Saturday, June 29, 2013

In the middle of things

Some might renounce, detach, or ignore worldliness because the realm of the spiritual is deemed something wholly other. There is often proposed an alternative to the entrammelled banalities of the political and social and that should lead the way to a greater awakening and contentment.  I demur from this view not only because I doubt there is such "awakening" but because it does little to advance the conversation about how we might create together the world in which we are living.

We may also evince little patience for such difficult conversations because they necessarily leave us fractured in a deeply factionalized world, even if that fracture provides a more honest form of self-disquiet.  It could be that our factions are more than tribal allegiances; they might present to us real disagreements about what it means to be human.  There is no promise in the history of spiritualities that our shared humanity means we will share what it means to be human.   A spiritual life without inviting self-disquiet renounces the vulnerabilities of being human and at a cost: it is our humanity that makes us spiritual and our vulnerability that invites our growth.  That we might disagree over these fundamentals is part of the human narrative.

I write today because I have been asked to comment on issues raised by the revelations of Edward Snowden.  When conscience demands and private convictions imply a further social and political participation, we are undoubtedly entering into controversy.  At least we might hope for as much: such a conversation needs to carry forward because the issues at stake will not evaporate into the mists of spiritual resolution.  What sort of spiritual life that exempts us from the demands of our public life?  

The Snowden situation warrants reflection and consideration, especially in light of the meaning of free speech and the powers of speech.  I am grateful to those who have prompted my comment since they have cajoled my own conscience into these uncomfortable places and because the current situation as I write this (29 June 2013) is still liminal in many respects.

We may never learn why Edward Snowden did what he did or even what he has done.  In an age of global communications it’s not without irony that truth is further victimized by the ways information is bought, sold, and manipulated for gain.  Perhaps this too will inspire our desire to keep the conversation open and, at the same time, grounded enough to take the evidence seriously.  Little stanches the pursuit of truth than arguments that cannot be revised or evolved and, just as perilous, some form of eagerness to deny the realities of fact pursued by reasoned efforts.  As desperately as many search for absolutes, finalities, and ultimate truths, we can instead choose to stand in the middle of things, in the evidence we have at hand, in the arguments we can create from the imperfect things we experience.

Political views, like religions, too often begin with theories rather than arrive at them as a means of an explanation of the evidence.  When we want something to be true, we are apt to carve our theory first and then use whatever we discover to fit into this architecture.  We take age-old views, particularly those we regard sacrosanct ---“all men are created equal,” “…because such is God’s word,” “…because the sages tell us so”----as providing the normative, the ought we should not emend, and then compel the evidence and ourselves to agree.  If we believe there is god or heaven or freedom or privacy, what have you, we will often do whatever we can to make sure that that belief is supported by whatever we discover.

Perhaps instead we can stay in the middle of things, working with the evidence, asking every question no matter how controversial or even offensive, and so remain willing to subject our most hard won conclusions to every further scrutiny.  We are not only imperiled by our desire to have our theories confirmed, we are disadvantaged by the fact that the evidence we uncover may not be the all we hope it is.  Even if we willfully refrain from conclusiveness we must learn to live in the middle of our best judgments.  The alternative that presumes we can transcend or exempt ourselves from any (or all) judgment is not only ironic--- it is an unwillingness to admit that our imperfection creates the foundation of our most laudable humanity.  Only nature refuses to judge or to imagine a future.  This means that our natural human condition presents no advantage to our creating a more humane world.  For that, we must invest in our abilities as cultural and political beings, as spiritual beings creating more than the imperatives of survival.

 No democracy more vigorously espouses protection of speech than America in the form of the First Amendment. In the majority of democracies speech is far more restricted than in the US: that is a fact apart from the issues surrounding the flagrant abuse of our claims to privacy.  How do we address too the realities of a dangerous world in which concerns for privacy and freedom are inseparable from those that point directly to individuals, groups, and governments who would inflict their own versions of nihilism, oppression, and violence? I don't mean to exempt America from that latter claim given a decade prosecuting wars of choice but America is certainly not the only perpetrator of these forms of abuse.

Snowden's father put the matter into some perspective when he said that his son had betrayed his country but not its people. Edward Snowden took a job that required his consent to secrecy and in conscience (apparently, we have no other evidence yet of other motives) he violated that oath. Without Edward Snowden we would not have the slightest inkling of the depths of intrusion and manipulation advanced by America's security apparatus. It's with no small irony that Senators like Feinstein find themselves in tacit agreement with the majority of Republicans who criticize these recent NSA revelations only because it suits their immediate political objectives, which have only one focus: to discredit, distract, nullify, and undermine anything that the President proposes or does. We can otherwise imagine the roar of approval if there were a Republican President.  More to the point, President Obama can assert with no political risk that his actions have been "within the law." Who is to blame for that?  We Americans: for creating a political culture in which we demand a risk-free world with no real costs.

There is social and psychological denial implied here that closely parallels our spiritual immaturities: we may be demanding what the world has never been offering  If we must look somehow beyond the world for such a spiritual experience then we may just as well ignore the world to pursue the realm beyond conditionality.  Of course, this too has costs.  Are we willing to abdicate the practical and imperfect imperatives of creating our world for a suspension of belief, a faith committed to some or another perfection, to claims that assert life’s purpose is ultimately unconditional?

