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.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Courageous Heart Breaks, What Then Is the Core?


My teacher once said, "The heart is made of courage---it is not fragile or weak---but neither is it invulnerable." Our vulnerability means that the light we might create to fuel and minister is susceptible to every kind of incitement and service. There is no certain or inevitable outcome.

Our courageous heart can be made into any kind of heart because the core of our being is ours to fashion, to build and sculpt. We can just as well service our potential with falsity and fear as we can with truth and fortitude. To live in such a place of the heart we will also have to break it, be broken, and attend to missing, broken, and extra pieces. We'll feel found and lost, together and alone: we will need to learn how to engage and persist.

We don't like to think that we can be rotted at the core. Christians like their redemption claims, Hindus like to assert an immaculate center of being, a self untainted by the world, Buddhists tell us that our core-less core is free without the burdens of self. But no matter what hope or possibility these traditions put forward they may also not quite come to the heart of the matter for fear they could be right. What more might be true?

The Rajanaka view as Appa explained drives through the middle of these claims with sobering and, as I see it, more powerful possibilities. We need not reject other views so much as suggest there is more. Our core is neither an immaculate purity of goodness nor entirely empty for us to create. To wit, some basic Hindu and Buddhist claims may need some (more) rethinking.

We are beings made into a core from provenance and history, from deep imprints and memory, from what we can call karma. But karma is action, it is dynamic, changing, and developing. We are not stuck in our karma and our core is not a settled matter. This is the heart of the matter, this is too karma, and our vulnerability at heart is our chance, our risk and opportunity. What we can do to help ourselves is not wholly up for grabs---we _were made_ in ways we were and will always contend and be compelled to speak to what we do not fully control or comprehend.

We can nurture our courage to goodness and we can feed it with malignancies, both are possible. What we call yoga teaches how to do more of the one, less of the other. But it also must recognize the powers of the unconscious, the social and historical facts that contribute and decide, the ways our individual needs carve their own pathways without requisite need for awareness or consent.

Our core of character and feeling, our inner sensibilities originate in light and shadow that come to awareness only by "doing the yoga," that is, through the difficult and complex processes of introspection and cultivation. We don't become better without joy and sorrow, success and failure, celebration and regret.

We need the pairs of opposites to come to the deeper possibilities we call "great" (that's the word "maha-" and something we can explore further. There is "greatness" and it might be more than we thought. (Rajanaka poses no certain claim to a perfect, untainted, or blissful center of soul. Neither does it teach we are freed if we free ourselves from all expectations, forsaking even expectation itself, freed from self.

The self we are is found in the selves we are becoming. When we bring the powers of receptivity and acceptance of shadow into fields of consciousness we can accept the invitation to cultivate---and to cope and to learn how to live with ourselves. There are possibilities for a courageous heart because the heart wants to be true, it wants to feel that courage. But truth to tell it doesn't really know how.

The heart does not know in its aloneness or without help. Who exists without help? We are vulnerable because we really must learn more about being human by being human. That means we will succeed and fail, win praise and deserve blame; it means that we will need tools and methods, make commitments and practice, that we will have to demur to learn from experience and amend as time and circumstance demands. We are better judged by the kinds of questions we are asking than by the answers we give.

The heart will first cloak itself to conceal the vulnerabilities it sees. But it will go even further to avoid attending to vulnerabilities, hidden shadows, or failures that it can't or won't recognize. This is because our courageous heart wants the feeling of courage, its power and authority to be as easy as it is real. Our hearts beat effortlessly until they cease---or so we want to believe.

The feeling of courage is yet another dissimulation of courage. An unexercised heart, be that physical, emotional, spiritual is not only vulnerable it is weak, enervated, and undependable. (Krishna calls this "durmanasah" in the Gita.) The "problem" is that the effort we need, the processes of engagement, _the yoga_ is going to ask everything of us. It's going to give aplenty in return for that effort but it is also never less vulnerable.

If we claim invulnerability we forsake the better possibilities of courage. Virtues are the rewards of courage but because they burn so brightly their shadows invariably appear darkly. We all know too well how goodness may bring unforeseen and unwanted consequences.

