Monday, November 16, 2020

A Note to the Worlds of Yoga Students About Thinking Critically


I write this morning in support of my dear friend Noah Maze and others who have raised the alarm about conspiracy theories, QAnon-like madness, and a certain lack of seriousness and judgment that we have witnessed in what might be called our "worlds of yoga."

We're not talking about Trumpists per se taking their sycophantic pledges of fealty or those stepping into the madness of denial or alternative facts led by their grievances. Few of those folks I believe I have met in my classes or among my social media friends. We are rather talking to people who we have met in our classes, people who have claimed to be students of yoga, if not our students. Yoga means to make connection; it enjoins us to take to heart our feelings, become aware in body, speech, _and_ mind. We need to know that all human beings are vulnerable to processes of learning that can confuse and even delude anyone.

Yogis like to think of themselves as freedom loving beings making deeper connections--- since yoga does fundamentally claim to further the process of connection whether that be physical, emotional, or cognitive. But there has always been in yoga worlds claims about learning, evidence, and voices of authority that we should be ever-vigilant to understand. Voices of authority can stand for truth but also for that sense of "us" that we all long to make. Yogis usually think they are leading their own way but the need to follow is just as prevalent and can be easily as misleading. How do we keep our hearts in places of concern and character? How do we engage, connect, make yoga with thinking and learning to think?

Certain tendencies of authoritarianism, particularly the foundational feature of following the leader with singleminded loyalty and confidence in whatever "facts" are presented has roots in almost every religious and spiritual tradition. Belief can be an abdication of wits, of evidence and reason, of thinking for oneself but it can also be a part of our most reliable mechanisms of self-correction and revision. We're like to believe _something_ and we need to know _why_ we do.

It's also the case that traditions that formulate authoritarian views may invite us not to follow like sheep but to use our heads and get our hearts on right. Are we really being asked to think or are we being asked to believe? If we can connect these two endeavors we stand a chance at making a more effective connection, a better yoga. That such "reasoning" for oneself might do little more than confirm an authoritarian claim is all too evident. We need to know that we are believing when we do and we need to connect what we believe to what we do, to consider the implications and consequences of our views in the world.

The world is far larger than whatever _your_ beliefs are. And while the world may give up its facts only to we mere humans, we have to know what makes our human knowledge and understanding worth its weight. We may be all we have but we are what we have. Yoga means to teach us how to make connections to ourselves and to more than ourselves and that is no easy task. But thinking is art best learned and practiced with care and skill and time and effort---that too is a connection to yoga itself. We're going to need heart---courage---and we're going to need care and take our time to learn how to learn.
More dangerous than the need to believe is the need to follow.

Our need to belong makes all of this worse because we human beings like to think that as individuals we have a measure of autonomy. Who could disagree that we are able to construct our own worlds? But we are never not social, even when pandemic keeps us apart. We are always being made by nature, history, culture, and the facts of life. It is also our current states of pandemic apartness that are exacerbating the madness that abdicates facts, latches on to conspiracy theories, and fails to do the critical work of accountability. Our circumstances for learning are never easy and now they are harder.

The most important things in life in truth are not hard to learn but they are hard to accept and to address with honestly and moral sobriety. So you got this, right? Life is hard, it's gonna hurt. Leaning about what to do about that first noble truth is no small matter because that too is going to be hard. Sticking with the unfolding of truths that are provisional, unfinished, and human complicates our desire for truths to be more than human. But we are the best we got and using the gods or the buddhas or the sages to tell us what's what is no invitation to be less capable as a critical thinker. So how to do that?

Let me suggest three strategies to help us understand when we are being less than critically adroit. Perhaps these methods can makes us bit more capable of dealing with the information that bombards us. Nothing new here because we don't need new methods: we need to get better at ones that have been proven to help. I've culled these from the basics of modern critical thinking that applies to all subjects in the arts and sciences. Whether we are studying human cultural beliefs or behaviors or the findings of science, we need the processes of thinking. How you learn to think will tell you a great deal about what you think and what others may be thinking.