Of course, it is deeply disappointing that the Obama Administration has perpetuated and in important respects furthered the intrusive and invasive policies of America's 9/11 hysterias.  The majority of Americans have little notion, in my opinion, how Bush policies in the aftermath of 9/11 have shaped world opinion as well as impacted our personal freedoms.  Some of this blithe disregard for world opinion is fostered by what is euphemistically called “American Exceptionalism,” a claim comparable to spiritual ultimacy because it presumes a destiny supported by assertions that set apart the privileged from the many.  One trip out of the country through any airport makes such issues disturbingly clear.  I cannot condone the Obama Administrations continuance of these surveillance policies but one can only imagine how much further things would go under the alternatives. Could it be worse? I can imagine that.

At the heart of the matter is this: what price are people willing to pay to advance their desires to be free and secure?

We Americans seem to believe we can have it both ways without costs. That we have created a political environment in which the security apparatus can collect and use anything we say as a tool of "freedom" is truly Orwellian: Americans have tacitly consented to the NSA situation by electing government that can legitimize such behaviors as within the law. The President has repeatedly stated that there are such mechanisms of legitimacy behind these decisions and actions, including a Court that has approved 99% of all requests for such intrusions into privacy.

We Americans are responsible for the NSA actions; we brought this on ourselves because we refuse to debate the issue of the costs of political freedom and our desires for personal security. Snowden has brought some of that debate into the public discourse. But his portrayal by government and media (N.B., David Gregory's questioning Glenn Greenwald’s journalism as criminal) will surely provide more heat than light: we are not mature enough as a society to have this honest discussion. That Snowden is foremost portrayed as a "traitor" charged with espionage, presumably camped for now in the Moscow airport, assures only that he will be vilified and just as certain to be railroaded into interminable prison if he returns. There will be no fair hearing of the issues, rather a deflection into Snowden's actions. That what he has done might also bring comfort or advantage to those who seek to do Americans harm is part of the price he will have to pay in conscience as well.  Americans, however, refuse to confront our conscience, so vividly displayed in our unwillingness to have the required conversations, at least among our elected leaders.  These political circumstances are in effect no different than our highest spiritual aspirations.  At stake will be how willing we are to be engage the uncomfortable and disquieting realities of a world that will only offer as much as we are willing to create.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Imagining the Rest

When we take our advantage, indulge our desires, or pursue our passions, the implication, like the fact, is that this always comes at some cost to others.  No matter how benign we may mean to be there is nothing benign about living and most of the world’s religions tell us we’re in for it.  It could be eternal damnation ---but in good Calvinist terms we can’t know that--- or bad karma in this or subsequent births.  We can’t really know that either.  All we do is assert such consequences as if they are true.  But one way or another, the threat provides more than incentive or admonishment: it’s a warning from The Beyond in the here and now.

I’m no believer in The Beyond of any ilk, at least not one we live to experience.  Others may have to cope beyond our lives but, gratefully speaking, I’m glad I won’t.  By this I mean we can ask how such claims provide something that empowers us without having to decide if they are true or not, or whether our answers aren’t more than just another empty platitude.  Empowering would mean something like we feel better doing the next thing that addresses our needs and that we really do have the option to care now about what carries on beyond our finite lives, not for ourselves but for those who survive us.

As if we don’t suffer enough the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we create for ourselves haunting conscience, guilt, ghosts, and karma-knows-what because we can.  I’m not given to dismissing those feelings or emotions just because they are “negative” but rather to wonder aloud how to address a life in which nature has no concern for the future whatsoever and so invites us to contemplate that fact.  If hope is for a future then it can’t be grounded on anything nature provides as the basis of life.  Mr. Darwin put it succinctly enough, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”  We should refuse to live in fantasies or dreams of what could be without grounding ourselves in how nature does her business.  Nature is a “her” in the same way that hope is a reality: it’s something we say, even something we may feel, and so is real enough to make a difference in what we do no matter how little it tells us about our nature as natural beings.  I want to know how hope can be efficacious in some way that invests in happiness (whatever that might be) as we humans imagine it.  For how we live in our imaginations is what is vital to the reality of hope, if it is to contribute something of value to our lives.  I need neither faith nor charity to realize this need.  What I need is to learn is how to imagine more vividly.

Hope may only exist as a cultural peculiarity of we humans and it matters not to this argument if other living beings possess it. Whether it aids or betrays us requires us to consider it in light of the fact that it plays no part in nature’s actions.  I may need to believe this not only because it is true but also to create a more fecund imaginary life.  Whether I do or not will not come naturally.  However nature nurtures us, culture is learnt, willfully and, of course, despite our choices.

My teacher was both an empathetic historian and a revolutionary with little need to espouse dogmas much less romanticize religious beliefs.  He never begrudged people their beliefs and spent a lifetime learning and explaining ideas he did not himself maintain.  This is what good scholars, especially scholars of religions, do.  They imagine lives they have never led and aren’t likely to lead.  When I say he was a revolutionary, I mean he did far more than defy social conventions to trust that I would live in his home respectful of a culture he was determined to change.  I mean as well that he welcomed, nay, demanded that the conversation of his own understanding of yoga go far beyond the claims, assertions, ideals, and values of the past.  If something is true because we know more about the natural world now than at any time in the past and if something is wrong because culture has created mechanisms of oppression or false beliefs (including religious beliefs about nature), then the revolution must deliberately put in jeopardy any cherished belief, hope, or claim that prevents us from learning these greater possibilities.  If we can’t put our beliefs at risk then they aren’t worth having.