Krishna advises us that such acts are worth the consequences but cautions us to understand how much more we yet will need just to withstand the truths we experience---and those we don't. Hearts left unattended may be fortunately innocent, given to the good and courageous because they have been well-held, privileged with love and grace. But even such goodness cannot avoid the wounds of every life. And it is just as possible that circumstances are less fair or protective, that wounds cut more deeply, that corruption and infection does its work too. There are, we should remind ourselves, no guarantees especially at the heart of the matter.

Some will indeed do the work to grown, change, and evolve, to repair and make amends, some will try to rebuild an inner structure with decency, using remorse and even shame as assets put to real actions. But it appears just as possible to see how some can never come to any of that task and how they will have forged a core that is incorrigible, one that becomes so deeply rotten that it does indeed define their nature.

We are free as humans because our vulnerable hearts will become us. I move now to a piece of morning news, which actually prompted this longer reflection. Charles Blow writes about the continuing hypocrisy, the inexcusable, shameless venality of white Evangelicals supporting Trump. He has more pointedly understood how "Conservatism has been unveiled in all its craven glory. No longer is it shrouded behind morality, small government, traditional values and spending concerns." (NYTimes, 10/14/2019)

The very core of Blow's argument is that there is a deeper anger, fear, and disdain that Trump uses. He stokes the pathologies that shape the history of American racism and, particularly, white Evangelicism. Specifically, Blow cites the vulgar statement at the Trump rally about how Vice President Biden has "kissed Barack Obama's ass." He explains at length the white fear of submission, the triumphalist need for supremacy and dominance, its relationship to America's original sin, Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction.

Trump may be indulging in another thoughtless, vulgar Trumpism but what we must remember is that the reason Trump "tells it like it is" is because he speaks from a morally debased, wholly racist id that reveals a rotten core. Trump has shown us not a broken heart but an unbreakable heart---and nothing could be worse. Sadly we can say he really does speak from his heart and that it is an irreparably damaged and depraved place.

Of course, the masks we use to rationalize or defend our feelings are endless. Religion always provides more. Church-going can help, no? I mean you get to gather with your peeps, sing some, say your tribal words together, go to coffee hour and feel good about yourself. All the while you can share in the masking of those deeper no-need-to speak-too-loudly feelings you also share, feelings based on fear, grievance, anger, and racism. The confirmation of the group never fails when it responds so aptly to human individual needs.

Theodor Adorno once reminded us that the reversion to barbarism is always an option. Why is that possible?

An important reason for this is clearly articulated by James Baldwin. Baldwin once wrote, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." Here lies, I think, the crux of the matter.

When the pain is so deep, so endemic to the structure of a collective inheritance, hatred's mask not only hardens, it provides the weapons and the battlements to besiege the heart. The heart is not immune, it is not so pure or present that it cannot be touched. The walls of our core are porous and vulnerable by nature.

If "purity" or impenetrability were true we would not be human; we would have to claim an immaculate divinity and then make excuses for debasement and corruption. Rather it is more likely the case that because we are _genuinely vulnerable_ that the heart will take on shapes and forms that authorize our experiences and that corruption itself becomes its nature, entrenched within, consuming its other potentials, like empathy, goodness, and tolerance.

When this corruption happens this is no force compelling the hatred to deal with its pain. Instead, the hatred nurtures a solemn anger---one well-suited for Coffee Hour in the Church undercroft or a Trump rally---the kind that can use solemn religious tones after having gone to "the show" the night before. Add some confirmation bias, a tincture of Dunning-Kruger and the artless deal is sealed.

You have hearts that can no longer find their way but through these well-carved paths of certainty and invulnerability. There is no imperative to begin any remedial or mitigating effort. It is more soothing to launder in the bile because in truth there is no necessity for restoration or revival: you can't put in what karma left out when you don't want to do the work.

What should we do in response? Voltaire comes to our rescue again. Tend your garden, as Candide says. Do the hard labor of the heart for it is just like gardening: you can't fake it or make it look right without the work. Remind yourself that rest is too part of the better labor and keep that good company that supports your effort. When the day's done and the shadows come, and with them the darkness, engage again to all the spaces inside the vulnerable heart. We will at least be human and that courageous heart will be what you need and with it plenty to share.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

About the Nihilists

Nihilism is a distinctive human quality. What other living thing plans its own annihilation and intends to bring everything else along? How many of these Trump Nihilists are Christians steeped in apocalypse claims? Oh, right, Evangelicals are his staunchest supporters. How many are cowardly sadists who want others to suffer because it somehow serves their personal pathology? Right, they support child separation and babies in cages because they want "strong borders." The real world around them burns but they deny climate change and any effort that might effect their immediate economics. Right, in fact, their economic situation will collapse with the planet. What fuels this sociopathy?

