Friday, September 4, 2020

45 Years and More Broken Pieces and Sammelana

It's 45 years now since Born to Run was released in 1975. Yeah, that matters to me but this isn't about that. Or is it?

This post is not likely going where we might think it's going. You may get bored. Writing these sentences last, it's also a mixed up muddled up shook up maelstrom of metaphors, more like curry in hurry than a carefully prepared word cuisine. Truth is, I woke up thinking and this mighty rad gumbo of ideas and mixed up metaphors was what was happn'n.


I went to India looking for the path to liberation and for someone to take me there. Though barely more than a teenager, I had read Buddhist sutra and Shankara's Advaita and I wanted to be in that game. I wanted to be able to engage those worlds on their terms and achieve their ends. I didn't realize how I was making the same mistake again.

As a kid I'd taken myself to church to hear what was supposed to be so important. And it was inasmuch as they were talking about the origins of meaning and how to create a life of goodness. It took awhile to figure out just how their versions of these vital human concerns were either another "who would think otherwise" matter or, far worse, a manipulation and exploitation that plays and cons you for their own purposes. So either we're talking about things that need to be beyond dispute---"love your neighbor"---or you are being handed a load of nonsense---"he died for your sins," "your reward will be great in heaven."
I didn't yet surmise that these same issues follow around _every_ religion or spiritual path, particularly in their corporate and institutional forms. When I went to India I was still looking but I thought they had the answers, in their traditions, that I could stand under their umbrella to withstand the consequences of all the rain.

Appa agreed to teach me the sources in the original and his traditionalism was my personal guarantee that I had found the guru. Who could not love this man at first sight? He wasn't seductive and there were no saffron robes or titles or claims but his authenticity was irrefutable, as much as his erudition and integrity. It was when he began to offer his own interpretations and critiques that everything started to change.

It's as if we all have to stand in the rain. The world is pouring rain, whether it's personal, social, political, you name it, the storm is raging. It's going to challenge us to find a place to stand, ways to withstand and perhaps find some kind of refuge. Everyone does that and, if we are lucky, we receive love and learn better how to give some so we can live in our own skin, endure the outrageous fortune. But for me that was not enough.

I'd been lucky, loved aplenty as a kid but when I went looking for meaning---and I mean from adults who were somehow supposed to know---I was disappointed in the answers and then disappointed in their character. They'd opened their umbrella and allowed me to step under, to share it with them but the umbrella was made of fixed dogmas and institutional straw. I figured that out before I went to India. What 

I didn't realize is that I was just looking for _another_ umbrella, just another corporation's story that would offer shelter from the storm.

The "institutional" storytelling gives you answers and reminds you that they are the correct ones. The corporation welcomes you in to participate in _their_ story and if you deviate too far you get in trouble or, like my own Italian grandmother, you get excommunicated because your story can't meet their expectations. My grandmother was excommunicated from the Catholic Church after she divorced by grandfather who had abandoned them---he was deeply traumatized with PTSD after serving in WWI and one day disappeared. To receive the benefits of the New Deal she had to prove destitution, which included three little girls. My mom the middle daughter.

Now that horror story of the church may not be unusual but my point isn't merely to castigate or accuse, it is to point out that we are punished for dissent. Step out from under _that_ umbrella and you are pretty much on your own. 

What I didn't really understand when I met Appa is that he had not only been reared under a wide and encompassing umbrella of traditions, practices, doctrines, and customs, but that he had stepped out from under its shelters. Somehow he had freed himself from the Matrix while still being in the Matrix, in fact, without ever leaving the Matrix. He had not disowned or disavowed, he hadn't been busted for heresy or been found out. He didn't want to leave or abandon his worlds entirely. He didn't do what I'd done even though he too was born to run. He knew however that "it's a death trap, a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young." How's that for a slew of mixed metaphor and allusions?

But in his own quiet way, Sundaramoorthy had fomented in his heart and mind a revolution. He didn't believe that the umbrellas of tradition understood traditionally were any real shelter at all. The rain is no illusion but the umbrella as it was made by his traditions didn't provide enough honest shelter---and after all there is no stopping the storm, the storm eventually takes us all. Rudra and Kali never fail to have their ways.

Appa had his own version of the slow burn, the coming to terms with the storm that we call Rudra and Kali. It wasn't like mine but it was all the same storm. I had the chance to run, he couldn't. Then I got lucky and I ran into him just as I was figuring out that you can run but the storm doesn't stop no matter where you go. I thought he'd show a way through the Buddhists or the Hindus that would finally provide that shelter. I wanted _his_ umbrella to do the job.