(1) Are you asking every question, including the ones that are uncomfortable or may cause "trouble"? Are you asking good trouble questions? What do you want from those enquiries? AND what kinds of questions are others asking, _which_ questions? The questions we ask tell about what we want, what we need and fear and hope and believe. Study the questions and you will have a better idea about the answers being given. Are people asking the only the questions they feel permitted to ask? Do they know that they are asking questions because those are the questions they _can_ ask? If it's all answers you are getting there are still agendas, still needs and wants being met and we should ask about what we think those are.

(2) Are you following the evidence? Are you asking if your sources are reputable? What makes your evidence reliable? And are you aware enough to know that the evidence might indeed change your mind, cause you to revise and rethink? You may not be rewarded for your progress and the need to belong to the group may interfere with learning if that learning runs afoul of the group think. Know too that if you're out there all alone you may need to check in with those in groups who have their critical wits switched to the on-position. Ask where the evidence originates and then how it is being used.

(3) Everytime you think you are certain think again. Not to doubt everything---for who would hold an opinion that they don't think is true? But to recognize that clarity is not certainty, it is merely the best you have and that that is all you have. When clarity touches the facts matters are _more_ certain but be careful always with _final_ certainties that prevent the next worthwhile question.

Forgive my prosaic, college professor need to say these things but there is a lot of distressing and admittedly dispiriting discourse in my newsfeed from people I would have never expected to have become so vulnerable to thinking that fails the tests of criticality. Time to get our heads and hearts from merely spinning to moving with greater care.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Meditation For Sale