It's built in. We need an Alfred Pennyworth Moment. He tells Bruce Wayne: "Some men just want to see the world burn." The Republican pathology requires this constituency to stay in power. See the Edsall article cited in the first comment.

Oh, and Rajanaka folk: Duryodana is the archetype for this sickness. Not even five villages for the Pandavas. Not even the fear of a rebirth is enough. But why, when Duryodana has everything a person could want? It's because nihilism is real, it's not been selected out. And why is that? Mahabharata gives us the first clues.

The shadow left unattended, fed and nourished like the demon of narcissism, born of fear, denial, rejection of the very real process that we _need_ to become socially viable. We must all "repress" to flourish and all of that we stuff in the bag and drag behind us: hopes, desires, expectation, dreams, we stuff them away. Much of this we must do, just to do the next thing. But we can unpack these experiences and accept the complex process that tells us that our freedom is more than doing whatever we want, whenever we want that.

Our problems arise from our unwillingness to take these matters to heart, from our lack of skill to examine them, from our rejection that claims we're all just light. Or we believe someone else---God, Jesus, thoughts and prayers---are going to do the work. We're more confused than that because we possess a deeper consciousness that reside beneath the surfaces, every one of us is more complex than we imagine, all are more messy than all that.

And again, this is not the problem nor something we can "fix," remedy or repair. We can, however, learn to live with it and flourish. But only if we are honest enough to want to learn. And this is why we need the myths.The nihilist wants a simpler world, one with only his own light, one that never looks into those feelings and unrequited desires, incomplete dreams.

We are broken beings, we have missing bits, we have extra things we don't even know we have---and none of that is the problem. So much of what hurts we did not create, it was done; we're not in control of it all and never have been. That is where we can start.

Our problems arise from our unwillingness to take these matters to heart, from our lack of skill to examine them, from our rejection that claims we're all just light. We're more subtle, more complex, more messy than all that. But only if we are honest enough to want to learn. And this is why we need the myths.

Look here for the data: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/opinion/trump-voters-chaos.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Sunday, August 11, 2019

When the Power is an Uncomfortable Truth And Speaking Truth Might Ask More From Us

Once in awhile a mainstream media writer has the nerve to speak truth to power when that power is also a sad, ironic truth. Words have power, feelings have power. When we take more seriously everything about being human, it won't necessarily make life easier or happier. But it might make life a more honest journey into the heart and towards the soul. Not some metaphysical "soul." How about just a closer connection to everything you feel deep, deep down?

As Frank Bruni points out this morning another powerful truth is that hate is real, potent, and will not be eradicated anytime soon, as in ever. Hate is an easy sell and so are the soporific denials. Our better alternatives will ask more from us and we'll need to be lucky too, 'cause it's a lot better when we were taught young, early, and often. When more is asked from us, we will need help. We'll need teaching, practice, and support. We'll need examples and leadership and those folks will understand their own vulnerabilities, mistakes, and intractable imperfections. Nevertheless, we've got to persist.

Sadly, this also means is that there will always be bigotry, injustice, and oppression too, the true bedfellows of hate. We can add others, like fear, ignorance, and anger. Even more complicated is the fact that all of these "negative" feelings and expressed emotions can be put to important positive use. We can become better not only living with them but bringing them deeply into conversation. Applying them requires even more assiduity, humility, and grace. Who among you does not hate injustice? Please do. Then what? What more does this invite us to feel and do? No experience stands alone. When our emotions become isolated we're in trouble: isolation creates delusion, fantasy, denial.

We are more likely to insist that our ideals and other feelings are somehow more real. We want the better angels to be _more_ real and the demons just delusions or _just_ demons. When uncomfortable truths become more complex truths they prefer to remain unspoken. If we dare to speak then we will be held accountable.

That kind of power in words is important but easy to deflect. We don't want to hear about how negative things are part of us and certainly not that these feelings serve important roles and purposes. This means also much will remain unexamined, suppressed, and ignored until the next time the real world comes to hurt us.

No politician could make Bruni's argument in America and be elected dog catcher in a town without dogs. Much less can one proclaim one's self a no-God-er---in fact the second largest American "religious" denomination---and become president. Religion must never be anything but "respected" and somehow endorsed. Don't ever suggest that the 1st Amendment had a more complex notion in mind.