It’s important, I think, to note that we aren’t obliged to believe anything, much less support the advocacies of others.  Rather we invite the understanding that people will live with and act upon their beliefs no matter how they found them.  And that includes on groundless grounds.  My teacher also understood how orthodoxies provide the boundary of permission and prohibition that is the mark of “sacred.”  Sacred isn’t things or any thing; sacred is how we understand and act in relationships.

We all confer the values of sacred on beliefs: we assume a stance, knowingly or not, that asserts, sometimes with empirical evidence, honest skepticism, and experimental means and sometimes by mere conviction, what we believe we know.  We make our cow sacred when it is the position from which we cannot retreat no matter how deeply we engage the doubt that even that position could be mistaken.  Given that beliefs are best designed when we permit them to be revised, changed, abandoned, or refuted, the agency of knowledge isn’t so much slippery as it is subject to terms.

What I’m suggesting here is that we can’t rely on the past alone to tell us what we need to do unless we abandon the present or believe that the future somehow already knows.  No one, no thing, nothing knows the future: that is why we are free.  The consequence of that is that nature makes no promises even if we can imagine into being.  We need not give in to either fantasizing that those in the past knew it all or that the future knows what we cannot.  We can become more willing to imagine what more there is, what more we can create in culture given what nature is providing as her terms.

Can we hold beliefs that root us in unrealized hopes that aren’t mere fantasies, well-wishing when we know ---because experience tells us so--- that so far as we know our reality-based choices must prioritize evidence of actions?  What we may want or wish is one thing; what we do may require us to address more complicated choices, complicated not just because the variables are complex but also because they require us to be compromised rather than create compromise. 

I have in mind the recent public discussions of our American President’s decision to kill Americans living overseas, particularly or, as it is claimed, exclusively those plotting to kill other Americans.  We espouse in our most cherished documents both ideals and forms of accountability, we even hold public hearings and talk about how we are supposed to stand for better, that we are in fundamental violation of our principles, etc.  I think we actually do understand the dangers, the folly, the compromised values, and the immorality of the choice to act.  That we can talk about them, however couched in agendas, dramas, and dissimulations of partial facts, we know we are compromised.  We then ask and perhaps should in the very same breath: do we want to leave bad guys alone while they are happily planning to kill?  Where do ideals meet The Road?  Cormac McCarthy gets this.  Philosophers and politicians rarely address the discomforts of reality as well as the storytellers.  This is because the storytellers aren’t obliged to solve problems but rather help us understand them.  I think the storytellers know something else: we can’t solve these dilemmas because they are real.

Of course, it’s disappointing that reality-based choices invariably compromise cherished hopes and trample values.  Who would not love if we all loved our neighbor as ourselves or if we could relieve the suffering of all beings?  We hold these truths to be self-evident and then we realize that there is nothing self-evident about the choices we make in the world. Should we espouse ideals that we know don’t work well in a reality-based world of compromised choices?  Who would not wish for equality and justice with transparent accountability?  And yet short of being reduced to venality, we understand that the stakes dictate asymmetries, invite our bias, and cause incongruities of values.  Nothing about hope is going to make situations that compel compromised choices untrue, much less alleviate them.

When Machiavelli tells us that “"It needs to be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain," I can only disagree to the extent that it is sometimes the case that the inverse is just as true.  People can be grateful, altruistic, and self-sacrificing as they are naturally selfish.  Both realities may be demonstrated with more than anecdotal examples ---we humans seemingly have always been this way.  Sometimes when you need it, the exaggerations like the plaintive, sometimes sanguine claims of hope are welcome intrusions upon reality.

When my surgeon corrected my last waking words, “Good luck in there…” with “There is no luck.  Only skill,” I knew he was wrong but you gotta’ love the attitude.  He imagined more world than the one that exists, he imagined a world where skill alone would produce his results and he wasn’t about to act without clinging to resources of imagination just as fiercely as reality fiercely refuses to acknowledge them, and so kept himself on task.  Since there is no way to create flawless skill much less luck ---good, bad, or indifferent---if what we mean is really beyond our ability to control or to fathom, we can prioritize the powers of imagination, forego fantasy when it’s unhelpful (but not when it’s just too little fun) and get on with it.  That doesn’t mean the lucky doesn’t exist or that we can’t wish for it anymore than we are determined only by the facts of nature.  The reality we imagine determines as much the culture we hope to create when we give nature her due.

When does hope bring us an advantage if it can’t bring us an outcome?  Everything of value will come at some cost.  Perhaps when we realize that Machiavelli was only half right because he spoke with brutal candor of the natural state of our humanity.  What is the next half?  That’s up to us.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Difference A Life Can Make, Notes on Newtown

We must grieve to heal enough to endure, even to insist that we will flourish, so that we can act today and again tomorrow for another tomorrow.  I want to believe that no one has been left untouched or unchanged by these events.  That is a small part of my hope for change.  What difference might we make for one another?  How do we heal?

Life will not demand we create a better life, much less a better world.  All that is before us is the challenge we create for ourselves: to become more humane and to begin we cannot aver less than every human possibility.  So for me, it’s never all going to be all right.  Not in this lifetime or likely in any other.  I will contend with these memories to remind me of what can be, in every way possible.  I will seek the fortitude to heal because courageous souls protect the innocent, serve the frail and lend their hands to the living--- and I will admire as well those who dare to speak out to change the world, untroubled to admit we are all capable of doing more and better.