But as he began to teach I started to grasp his point. First, that the sources of tradition do indeed raise the important questions and provide plenty of indirection that helps---myth, ritual, practices, ideas, maps that aren't entirely useless. He set about helping me understand what the corporations of tradition were teaching. We all really face the same storms: love and grief, joy and sorrow, mortality and, well, what more, what else?

Next, he never relented in telling me to query and question, to use my own wits, be honest with feelings and ideas, and not capitulate to belief, to adherence, to any dogma or doctrine that he or anyone else was claiming to be the real shelter, the only true shelter, the correct shelter from the storm.

Last, he urged me to have the courage, to look into my own heart---the very meaning of the word "courage"---to see how we share the storm and _need_ an umbrella, need to be part of traditions and histories and, at the same time, not to be co-opted into complacencies of belief, into dogmas that are mere salves or bypass. We can commit to both learning from traditions and a relentless contrariety that refuses to believe or just follow. We aren't all alone in creating our path, we can't make it all up for ourselves---that is folly, self-importance, and lead you to believe that wearing tie-dyed clown pants to a black tie wedding is somehow being yourself.

Rajanaka is the contrariety he collected with that small group of fellow seekers. Its beauty lies in its willingness to see the value of traditions---ideas, questions, practices, customs---and also embrace its own otherness. Appa was adamant in his refusal to capitulate to dogmas or claims that were only fake umbrellas raised between you and the storm---"When I was liberated from liberation, I was at last free to be human."

But he knew he needed, that we all need, shelters from the storm, that it's wise to carry umbrellas in the rain. He could draw deep inspiration from the many languages of tradition, the symbols, forms, and practices but he was just as determined to speak in his own dialect that might become yet another kind of language. His was a dialect that began as something like Srividya and Natarajar's Shaivism but it became another language, one rooted in an understanding so different from its source that it warranted that new designation---it was a new language that had emerged from the old ones. Rajanaka is that method and that language, grounded in the principles of contrariety, of critical thinking and humanism. 

He once said that we gain advantage because we humans have the power to use language but that when we understand that we are formulating with rules (whether we know it or not), then breaking rules and making new rules becomes part of our growing awareness; then with love of a reformulating grammar we can reshape our experiences, we can move matters along into other kinds of expression. We need to know that we bind to rules to make sense of a world that we cannot control but we are not more bound to rules that control us than we are. 

Let me try that again. He was saying we need to come into our own voices to hear ourselves and communicate more deeply with others so that we can share a shared humanity. He was saying we cannot allow that process of personal growth and communication to abandon what we share and what we have learned from the past, from the corporations of tradition---and yet we must try to become our own voice too. That strange need to be part of something more (because we are) and come to our own critical processes, that is the great commingling, that is what we call sammelana. Another meaning of the word "sammelana" is to a gathering for celebration. What Rajanaka celebrates is our ability to make something more once we shatter the mirror and dare to look for the broken, missing, and extra pieces that we piece together to see more.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Rage On, Calmly or Not, But Do Rage On

Charles Blow in today's NYTimes makes an important case for "insatiable rage." He explains why the passion, the rage and indeed the outrage we see in the streets, continuing and expanding into the greater causes of civil rights and the failures of American Experiment, cuts so deeply. This isn't about merely about "winning" or persuading or effecting reform or law---it is about deep, abiding collective feelings that must find expression.

The collective hopes, dreams, frustrations, indignities, violations, and abuses of Black Americans will be heard and must be acted upon. There is no appointed moment for this to cease, and I mean for protest somehow to end.

Among the important features of this movement, the courage and determination of peoples' oppressed to be heard and to provide inspiration and witness to this criminal history and neglect. Personally, I hope there is enough endurance and perseverance to extend all the way to November. We must not underestimate the opposition. They will do everything they can to thwart progress including lie, steal, and cheat---because they always have. If too quickly we may return to diffidence and timidity then the cause will once again fail. This is Mitch McConnell's answer to every bit of progress: wait it out, the liberals don't have the votes and more importantly don't have the commitment. He must be wrong this time.

Everything about future depends on it. Justice denied must rage on so that it becomes justice served as our daily faire. I am heartened truly by the sensibilities of sympathy and empathy that have arisen too in support for those so long oppressed and denied. There are White Americans out there protesting and I hope they learn, listen, and show up on November 3rd too. We who have lavished in unearned privilege must act to make real amends, and have the decency to be stalwart in support and actions.

"Rage" is not something that Americans value or appreciate as a virtue. It can be a hard sell even around here. What I mean by that is Rajanaka's teaching about Rudra and Kali and the Sammelana characters whose rage is a key feature of their identity. Rage means a relentless passion for values, for what's -worth- the fight and knowing when it's going to be a fight.