How about that religion could be a positive detriment to being a better person, fraught with hypocrisy and false consolation that manipulates and coerces. Or that your personal beliefs must withstand public scrutiny in a world in which we struggle to understand truth and facts and this mixed up world? Tell uncomfortable truths or, at the very least, suggest an unpopular "truth" and expect to be shouted down, ignored, or exiled.

What Frank Bruni writes today in The New York Times will make you cry. He writes about hate email, a college professor who tells him that she prays for his mother because he is gay. He tells us how his mother long passed now from cancer loved him for who he is and how so many seem incapable even of accepting him.

Love does not conquer all, much less hate. We'd prefer it otherwise but the stakes are too high for soporific balms, the wounds cut deeply, the facts on the ground will tell us otherwise. No one likes to hear this, especially those doused in religions that claim otherwise. We can love, we can learn to love, we can try to understand why we possess hate as a feeling, as a viable possibility, even when it might be helpful. Who wants to hear that? Who wants to consider how our angels and demons must converse, not merely contend?

When we are in denial we put ourselves at a disadvantage to do what we must to survive, flourish, and create a better world. Of course, we can use love to counter hate but you _know_ there is far more to it than we like to admit or even consider. Humans learn to hate, we know that too. Hate is not mental illness. We're all gonna feel it. All of us.

Hate is also a world view, something about which we can exercise choice, explore feelings, apply our reason. We're not helpless. We can shape our world view even when it has been shaped for us, even if we must accept uncomfortable truths about human nature. We can make and remake ourselves no matter how we've been made. That is what Rajanaka teaches is the power of yoga.

Rajanaka taught me that we're better off if we can accept the _all_ of our human condition And then we can consider more who we want to be, what could be if we applied ourselves to the complex truths of human life. This often means accepting deeply discomforting truths, things that can't be fixed, stuff that will never go away, even hate. We are never immune from these darker realities, not even the best of us. So? Good news ahead...

We can learn how to look more deeply into our souls, alchemize the darkness with light, and become more astute, more vigilant, better prepared for being wholly human. But we have to learn how to do this. Life doesn't come with a manual but humans can learn. Even better, we can be educated. Bees, even planaria can learn. But we humans have an uncanny ability to question, to follow the evidence where it leads, to keep ourselves asking. That requires courage---but we have to learn how to turn to our hearts because it's just as easy to want answers instead of questions, certainty instead of doubt, and it's easier still just not to bother.

Not everyone _can_ do this, for all sorts of reasons. It takes more than free will or effort. We need to give people the chance, when we can: that too is the yoga, the engagement and conversation we can have.

Some people will always want to see the world burn. Some will never get a chance to help themselves. We can try, with heart and soul engaged, and we can do the yoga for ourselves. We're not stuck in our human nature because we can learn, we can grow more. Not without each other. May we teach our children well.

Reference: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/opinion/hate.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Note about the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part Two

A Note about the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part 2

Connecting to our feelings is no small task. It’s going to take more than a deep desire to want to do the work that explores our feelings. We’re going to have to push through, use and become more aware of the processes that make us human as individuals formed by nature, family, society, and our own conscience. The tools of yoga have often been used to attenuate or dissociate from feeling but just as well may be used to connect in ways that bring those deeper sources of experience into thought and language. We’ve explored that ever so briefly in our Part 1 of this note.

The thesis is this: we can learn how to parse our feelings into more feelings, we can work to identify the complexities that originate in the primal stuff of living as embodied beings. Here we will consider again briefly how thought and ideas brings us to feelings, directs feelings, informs and creates feelings. The thesis is that the process we described from feeling to thought likewise takes us from thoughts to feelings.

Words matter. Humans have language, complex speech helps define us as a species, we are talkers and thinkers. Can we think at all without words? Are words our thoughts? If thoughts are types of feelings what is the connection between the ideas we have and learn and what we feel?

Indian tradition has about as many answers to these questions as we have in western philosophy and modern cognitive science. It’s well-worked and complex territory but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make a few remarks of our own. Academics always begin everythieng they write by saying it’s provisional, that there is more research, by doing extensive Cover Your Ass so that they feel safe from themselves and their critics. Let’s just care a bit less about that for now.