I choose not to tranquilize myself with the promise that “all is well” or that it will be then, or will be someday.   All manner of things are indeed not well and we cannot make that so.   So what can we do?

We can engage more deeply now, not without the past and just as surely for a future.  We can answer to the powers of memory and create with imagination and actions to place at risk more deliberately the very humanity we seek--- so that we do not forget what it takes to be more humane and seize upon our chances to act.  I do not wish to transcend our possibilities, for worse and for better, but to initiate by looking into the face of what has been and what is.  I can still dream and I can bring those dreams into the world.  What will we dream?

We might do well by first not pretending to some kind of awareness “beyond the mind” or indulging the claim that these feelings are somehow less because we do not yet fully fathom ourselves.  Everything does not happen for the best.  Few certainties serve us as well as the uncertainty that we will not fathom fully this life.  Let not the irony be lost on us.  We can work to nurture more of that uncertainty as we try to understand more deeply what is.  I cannot wish to go beyond mind or heart, well aware just how temporary is this body that provides our gifts.  Rather, I can wish to engage the all of it, for all that life is and is not offering.  What then can we create?  How can we start again?  Reach out.  Don’t wait.  Act.

A friend put the matter to me this way, with the luminous advice of the late Christopher Hitchens.  Citing another element of his memoir upon mortality, Hitchens in redolent self-awareness reminds us, as he does himself, to never let pass how,

---the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity -- has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience.  I can't hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel.  If there is anyone known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it. The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.

Far be it from me to deny the healing found in whatever consolations serve others.  But I mean to take Hitchens at his word: my concerns are for a life that seeks more rather than less from this world and from each other.  We are most assuredly each other’s keepers in this realm of human possibilities.  What we create depends on how we stand for one another, how we learn from the all that life presents.  How then shall we keep one another?

It won’t be by wishing things were otherwise or somehow claiming that a better world awaits us when.  Hope may well be about then, but it is surely also about now.  It is a power we create to place a value upon life and a future worthy of our abilities.  

There is no place I wish to arrive that will make this memory now so present less a grief etched ever into my heart.  But I am hopeful that memory will too create a more willing actor to bring about change.  Whatever “whole” we may feel part of or believe we belong to, it will never serve poorly to remember that how we remember creates who we become and that these feelings can remind us to act because we can, now and for the future.  I mean willfully to trespass upon this certainty that all is far from well so that we might feel the urgency and have the mettle to make a better life, uncertain and hopeful, at once human.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Not Beyond Understanding

Nothing human is inexplicable.  Let' start there.  Even when it hurts this much.

I was asked to comment by a dear friend about the protests being staged by the so-called Westboro Baptist Church, that vilely abusive organization that takes it upon itself to offend in the most malignant and distasteful ways whenever it seems possible to attract media attentions.  That they would exploit the grief and decency of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, the sensibilities of the nation, and indeed place American freedoms before the world to see is deliberate.  The hackers exposing them will not cause them to relent but rather add fuel to their fires.  Condemnation of their behavior is no less important even as it provides them some part of what they seek.  That irony should not be lost on any of us.  My point here will be to explain that as offensive as Westboro Baptist may be, it is not at all beyond our understanding.  In fact, their behavior is part of the decidedly American story that we can tell about the relationship of religion to our creation of a distinctive political discourse.  Here is the link that brings the matter before us (again):

The most difficult feature to fathom of the Westboro Baptist worldview is their insistence on creating such deliberately offensive public intervention and display. They seek to nurture that public discord quite deliberately and that needs to be seen in light of a distinctive set of circumstances that invite us to consider the situation of American religions.  Placed in an American context this too can be understood as a reckoning of religion and politics. If you will allow me a touch of pedantry, I will explain, college-professor style.  Even this will be far too brief to touch on anything but essentials.

First, tracing apocalyptic claims to the first century means that what we see here may appear something strange but nothing new.  To make those claims to the end of days became standard faire from the earliest forms of incipient Christianity and part of what we might call an ordinary feature of the effort to reconcile the “delay” in the Second Coming.  By the second century, the emergent Christian movements had plenty to reconcile since their predictions of impending final cataclysm required dramatic rethinking.  We might even go so far as to say that the many responses to Jesus’s non-second-earthly-appearance are the nearly innumerable Christianities of history.

It may seem more familiar to us in America nowadays for the more ardent advocates of apocalypse to use their public voices for further theological speculation regarding the imminent end-time and to promote their particular versions of social gospel, often with typically isolating features claiming their moral superiority. Hence we arrive at moral proclamations about social behaviors that mean to offend and admonish those with whom they disagree.  Everything from climate change to same-sex marriage are on the docket for the religious to tie their assertions about apocalypse with historical change, be it with regard to scientific fact or social mores.  Claiming to preserve, to conserve the values of the past, they mean to promote their views as predictive of the future.  Recent comments from the Pope regarding same-sex marriage are not couched in particularly apocalyptic threats from God but rather offend on the basis of a claim to history, culture, and moral superiority that bears a comparable stench of discrimination, hypocrisy, and oppression.  (Look here for those comments:  To claim moral superiority on the basis of a religious conviction, no matter how offensive it may be to some, especially those who bear the brunt of such oppressions, is nothing at all unusual.  To use the past, usually in the guise of conservatism, as a predictive of the future is part of their claim to truth: they mean to tell us who we have been, who we need to be, and what will happen to us if we fail to heed their moralizing injunctive. Religion never need be presumed as a force for social good, much less for progress, though there are any number of counters and responses from others using religion in their modes of reasoning and expression to assert otherwise.  Communities of religious people make all sorts of difference in the world, however we construe the value of such differences. 