Rage also entails living to fight another day when you won't win the day. Rage means living with yourself when you have failed or disappointed or _are_ disappointed. Rage takes it a step further because you have to live with trauma for the sake of the rage ahead. I have argued elsewhere that the utter outrage we feel about symbols of hate is wholly warranted. That freedom of speech protects the symbols' use privately or on private property is a price we should pay. Does that cause us more rage? Does that cause us more rage? Does it cause harm and trauma? Of course it does. No one is spared, never, expect it. Don't acquiesce. Don't give in. Rage on.

That is one of the things that Rudra, Kali, and company are showing us: that there is no world in which we escape the hurt or the trauma that might well be demon-inflicted. We can manage the demons and must but we can't rid ourselves of them nor of all the damage that they will do. We live with the damage, with mitigate it and try to relieve the pain, but every cause of goodness and every form of freedom has its price. What we gain from censorship we may well lose in freedom. I'm not suggesting that this is in any way a settled matter.

THAT is a feature of the rage too. The rage refers to the complexity, the irresolvable, the ambiguities, the compromise, the impurity and inauspiciousness that we WILL have to live with. Life doesn't have a cure for what's wrong. Life give us the rage to feel and express and address our rage. Rage keeps good company and that means rage should never be left in isolation or separated from other qualities we will also need: like patience, fortitude, sympathy, compassion, and care. Rage on, calmly.

Here is the reference to the piece by Charles Blow: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/14/opinion/us-protests-racism.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Great Game, the Art of Making Trouble, Rajanaka's Game of Rudra and Śrī

The Art of Making Trouble, Revisited The Great Game or How to Play Rajanaka's Game of Rudra and Śrī

I asked Appa once what we actually share with the Tantrikas and other philosophers since his views were so unlike the mainstream. To say the least. His answer was "the art of making trouble." This warrants a bit more explanation.

We can call this by all sorts of names and descriptors.  We can call it Rudra's Game, because of all of the gods of the Veda,  Rudra is the most respected, the most loved, and the most feared.  Rudra is ghostbusters, both sweeter than honey and more fierce than fire.  This Game also means Kālī Śrī's game with Śiva.  She plays to win, never any other way.  It's fun and it's often frustrating and difficult and it can hurt.  It is a game of intimacy and respect that will succeed and also fail but always aims for greatness, mahā.  Greatness means a game worth playing because it is has value past the immediate or apparent.

It is the Great Game.  We might liken it to the Magic Theatre.   It is not for everyone and the price of admission is your mind, your heart, maybe your soul. It is a game of soulfulness, not a war for the soul. It is for living, not for the feint of heart, and it is the learning (vidyā) of auspiciousness, that is, radical affirmation. If it doesn't bring you to health, you are playing too hard or have made mistakes. Revise. 

Appa always first described Rajanaka as having the values of the Old World and the Old Gods, that is, the Vedic gods and the Tamil Mother. Simply put, this means"give to me, I give", what we might just call "live long and prosper," and dismisses (or refutes) the foundational model of bondage/liberation that characterizes Hindu, Buddhist, and other later Indian worldviews. This also eliminates or ignores "achievements" like enlightenment, supernaturalism, supernormal powers, and most of what we associate with "religious" claims.

We turn towards the world, pravritti, rather than away from it (nivritti) and as for what others claim, that is for their consolation. Next, he said we share content with the later traditions---myths, rituals like puja, practices like darshan, and other methodologies that don't arrive until the Tantra puts down its markers. This is where we arrive at the Śrīvidyā with all of its imagery, narrative, and symbology---and with that a comprehensive interest in everything that enters Indian worlds through it, like poetry, music, literature, and "temple worlds."

But if we Rajanaka so deeply disavow and disagree with the philosophical and interpretive understandings, why do we still engage and are we any longer "Hindus"? Or to put it another way, why do we argue with them and what do we call ourselves if we are so unlike them?

Appa smiled and said, "Heretics?" But I pressed on, "Why do we engage them at all anymore? Is it because we share in their images, stories, and practices?" Of course this was an important consideration, he said, but the crux of the matter is _how_ we learn.  Rajanaka is built on how we learn, not merely what we learn.  We aren't told what to think.  We are taught how to think.  So how do we learn to think?

Tantra, like other philosophical discourse in India, is built on evolving a method of "argument." This doesn't seem "very yogic" to people who have no idea what these traditions are actually like, especially in philosophical Sanskrit. So let's explain why this isn't merely meanness or prattling sophistry.