If I just persuaded you to try on this idea and to care a little more about working on the thought-to-feeling matter then I’ve already made my point. What we say to ourselves and what we hear, read, and learn gets inside us. It may be a long and winding road to the soul but words and sounds and images and ideas matter so much that they can go directly there before we know it. In other words, we have the word-sound-image experience even before we register the experience, much less interpret it, understand it, or even know what is happening inside. Words and thoughts, like sounds and images, cut to our core and it is only after that happens we begin any process of understanding, interpretation, and meaning. The soul gets it before the Self recognizes it.

The processes and tools by which we then create meaning need to be learned. This is one of the meanings of yoga itself: that the engagement is not just natural or intuitive, learning isn’t just going to happen because we breath or live another day. It’s going to take work, the proper tools, and connection not only with one’s self but in relationships involving conversation that compels us to reach further into our critical capacities and meaning-making abilities. In short, you can’t do this alone no matter how much of the work only you can do on yourself. That is at the heart of yoga.

No amount of asocial, misanthropic introspection will give you all that you need and nothing about learning in the conversation is going to be particularly easy: it will take useful sources, good teachers, and more time than you ever budget. It’s not going to end either, so give up on that past-participle nominal enlightenment that tells you that you are awakened or perfected.

It’s impossible to ignore the trauma of this age too. We are experiencing leadership that has used words to incite violence, to dog whistle and connect with genuinely evil and malicious persons. We are in a test of character that takes us from words, sounds, and images into actions based on feelings and, dare I say it, indoctrinations. We humans are as vulnerable to words as we are to feelings because language is not something added on or extra to our nature, it is a part of what makes us human. We are also individuals and by definition isolated as experiencers of our own bodies and minds. But these experiences are never really apart from the contexts of our being human, that is, from family and upbringing, from circumstance and history, from the fact that to be an individual is to be social and made by forces greater than our individuality.

Life is not just the choices we make but the complex seen and unseen processes that create our choices. Americans don’t like to be told we are made but that we make ourselves—and yogins have said much the same. But the truth is that we use (and sometimes need) this delusion to remind us that we are responsible for ourselves and stewards of our soul whether or not we understand how we have been made and how choices are structured for us and not always by us.

Thus, words, sounds, thoughts, images not only matter but they can determine more about our feelings and emotions than we are ever aware. This is because the connection between thought and feeling like mind and body is indivisible while the process by which we comprehend, investigate, understand, and interpret those connections is learned and requires hard work, soul work.

Yoga is soul work. Yoga is the connection to meaning and meaning is hard-won, it is on-going, and it is always incomplete, unfinished, provisional, and in pursuit of more. Soul work means that we understand prima facie that the things we experience through our mind and cognitive processes go right to the body, to the core of feeling, through emotions, there and back again. When we haven’t done any soul work, when we aren’t learning how to connect the world to our inner selves, then we are especially vulnerable to indoctrination, to propaganda, to ways in which we accept “truths” without knowing how to consider what is true.

The key here, if I may conclude, is this: the connections we experience between feeling and thought (let’s just call it that) as it is between thought and feeling are organic and direct. Feelings become thoughts and language. Language and thought go directly into our feelings. But which feelings? And what happens then? When we don’t care for each other then we are easily manipulated and moved to take the easy paths. Hate is an easy path because it connects desire to fear and anger. But the difficult path leads us through and with all of our emotions, the feelings that we experience in the complex matrix of thought-experience.

We can learn and explore how we have all been made, “indoctrinated” as such by history, society, family, and personal experience. We can use language and thought and images with greater care to impress upon our feelings, to make the samskaras as we might term them that take us to empathy, compassion, and care. We will need thought, we will need imagination because my experiences are not yours and we must somehow connect. When we do this poorly there is no limit to the horror or the venality that can appear: humans are capable of evil and that is because we have not cared or nurtured the connections across the great matrix of experiences, we have not learned how to connect to our feelings, honor the power of language, understand and interpret their relationships. What we think will be what we become and what we feel will take shape in what we say and what we do because saying is doing too.

Perhaps this is enough for now. There’s always more, of that I feel quite assured. In the meantime care for your feelings and care for your words because they will converge in your soul and that is the place where meaning is made and becomes life’s choices.

A Note About the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part One

Too often, I think, we see feeling and thinking as if they are antagonists or, worse, incommensurate. That we can't be one when we are being the other. How do our feelings connect to thought? Do they? Should they? Let's ferret that out a bit more because the matter is far more complex than a simple yes or no.

