand_ in the harder yoga of engaging a solely human task.

In other words, we may have to rely on ourselves and each other when we would rather reach out to some meaning-providing-principle like karma or God. Naturally, we all know that humans are not only frail but flawed and incomplete---so we look beyond ourselves for "truths" that are somehow truer than ourselves.

Enter Rajanaka. There are no truths truer than our humanity can provide. And those human truths are never absolute even when they are as reliable and as resilient as any proven fact. Truth is always in crisis even when it need we know it need be contested in ways that trivialize or diminish the value of human knowledge. Not everything is up for grabs because not everything is _worth_ doubting. That means yet another judgment call. That means we have to create a more honest understanding of when limitation _serves_ us and so serves up truth and value and purpose.

There is no limitlessness within the mortal coil and everything we might say happens only from within our boundaries and so involve our limitations. But such limitation is not a problem to be solved. It is a crucial part of being human and it can be received as yet another gift of wonder and value because, well, here we are, we live, we experience for now the astonishment of consciousness as life embodied. Isn't that wondrous enough?

Moral creativity is among our most important human tasks. Consolation and compassion are among our most endearing and significant human gifts. But they are all matters of what we can do from within lives that are imperfect and vulnerable. And that is the greatest human gift: you need not be perfect to learn how to learn, to learn how we might love, to be you being a better you.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Grace of Greatness


Today I was deeply moved by two events that happened to coincide in time and in ways that took me to a deeper personal appreciation and understanding. I thought I might share just a few words about those experiences and try to convey how much this day meant to me.

In the Gita, Krishna calls it “standing in yoga.” My teacher Appa described that “standing” with a powerful and compelling observation.

Appa taught that we will all succeed and fail in the course of a life and that we must take account of both. He knew we are not indifferent, that we will care and will remain engaged and involved in our passions and hopes and aspirations. He understood how complex and confusing it can be when we take success and failure to heart, especially when we are called to act on principle and disavow the merely transactional world.

Appa urged us to understand the stakes and take stock of what is important, trying not to conflate our preferences and passions with truth and the need for patience, forbearance, and tolerance. He knew that, no matter what we say, we actually do care about our critics and that we hope to do well for ourselves, bring credit to our family and friends, make an offering for the world. He taught that in success and failure both we make contributions to living and learning.

Appa also had the idea that we want more than to survive, we even want more than just to thrive; we want in our soulfulness something far more than success even when we are mature enough to accept the sobering truths of life, including regret. We all want something more from life.  Not all of us admit it or know it or believe it.  But that soulfulness comes from the core and even when we are numbed by pain or disregard there is a feeling we will feel.

Many spiritual traditions make their own promises of the “more.” Some call it “liberation” or “awakening” and there are a thousand descriptions.  But in all of these vocabularies we are pushed past the merely mortal and into something that challenges our assent.  At least it challenges mine.  Let me put the matter more clearly in a personal context. Even as I first went looking for that very traditional understanding of the “more,” for liberation or some and another “unconditional reality,” what I eventually came to learn was how Appa had liberated me from liberation.

To be liberated from liberation means simply to find that more, that sense of deeper meaning and purpose and value in life in this life, in the feelings and actions, the understandings and commitments that bind us to this world. I was not looking to be freed from the world or even to the world.  I was looking for something more to bind me, to make me care.  To love such a life freed from liberation means that we will also learn as much to grieve and so succeed and fail as well. The more we might seek Appa called the great, the mahā. This is a familiar term because it’s used in Sanskrit as a modifier, a kind of prefix: we have great souls, great gods, great journeys. There is greatness but what is it? Truth to tell, there are many ways to experience the grace of greatness.

This leads me to today’s events.

Today Elijah Cummings lies in state in our nation’s capital, the first African American lawmaker to do so. I saw also the photo of a friend fortunate enough to offer his own respects before the mourning shawl gracing Congressman Cummings’ place on the podium of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. What moved me to my bones was thinking about what it took to be Elijah Cummings. We can, of course, list his accomplishments, enumerate his successes, and we can admire the depth of his character: the pain, the passion, and the purpose of his life. All of these things contribute to the “greatness” we describe, the evidence of a mahā life. But there is one more thing I hope to fathom.

It is this: Congressman Cummings believed so deeply in the aspiration that is the American Experiment that he devoted his life to its realization. That aspiration is stated in the country’s founding documents, it is reasserted in President Lincoln’s call to dedication. It is the proposition that would make America a more perfect union. It is of course the claim that all are created equal and that such equality confers on all of us an opportunity to reach for more. Those rights are declared to unalienable and promise us life and liberty and our own pursuit of happiness, however we may construe such happiness under the rule of law.

I don’t mean to offer a civics lesson, much less to make this about lofty promises without honest accountability. I mean to say that such aspirational claims must be understood as much in light of America’s shadow, its original sin, its long history of injustice, racism, and inequality.

Who understood that better than Elijah Cummings? Who experienced these facts of history, these facts of life more directly and personally?

Certainly, there are other women and men, leaders in this very Congress dedicated to such a life And all of them share with Elijah Cummings some of the same greatness to which I am referring. All choose to serve. They serve their country, their constituents, the people. Now it strikes me as equally plausible that they could instead dismiss the American Experiment as a mockery of these erstwhile propositions. They could spend their productive lives in honest grievance for what they suffer daily. But they do not choose rancor, disenchantment, antipathy, or indifference. They chose courage. They act from the heart. And when we choose courage over carelessness that is greatness. I wept for Elijah Cummings today because America is the poorer without him but so much the better for his great heart.

Like I said, today was a day.

Today is Doc’s birthday. And I am here again to celebrate greatness. My friend Dr. Kishan Pandya had a distinguished and deeply accomplished career as an oncologist. He was loved, not merely admired for his work, his example, his humanity. If there is an archetype of the compassionate, learned, and wise physician, then Doc was every bit The Healer. I came to know him in very personal ways, invited so generously into his family and his conversation. I could go on for days: he gave all of us so much. But it is how we happened to meet that tells me about the more that is greatness.

Doc retired early from medicine to pursue “other things,” he said. Those “things” included music, both in study and performance; travel, not merely to see the world’s wonders but to feel more. One afternoon he also came to see me.

He was intent on learning Sanskrit, something he said he always wanted to do. He could have just retired. But day after day, little by little, again and again he came to classes and then to my office. And he did all the work. Eight years we studied together and just before his passing he lamented that we’d just run out of time.

Doctor Pandya answered the call that came from inside himself. He’d earned this privilege and then made himself a gift. Again and again.

Doc was great in so many ways but it was how he answered to his heart, how he felt it so urgent, imperative, and essential to realize his dreams that brings me to wonder. When you answer to your heart, that is greatness. When such a calling includes caring for the world, for one’s responsibilities and tasks that is a grace of greatness we must also try to feel and fathom for its meaning, for the change it can bring. There is all we must do and still, still to be yourself?  Doc would have been seventy-one years old today. My love and grief are inseparable but I would have it no other way. To keep the company of greatness is a gift of grace that comes from those who’s greatness is grace itself.