The heart of the matter is simple: you only really learn _more_ when you never stop making trouble, either for the other guy or for yourself. You honor the goddess, to put it metaphorically, when you confront your dice-game accuser with another kind of skillful game. What you must learn to do is create a productive and progressive experience that challenges, that pushes you forward to explain, defend, argue, revise, reconsider, evolve your views. The paradox needs to be in place: take the stance that you think you are "right" or that you understand and then do everything you can to undermine your own position. 

You can explain this succinctly to civilians but they likely won't understand what you mean when you say, "read closely, think critically, write argumentatively."  So let's unwrap that present and tie with a bow.  Then rip it open like a puppy playing with something that she shouldn't be destroying.  Hehe...

Here, more basics:
*Take no quarter, give no quarter: be relentless, unremitting, rigorous, dogged, even ferocious. It's Rudra unleashed.
*You argue without end, without final conclusions. You argue to defend your best argument knowing that you must try to undermine yourself.
*No harm is meant, no ill will. You are permitted nothing petty or vindictive. Invective and accusation are wholly prohibited.
*Indian writers don't like sarcasm nor are they particularly funny, and that's a damn shame. So if you want to tease or self-immolate, feel free but be nice about it.
*You must represent the other's point of view with _more_ generosity and an even better, more gracious benefit of the doubt. You make _their_ case sympathetically and as powerfully as you can. Your opponent comes out smarter and better for your efforts to defend them. Then you rip it all to shreds.
*In the process you learn that your own arguments wobble, they have pitch and yaw, they are not airtight or perfect because nothing is. You can be wrong and you need to know that that is your advantage. You can learn from mistakes because you will make them.
*The goal is to wobble but not waffle. No careening from idea to idea. No floundering, oscillating, or lurching. Do not allow the ship to breach just because you are determine to skid the waves of this storm. You must learn how to sway and stumble and recover and keep going.
*Evolving means moving little by little, no big breakthroughs because if those happen then your argument wasn't very good to begin with. So, check that, change large if you are largely wrong. Change some every single time. Never be stuck, you are not permitted to be haughty, recalcitrant, fractious, obstinate, or contumelious.
*You can be wild, feral, and defiant but not at the price of being dangerous, willful, or undisciplined. Think risk, think more risk, then think if that is prudent at all. Never be so imprudent that you put at risk things that really matter.
*You can only do these things with others who are in the game. The game is Rudra meets a dissonant world in which recursive and order are always giving way to mutation and chaos.
*When you meet people who don't know how to play, teach them if they want to learn. If they can't learn for whatever reasons---they are sensitive, they are too imprinted or old, they just don't want to---don't try to make them. Just be nice, let them have their world. Not everyone needs to play Rudra's Game.
*Never forget that the point of this Game is to become Śrī and Śiva. That means, auspicious in every way possible and that means "always more", trying to be healthy and better for it to yourself and others. Never forget that Śrī is always Kālī and Shiva is always Rudra Nataraja. Never less fierce, or aghora in Sanskrit.
*If the Game gets easy, make it harder. Take up something more challenging, never get complacent, never too assured. You are either on the throttle or you are hitting the brakes. No coasting.
*Be Vyāghrapāda. That means, Have Tiger Paws. Never fail to use them. Know you can hurt yourself because you have tiger paws and use them as deftly, as soft hands.
*In other words, rage on, calmly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Hikikomori 引きこもり

Hikikomori 引きこもり
Or Where We're Going and Not Going Anytime Soon

First, I could be entirely mistaken about this but I was reading Dogen today and one thing led to another. I'm not exactly in my comfort zone here but, really, who is right now?
I confess I come by my asocial misanthropy without much effort. It can be hard for people to really love day after day of solitude with little or so contact with the world---but in written words. Our current situation puts many people in peril of that kind of life, unchosen in their case. Isolation can feel, well, isolating and I'm rooting for your mental health. We live "way out here" and usually quite alone, just the two of us. (There is a new puppy incoming! Hopefully. IF we can travel to get her.)

So today I was reading Dogen, the masterful Zen philosopher. His principal work is entitled the Shōbōgenzō (正法眼蔵), which means "Treasury of the True Dharma Eye" and it raises all sorts of issues about what it means to be alone and to find wonder in quietude. Shōbōgenzō is actually a compiliation of essays and notes largely strung together.

Anyways, Dogen is the most renown proponent of the Soto Zen school and its principal teaching, zazen or "just sitting." Zazen is the thoughtless meditation in which there is no achievement or goal but to sit. Thus, the achievement is called "sudden" inasmuch as there is nothing to "get" but the serenity itself, an awareness of things _merely_ as they are.