Returning to comparisons with American millennialism, it’s not unusual to see such groups isolate themselves in a self-imposed retreat or compound away from society and wait, as it were, for the end time they predict.  In the meantime, we Americans largely condone their religious freedom and respect their rights as citizens insofar as they do not break the law.  Just how far such groups deem themselves subject to the secular law of the land is part of their test of religious rights.

Perhaps far less overtly offensive are self-containing communities with minimally intrusive evangelism as their strategy, remaining in secular society but with community-endorsed forms of interaction.  Again, the issue of religious freedom in America guarantees their rights within the terms of secular law--- for all American law means by definition to be secular.  This too is a promise of the First Amendment not to allow religion to intrude upon the ordinances of reason we declare to be law.  It is also a matter of increasing scrutiny and further consideration in light of the current state of the Supreme Court (but I shall not digress in that direction).

It’s rarer still to witness this level of flagrant and publicly offensive street protestors such as Westboro. The soapbox ranting apocalyptic is not all that unusual.  I would venture to say that it can be found in nearly every American city with a street corner.  Adding fuel to the fire is the role of media and the deliberate use of public exposure to create a more incendiary public display.  Religious exhibitionism is particularly well-sanctioned in America and the cost of reining in the offensive is meant to test our boundaries of decency as well as the benefits of freedom of expression.  Any moment on television will create further opportunity and we all know that radio creates an even more volatile atmosphere of tolerance-testing our moral outrage and political rights to expression.

There is a vulgar dichotomy between an apocalyptic _fear_ of exposure as they expose themselves, claiming persecution for their beliefs and their feelings of necessity of being heard as part of their claim to share a privileged religious understanding that is a civilly protected right.  They at once mean to isolate themselves _and_ to share their privileged religious understanding; this being the dichotomy they play out in public and in an America that has protected religious expression politically.  Some extremists, like Heaven's Gate, take eschatological matters into their own hands and compel followers to follow. Such forms of public isolation (note the irony, of course) are features of their alterity, their sense that they have been chosen to be a privileged "other" and so root that claim on an interpretation of scripture, revelation (often from their leader), and some sort of divine intervention that assures them of their superiority.

Among these Westboro folks, this claim to privileged otherness adds a dimension of outrage and acting out in society that means to confirm and justify their behavior with special reference to American millennialism seen in light of history: they are exercising free speech to violate civility (as a way of acting out their "freedom"); they are guising their isolationist hate as religion and so highlight their privilege to exercise their offensive behaviors, and they are testing the boundaries of civil society, which they deem evil because only their version of religious "society" is beyond contempt.

In sum, they can likely only express themselves in such offensive public ways because America has nearly unique laws among civilized nations that protect outrageous, offensive, and abusive behaviors that can be regarded as speech or religious acts. Testing these boundaries of civil rights protected by the Constitution is part of an American millennialism mentality that links their notions of persecution to their religious beliefs that secularism is evil, i.e., any religious view not their own and the State as persecutor-in-chief. They connect the offense they create with their own self-styled persecution.  To this offense, both “received” and offered, they further tie the privilege they arrogate to themselves as specially chosen religious persons. WE are the damned, THEY are the chosen creates a binary that permits them to do or say anything and then claim ---with no small degree of irony---that they are protected to say and act as they do NOT by the extraordinary privileges of _civil_ rights (distinctly American) but rather as their God-given imperative.

An extension of this sort of religious thinking is the commensurate survivalism that infects certain 2nd Amendment advocates.  We learn today from Nancy Lanza's sister that her "enthusiasm" for guns was at least in part prompted by her delusional fear of the lawlessness and tyranny that will ensue upon the impending economic collapse of the current United States government.  (Look here the comments of Marsha Lanza regarding their apparently shared view of our current political situation: Is it going to far to suggest that this self-induced fantasy of ominous and looming catastrophe is not only comparable but linked to similarly expressed religious sentiments?  And what of the propagation of such attitudes, values, and claims in major media outlets that are particularly favored by extremist American religious?  I have in mind the influence of Fox News and its minions.  At what point do we create more scourge thinking by legitimizing it in the name of "news" and commentary?

Apocalyptic religionists use America's notions of civil liberties as if they were religiously conferred in order to condemn the very rights that are socially sanctioned by secular law. It is a sad, pathetic, sociopathic view of the world that may, in fact, be only possible in America and as a decidedly American feature of social religious history. People have, as we know, been persecuted for their religious beliefs in a country that specially singles out religion as a category of non-governmental intervention (First Amendment issues).  Linking their peculiar and deeply offensive religious views to the political is precisely their way of hastening the apocalypse they mean to bring upon themselves and us with them. For what are we to do? Are we to restrict their offensive speech and behaviors at the cost of our own freedom to speak and act in protest? That would serve them as well as define us as our own worse enemy. That very bind is what they further mean to exacerbate, and it is no less offensive that they mean deliberately to be sociopathic with such willful abuse of our hard-earned freedoms.  That sociopathic desire is part and parcel of their religious worldview, sanctioned ironically by the powers of secular law to be expressed freely.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Debate Season: Deciding Who We Want to Be

We are on the verge of serious political decision in America.   A friend asked my opinion about how we might choose to comment, to express opinions, to enter the fray with friends and in the public discourse as “contemporary yogins.”  Let me define “yogin” a bit more plain and simple: any person committed to deep engagement with all that life might promise.  We’ve had occasion before to think about this definition here so, for now, let’s work with this much.