How do we make a deeper connection between what it means to become a more empathetic and caring person and our critical abilities?

The Gita begins with just such a problem. Arjuna comes rather quickly to feelings that Krishna calls a "weakness of heart." The precise term is durmanasah, which ably translates as well to be "poor thinking." The word "manas" means heart and mind or more properly heart-mind and mind-heart. The prefix dur- is the opposite of su-, thus good/bad, unsanitary/salutary. It's likely a deliberate effort to create an equivalence and push the emotional description into cognitive realms. That is, how we feel is not different from what we are thinking.

Wittgenstein made a similar claim at one point: we cannot separate how we put words to feelings from the feelings we express in words. The idea is not that they are identical as adequate expressions but that they _are_ in effect expressions of feelings-and-thought. Let's return to the Gita for some further consideration.

Important to Krishna is that Arjuna cultivate discrimination (viveka) based on the emotional charge called vairagya or "disinterest." These terms have been combed over with Advaita Vedanta meanings and it's hard to work with them without those implications. Advaitins are committed to a cessation of all emotion as such precisely because emotions by definition change while "knowledge" does not.
In short, there is a metaphysics of emotion that does not permit the Advaitin to allow more feeling than is necessary to intervene in any cognitive possibility.

Thus, "vairagya" becomes much like it is in Patanjali YS: not a parsing out or measure of desire but a dissociation from desire or emotion itself. Etymologically the meaning is not as absolute as the Advaitin would have it. (This begs the question how and if etymology factors in meaning if meaning is usage. Another topic, particularly eccentric in Sanskrit terms.)

In Rajanaka terms "vairāgya" means our ability to take feeling, emotion, and desire itself and bring it into some kind of parsing, into finer bits, into a process that looks for elements, units, more refined forms. Note that the word "rāga" usually means passion, deep desire and feeling. Here the implication is that all deep emotions are at stake and what makes them deep is that they originate in the core of consciousness and the body.

But raga is a problematic word in most of yoga literature, not something we want to identify with because it threatens to carry us away, mislead our morals, detract from our reason. None of the Patanjali commentators will have a good word to say about raga and thus vairagya is used a counter, an antidote.

We Rajanaka might instead view vairagya as our ability to take our feelings, deep in source and origin, and begin to bring some further reflection, clarification, then refinement and distinction. We can go from feeling as such to feelings that then we can identify through emotions and other modalities of experience. In other words, we don’t attenuate, control, quell, or extinguish the feeling as the traditionalist yogins propose but rather bring to it a richer sense of its identity.

We are looking for the metaphoric DNA helix, the units that take us further into the more particular forms of feeling that wrap themselves into whirlwinds that appear as if they were merely whole but in fact are made up of more and more elementals. The idea is not to manage or control feelings, much less stop them, so much as it is to delve more deeply into the ways they form, how they form, and what component elements make up their forms.

Thus feelings become emotions that become thoughts and the whole of experience is something we want to consider. Vairagya is the tool we use to bring feelings into finer forms of feeling even as we begin to assign identities and meanings to those experiences, particularly with thought and language. Krishna proposes that we need to deal with the comprehensive ways in which we fail to distinguish and refine the process by which feeling is thought and vice-versa. What makes for “bad” thinking or “weakness” of heart (durmanasah) is that we fail to become more adept, to engage and enjoin the process.

To wit, we don’t take up the yoga that would give us a far more capable experience to address a given situation. In sum, we fail at letting our feelings become thought in ways that further the connection and refine the nuanced relationship that occurs as the somatic assumes cognitive forms.

All cognitive forms are somatic, that is, all thought originates in the body and assumes a place the path of feelings. But if we separate the path from body to mind we fail to make the serpent’s connection from tail to head, we cut the head off and what is left is mere feeling. This is why it goes “bad” or becomes “weak” (dur-). It’s not that we are feeling too much but rather not feeling enough to make the connection between the core of feeling and the eventual outcome of thoughtful (dare we say rational) choices.

The next piece of this argument describes how we can corrupt thought and so engage feelings in ways that are nihilistic. The connection is not only between feeling becoming thought and language but how language, ideology, indoctrination and the rest take hold of feelings. And when that happens tragedy will soon follow. More about this another time.