Appa was deeply influenced by Zen, particularly the ways in which they find the ultimate in the ordinary. He took to heart that there is literally no goal but to revel in an effortless awareness of the everyday. Why would we aspire to something other than living fully in our humanness? Whether one is meditating or not, the constructs and inventions of our mental states may be nothing more than heuristic or imaginary aids. The sweetness of this deeply austere imperative to thoughtlessness is that one receives and accepts the world as such, what the earlier Sanskrit Mahayana called tathātā, "suchness," things such as they are.

Defeating the ultimate has a way of allowing the everyday to be more meaningful. It's much like being liberated from liberation so that we can get on with the business of being human. I'm pretty sure that Dogen didn't the world enough for that, preferring instead to be more deeply entranced by such insouciant disengagement. Dogen was aiming for very little worldly contact. I'm not sure we want that, not really.

Now all of this roundabout took me further in pursuit of the White Rabbit decidedly absent in the presence of Dogen's suchness. But I discovered a rather fascinating distinction in Japanese.

The word for hermit in Japanese is yamagomori. Yama (山) means mountain and the idea is sequestering yourself away for the _purpose_ of reclusion. The yamagomori is trying to get away, remain unseen, vanish from the world. Okay, that might be my plan if we re-elect Trump. I talk a lot leaving for the Falklands because they certainly have even worse weather than Bristol, New York. Is that even possible? But that would be deciding for yamagomori.

Enter hikikomori. This refers to something far more conventional and more like what we are about to be doing.

Hiku means to withdraw and komoru ( 籠る、こもる) means something like seclusion. It might be translated "social withdrawal," but really it is a ready-made term for the next step in "social distancing." We're being told to stay at least six feet from anyone but things are going a lot further and faster than that. Hikikomori is much more like deliberate seclusion---not six feet away, just away.


In sum, hikikomori is when you just cuddle up with yourself all day, don't leave home, just hang---pretty much alone. It's an almost perfectly acceptable thing to do, as far as I can tell, not really asceticism, not Dogen's hermit nor his awareness without things. It's more just going quiet, going it alone some without the rest of the world. When Japanese use this term it means people who just don't leave home---and sometimes not for a long time.

Please don't mistake me, I see all too vividly the perils of isolation and I really, really hope no one ends up lonely or sequestered in ways that are unhealthy or dangerous. I wrote yesterday quite a bit about not becoming isolated and it's important for us all to look after our mental health as we try to secure our physical health.

Hopefully too you aren't holed up all by your lonesome. I hope you're as lucky as I to share this current hikikomori with someone(s) you love. But as far as I can figure, we are headed to a kind of enforced hikikomori. We about to be told to STAY HOME and have as little contact as possible with ANYONE outside. And that would be pretty much the meaning of hikikomori. Wouldn't it be like the Japanese to have a word for it? Hikikomori. Just in time for America.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Living With Now, Planning for Tomorrow, Raging On, Calmly

In daunting times we need undaunted courage. That means we have to listen to our hearts because that is the seat of courage.

Before the liberation of the eastern bloc, Vaclav Havel wrote about living "as if." He would live "as if" he were free when in fact he had to be very careful about being free. In that case of course it was the oppressions of government but like Havel we have no idea really when we might move more "freely about the cabin."

So with all due precautions and mindful that everyone sits in the heart as they do---differently and respectfully---I mean to carry on. Or as we like to say around here: Rage On, Calmly. If my hosts choose to cancel or postpone seminars or events I understand that entirely. But I am going forward on the presumption that we're on.

I have no plans to cancel any already scheduled events. I have a remarkable faith in the decency and common sense of our community. We don't have "large" gatherings and while we are inclined to hug and even sweat together (who me? sweat?), I think we will benefit more from the conversation so long as our risks are well managed. Your mileage may vary, of course. I have no doubt that you will choose wisely.

Living in India as a very young man for long periods of time, even with all the love and support I received there and from home, taught me about isolation. India also has a way of sobering you and inviting you past your own excuses---there's always a reason not to do something if you want one. And there's the realism you need to keep safe and healthy.

When the Plague---yeah, _that_ plague---came, Isaac Newton was forced to go home for a year away from college and teachers and friends. You do know what he did: he wrote the Principia and changed the world forever. So while we may not possess his genius we can step into our own. We can still see one another with eyes open and distance safe. We can pour ourselves into our initiatives and create more than we might have imagined. We can stay informed---Newton didn't have the luxury---and we can do our best for each other. In Rajanaka it's a nitya-karma, best translated "a thing we always do," we rage on, calmly.

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.