With this then, a bit of background.  Yoga traditions, as diverse and contentious as they are in championing their own views, assume two common postures and, for some, the one preempts if not excludes the other.  There are those pravrtti, literally “turning towards” the world with a commitment to sustaining the values of personal integrity and the social welfare.  This is sometimes characterized (or reduced) to the life of bhukti or “enjoyment” and it has gotten something of a bad rap in the view of those espousing versions of mukti or “liberation” from/within the limited, temporal, and conditional reality in favor of a state that extricates and exempts one from worldly controversy and conflict.  To achieve such liberation one must become nivrtti, that is “turn away,” which usually means privileging some form of introversion, silence, or disinterest in the messy business of a world that cannot confer absolute certainty and so lead to transcendent or “unconditioned” awareness. 

In contemporary yoga such voices of nivrtti often resort to two strategies of criticism meant to proffer the superiority of taking a “higher” and “spiritual” path that contrasts with the conflicting views and uncertainties of a mundane human reality.  The two strategies are covertly (or not) coupled with certain logic of superiority.  It goes like this: any effort to express views that might be contentious, disputed, or cause conflict are deemed (1) the work of the “lower” features of an Ego---n.b., the capital “E” works a certain magic meant to express the authority of the claim that Ego=culprit in the equation that affirms (2) silence in the role of our better angel for “spiritual” accomplishment.  So, it is implied, to become silent and so serene beyond measurable response is set apart as the higher path of a “true” yogin.  The “spiritual” then becomes the apolitical.  But even a little more candor reveals that this apolitical spiritual path---revered as superior is more an effort to keep one’s politics private, to silence the process of a more honest conversation precisely because it could complicate or challenge relationships.  The next bit of legerdemain is to assert that this unifying view of the “true” nature of reality not only transcends any contentions but also manages to render everyone’s individual opinions equally true so that there is no need to have the challenging conversations in the open.  Just go inside and everything will be better.  

There is another take on the matter that I think warrants our consideration.  

Should we fail to enter the public discourse without our opinions stated with reason and articulation we fail to engage a life greater than our own private assertions and feelings.  How can we presume to be in a world together without making the effort to challenge our own views by engaging those with whom we might disagree?

This is especially important when we share our views, make our arguments, and offer our experience with those we have come to respect as members of our community.  If we can't argue with our friends then every contention begins without the deeper emotional connection that tempers our views with an indulgence and deference for friendship.  But won’t a conversation about hot button politics trigger emotions, stress our abilities to convey our feelings and thoughts rationally, and threaten otherwise respectful friendships because views are so deeply heartfelt?  Well, yes.  Welcome to real world engagement.  I might even want to call that “yoga,” but the word we use is hardly the point. 

It can be the case that real conversation not only stakes out our life’s views but also recognizes that others’ views will cause us to address the boundaries of our tolerance.  When can we live and let live?  When do we say, “You shall not pass”?  There are views worth living and dying for, unless of course one believes that “turning away” (nivrtti) is the superior life.  To such anchorites whose engagement into isolation from mere worldliness serves as the principle that sets yoga apart from the world I have but one further observation: such a cave of meditation that serves this “higher” purpose will not protect you from all the real turmoil an embodied life in the world promises.  You can withdraw but you cannot cease to matter to the rest who accept the responsibilities of conversation in public while you are meditating in complacent splendor.  Don’t mistake me, meditation is a surely process that enriches life but not one that confers safety from life.  Come out, come out, wherever you are!

I’m not suggesting that debate become the theme of your yoga class much less that every or any context will serve as an appropriate place to have debates or just challenging conversations.  Of course not.  But I am suggesting that avoiding such conversation because it is deemed a superior spiritual path or to leave it red-flagged because it may cause trouble is hardly a deep engagement with life.   What is not worth the trouble is not worth your love.  That would include community, friends, and family, no?

In yoga we can frame the matter as Dharma---the sustaining power to create relationships with a world that demands bringing some sort of order to entropy.   That Dharma fails to achieve agreement or, for that matter, anything like a complete order for living is not a problem to be solved but an acknowledgment that life offers more than any of us can fathom.  If we will to take up the conversations of political life there will be contention even in our agreements.  We might seek to avoid turbulence life’s flight because political issues merge the personal and the public: what we "defend" for our public view has implications for our own personal welfare.  But to reduce such matters to contending “egos” ---a favorite claim of the superior introversion---is little more than another discourse of avoidance: it assumes that your personal view is somehow not important enough to be shared.

Ego is the way in which views that are worth sharing make their way through the lens of the individual and the personal.  There is for a human being living in the world no other avenue for meaningful conversation even if there is the choice to disengage into introversion or placid dissociation.  If one means to say that individuals reduce the case they make for their public opinions to mere assertions and emotional claims, then the problem isn't the ego: it's the inability to state those opinions in ways that could be persuasive by the powers of argument.  Without those powers of argument well honed in conversation--- especially among friends who may not be like-minded---how can we pretend to be fully engaged with the gifts of our human capacity to share meaningful conversation?  Must all conversation be reduced to the merely irenic, the trite acceptance that every view is just as good as every other?  No serious person could believe that.

Some of the most important conversation may not appear to be "kind", especially when the issues at stake have real human implications.  Should we be "kind" when we take up the abuses, real and understood to be harmful to innocents or the vulnerable?  It may be necessary to be more honest than that in order to convey the gravity of a real emotion.  Silence becomes yet another form of denial and repression when it contains within itself the inability or the command to revert to isolation when everything about being human cries out to our shared conversation in a deeply challenging, often conflicted world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Resting in the Maelstrom

I’ve written often about the Bhagavad Gita and as perplexing as the explicit philosophical content of the work can be, Krishna’s more emotional admonition and disapprobation of Arjuna in the opening verses still gives me plenty to think about. I’m currently teaching the Gita in our on-line course but, truth to tell, I have taught this work at least once a year for the past twenty-five. In a three-hour lecture I’ve been known not to get much past chapter two. I won’t here either. Apologies for that in advance yo.

If you’re not familiar, the story goes something like this: the great warrior Arjuna orders his charioteer Krishna to place them between the two opposing armies. Krishna is many things to Arjuna: he is his bard and confidante as subordinate charioteer (the word suta means both in Sanskrit), he is his best friend, his brother-in-law and so the beloved uncle protector of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. (Arjuna is married to Krishna’s baby sister. Wow, is that another story.) Eventually, Arjuna asks Krishna to be his teacher. They have an intimacy in conversation that reveals how friends can act with one another: with deep concern, stark candor in private, and a willingness to speak and to be heard.

Arjuna begins confident of his actions asking to see the ones he is about to engage in battle. But that confrontation creates something unexpected for Arjuna and for us, since we have rarely witnessed either hesitation or disobedience in Arjuna’s character. Arjuna received the charge to lead the battle and accepted it. He had his chance earlier at the ritual call to the yoke to make a different choice and to go home instead of lead and fight. Arjuna is decisive by temperament, he is more than an attentive and focused student, he is accomplished in his efforts, and vain in ways that both serve and occlude his self-awareness.

His hesitation is grounded in conscience; his argument advances then to suggest that Krishna, like any reasonable person, would agree with him. (“…how can we fail to know enough to turn away from such a crime?... (1.39). Don’t we all do this? Believe that when we’re sure we’re right, everyone we love and respect must see things the same way? Arjuna is making a good case, a serious one, fully cognizant of the abomination that is war, for the degradation of society that follows from the compromise of one’s values when the world presents choices that are as confounding as they are inevitable. We all must act from the heart, from conscience drawn to the deepest sense of self (and this is much of what Krishna will teach him as the Gita unfolds) but we act because we must. There is no recourse to retire or renounce if we answer the call to the yoke in this world.

This moment of arresting contemplation, this outpouring of feeling and reasoning, all of these teachings are within this pause and that too is an action with consequences for the moment and the future. What Arjuna chooses matters: it will shape the course of history. What Krishna enjoins upon him is that he must listen to more than himself. Krishna means to influence, to use the powers of persuasion with all his powers of connection to mind and heart because this is what friends do and, if you take the sublime message of the Gita to heart, then this is what the divine does when appearing human. Krishna is not afraid to insult his friend or lay claim upon his identity. Krishna has a bias and expresses it plainly, adamantly, without any constraint upon his honest understanding. Near the conclusion of the Gita Krishna also makes clear that Arjuna’s choice is his own even when karma’s inevitabilities are brought into the equation. Fate, which is karma-past, and destiny, which is karma-future, is not solely determinative of our choices. “Reflect upon this knowledge I have offered for your consideration…this mystery of mysteries, in its entirety and then do as you are pleased to do.” (18.63) We are free beings, Krishna tells us, no matter how we are shaped by society, by the forces of Nature, or by the processes of karma in the cycles of samsara.

Krishna’s reply to Arjuna’s call for withdrawal from the battle is equally famous for its stance on compassion for the family members whose actions are being held to accounts. He replies, “You sorrow for those who warrant no such sorrow, and yet you speak to sage issues.” Krishna affirms Arjuna’s considerations, grouping him with the sage’s concerns, and as the text unfolds places these considerations in light of his teaching about the immortal soul, the powers of karma, and the rest. But the tone of Krishna’s admonition has relentless momentum even as he speaks to sage issues and it’s that tone, that understanding of compassion that I focus on here.

In a word, it’s worth considering that Krishna doesn’t merely argue his friend’s views are specious reasoning. He makes a deeper implication: that formulating our best understandings without being open to persuasion, even when that process is unappealing or results in disagreement, leaves one far too right and too little attentive to the perils of listening only to one’s own voice. Of course, Krishna is telling Arjuna what to do because Arjuna has asked for his counsel: “Pray tell me for sure, please guide me, your student who seeks your help…” (2.7) And he is telling him to make up his own mind. But more than anything, I think, he is telling him not to do anything in isolation, alone, by only going inside for the answer. He wants Arjuna to be in conversation, not only following his innermost self when such a strategy for counsel and understanding would leave him separate from a larger conversation. Such a self-inquiry, one that reaches to the heart of self, discovers others are there with you, at the core, in conversation. In short, we are never really the sole proprietors of our truths. Our understandings of truth require each other in some more complex arrangement of connection to what we all share in embodied experiences. This is a messy business, this being human, perhaps constantly discomforting and often confusing. Welcoming our selves to the process of yoking, to yoga, means that values and principles are brought into this often-conflicted realm of choices. Don’t give up; don’t think you can just walk away. That’s the yoga that accepts the gift of our common human endeavor.

Krishna never doubts that Arjuna is being authentic and sincere. But he will not allow him to decouple words and actions because the first dynamic of authenticity is this: Is what we say, what we do? Then we must listen further because there is invariably another voice and we need to learn how to value counsel. There’s no doubt that we value some counsel more. Not to value or devalue the persons who offer it but rather to know that arguments of mind and heart yoke us rather than bind us. We are free to create those options and grateful for friends who are willing to challenge us to rise to the occasion of our hard-won evaluations. That’s how it goes in life. To say there is no judgment is to make a judgment. There are consequences to our choices, this is a point to which Krishna returns relentlessly. Then we will find ourselves in this place where we are lucky to have such friends who will confront us. And we will also become a reflection of the company we mean to keep because that is our tacit message to the world: this is where I am. Arjuna is not alone here because we are never alone in the implications of our choices. When we are truly alone that may be the very definition of human delusion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Krishna’s use of the word “kripa” in these passages, a word that suggests feelings of compassion, pity, and empathy for the pain or experience of another. In these passages are unfinished contemplations on the meaning of compassion and its expression as an empowerment of life’s choices and our decision-making process. I say these contemplations are unfinished because I think they mean to be. I think we’re not supposed to be clear. We’re supposed to go deeper and choose on the basis of what we know and feel. We’re required to do everything we can to understand as much as possible, then choose, then act.

Krishna’s forgiveness of those who have caused this debacle isn’t being withheld but rather expressed as an unwillingness to enable or support their actions: these antagonists, their Kaurava cousins, are willing to bring ruin upon far more than themselves and have refused further conversation. What makes for villains in this story isn’t only their absence of honesty though their credibility is more than suspect; it’s their pathology, a complicity in destruction that will allow the world burn so that they might assert the prerogative of their sole executive power to choose the fate of others. And Krishna’s compassion is not, I think, only unconditional. The realities we need experience as unconditional and conditional are different from one another, but they are also inseparable. Krishna will not decouple the concerns he has for immortal truths from his insistence that all experiences of real value take the form of powers we express in the world. If we are, as it were, quick to forgive, we may forget that forgiveness is meant to be healing rather than merely comforting to the both parties. Put another way, compassion becomes healing when it does the uncomfortable work of serious reflection and prompts that process in others as well. Healing is often, perhaps even most of the time, a discomforting business and it is to this process he calls his friend Arjuna. We, of course, are every character in this story, not just the ones we prefer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


My teacher, a person as gentle and considerate as any human being I have ever known, also had a quite a temper. His ears would turn red when he got mad. It didn’t happen very often but I remember what he said once afterwards. It went something like this: becoming angry was no mere teaching moment, not some demonstration of an exalted guru principle that flows ineffable spiritual truth. What he experienced, he said, was an action, an awareness, a commitment to an expression of his feelings and thoughts yoked to his body; this experience was a coming together, a yoga, a looming into the whole, a tantra, and an affirmation of the radical claim that the human experience is the point of having been born human. You are the point the universe has decided to make. Own that experience, receive that as the gift, never stop wanting to become more human: that is divine.

I asked him then, where do we learn that experience of the divine? Appa never failed to surprise me even when there was a textbook or “scriptural” answer. He knew all of those so well. He was a scholar of renown in south India, an initiate in the Tantra of Shrividya, and ready to explain the views of history. But these sources never provided answers. Instead, he said, we could enter into conversation where we might burnish hard-won opinions, not to confirm a body of doctrine, where we answer to scriptures, orthodoxies, or abstractions but rather learn to think with them. We must rely on our wits and trust that in disagreement we find as much to learn as in assent. When we admit the greatest tyranny we can impose upon ourselves is certainty then the conversation stands a chance of having continued value.

We aren’t accountable to the “divine” as if some intrinsic standard or embedded principle of goodness permeates the universe inviting our alignment, urging its standard. There is too much we don’t know to presume any such reality somehow guides or implores us. Nor are we merely governed by an abstract concept of karma as if this impersonal law provides the arbiter of justice, however eventual. Karma may be another way to talk about the power of the universe to audit our accounts but its not going to solve or decide anything. Instead we must learn to yoke ourselves to each other, learn to become accountable to ourselves and to one other; we answer to our family, our community, to humanity for our actions. For we are exactly what we do whether those actions manifest inside or outside.

The things we do in this life matter, our actions need to be judged, and we must learn how to hold each other responsible for actions. No one gets a pass. No principle like “guru” or the “divine” stands beyond our evaluation of its value in our lives. The consequences obtain; ramifications, present or delayed, affect others as much as they charge us to lead evermore-authentic lives. To cultivate our self-awareness we must rely on more than our individual experience because nothing is more delusional than isolating or compartmentalizing experience. Our spiritual life is more than our life within: it must happen with nature and in society. The dignity we offer to each other in honor of our private lives does not leave us less accountable to the world. We meditate when we enter into these conversations and emerge accountable to more than our individuality.

Reaching into that greater sense of responsibility we create kula, community. Kula--- the conversation of community holding itself to standards of accountability and reckoning. This is the place to find guru: the weight that implies we are experiencing something important. Community begins with self-reckoning and we are always judging. The issue isn’t whether we will judge our selves or others: we will, we must. Rather how can we arrive at our common humanity in the conversation that avers us to account for actions.