I've been party to some conversation lately about "meditation." If you are wondering those are sort of hate quotes, not because I hate meditation but to suggest that the meaning of the term is worth a chortle before we get all solemn and serious. Never pious. Piety is never a virtue but that is another matter. Meditation is both more and less than what we usually mean by the word . That's my point of departure here. What you discover looking out at the world that already might be interested in the topic is rife with irony, as we'll see.
But to keep it plain: Quietism is the order of the day. Chill. Less stress. Less anxiety. One of the big website businesses is, after all, called Calm. My problem with this is that it is only the most elementary requisite to what meditation _needs_ to become if it is to be more than a soporific stupor. Early Buddhism has provided the bulk of inspiration for these modern kinds of meditation sold to first in the yoga world and now beyond to, you know, normal people. "Mindfulness" is the big sell, of course, and you have to go only a few further steps to get to something like the loving-kindness crowd where being a good person is also the purported outcome of learning meditations. Okay, be nice and get quiet inside is great. I'm immediately bored by this. But that isn't because I couldn't be nicer or dislike calm. But you mean
that's it? A few bits of context. What's being sold as "Vipassana" however isn't vipassana (insight), it is almost only its traditional complement, samatha, (chill, serenity) and the basics for this sell are lifted almost verbatim from the Pali canon traditions of Theravada Buddhism. The mindfulness sell also is sure to leave out two more features besides any serious effort at analysis (vipassana): the deep disdain for _all_ worldliness and the goal that claims ultimate relief from the human condition itself aka buddhahood. Those Pali canon inspirations in the modern meditation sale are in it for the chill bit, a kind of first level therapeutics for dealing with a life that will continue to spin and be spun out by a relentless world of desires (samsara). That will keep you meditating the same way you keep riding your exercise bike. Do it regularly and you will get the result: more chill, less stress. Who could object? But that's it? They aren't keen either on too much ardor (tapas) much less the more rigorous ascetical values that would require disaffection coupled to dissociations from everyday concerns. Those are rooted values in early Buddhism that prompts the purpose of meditation itself. But let's not labor the details. And please, don't got right away to "higher consciousness" or "deeper states": snake oil is everywhere for sale, always has been. All of this easy to understand because most people just want a bit less stress and anxiety just to carry on with what they are already doing. Real change in personal development is not in the works because what meditation _could_ be has been reduced to quietism without much further introspection. We let stuff "come up" (because it will) but we rarely learn more about dealing with it. That would require words, concepts, analysis, and further implementations. We are being told to close our eyes but not to look within. We are not taught much of anything about how to use our powers of _critical_ introspection and imagination to illumine our shadows and go deeper into the oceans of thought and feeling. Those processes imply mind, ego, and awareness and god forbid you take those things seriously as assets to be cultivated and made further investments. We are being told how to divest rather than invest in ourselves. We're told that calming down, feeling less stress or anxiety is the goal of the investment. It's barely the beginning. To wit, there is no more "vipassana" that would break into the issues that we must address---apparently, once you are calm there is no need to do the kind of work that invites you to receive more information about yourself, the stuff that is deeply buried and is not all pleasant. You meditate to relieve strife not to realize it's potencies. There is not the slightest suggestion that the potencies of strife, like deep inner rage or desire or feelings that disturb, are potential assets and could invite further investments.
Becoming more receptive to more of what's going on inside does indeed require the power of calm. You've surmised at this point that my claim is that this is only the very beginning of the work. Let's leave aside (can I say dismiss, please?) the idea that we are waking up our "inner divinity" or illumination or liberation or any such religious assertion about what are called generally attainments. Just fergitaboutthat "spiritual" (it's really religious) bit and focus for a moment on the idea that calm is actually the prerequisite for inner study, serious introspection, and further consideration of ourselves as individuals, as human beings that have been made by forces greater than ourselves---like society, history, DNA, you name it, but all the stuff you don't actually choose. This means that analysis or introspection must begin _from_ some semblance of calm and proceeds _not_ first to personal choice, free will, or some claim about empowerment but to a critical awareness of what makes us that we do not decide or choose. This is what most traditions call karma, and I hope that is obvious enough to keep this argument moving forward. We calm to begin to deal with ourselves not as we choose but as we have been created. Just to stick with the helpful teminology of the Buddhists, the word "vipassana" is etymologically something like rendered 'discrete seeing'. (Oh and if you're not aware vipassana is Pali and vipashana is Sanskrit and that sorta' does matter (a lot) when we discuss the actual historical sources.) We must first see with perspicacity how karma---history, culture, language, family, larger systemics and structures, etc.---makes us and then move on to what is inside us as individuals that we must contend with as our _own_ experience. What lies within that experience is more than we remember just like it is more than we choose. But that we can 'go there' through the powers of meditation is what this analytical side of the methods and practices assert. This means that meditation is actually aiming towards deep introspection, critical analysis, the uncovering and unburying of the experiences and forces that make up a greater totality of our actual lives. Let me put this in a familiar metaphor. As old as the Veda is the idea that three-fourths of creation remains unseen, only one-fourth ever revealed (cf., RV 10.90). Now put this in very simple human experiential terms. We identify principally with waking consciousness and take reality to be directed from that kind of experience. But we dream and have deep sleep and then there is "the fourth", which if it is not some religious claim of liberation might well be our collective unconscious. Thus, we are waking, dreaming, dreamless, and collective-unconscious beings and only one-fourth is really given its due. We have few skills in investigation the other three-fourths and especially what is literally called the fourth---turya/turiya is what Vedantins call it but they mean it to be "beyond" and so some kind of ultimate relief. The collective unconscious offers no such reprieve from the mundane. It is the storehouse of experience that is built into each of us that informs and authorizes the other kinds of consciousness experience. Rajanaka teaching could not only care less about claims to liberation in (as) this fourth state but invites one to consider that life isn't for achieving exemptions but rather further and deeper involvements with ourselves.
Meditation is only _one_ way to break into the four kinds of human experience (waking, dreaming, dreamless, collective unconscious) and there are lots of techniques and strategies of practice. Those we can discuss at length elsewhere. My point here is to say that the purpose of all such breaking (into, through, as, with, etc.) is to _find out more_, to explore, experiment, and delve into realms that turn into more effective connections that broaden and deepen our love of life. Yoga means engagement and the idea at its heart is that we have to learn to engage if we want to engage more, if we want to live more fully, more connected to more features and selves we possess and can create. My personally favored forms of meditation have little to do with quietism and eyes shut. Mine happen to be darshan, pilgrimage, and then writing, reading poetry, mythology, studying art and literature of all sorts, philosophy and thinking. Yours likely happens with yoga mats too but me, not so much. "Meditation" does indeed mean to look inside, but it is to see and feel and think _more_, not less. It means to open up and connect to more of you so that you can figure out how to live with yourself (selves). But who wants to do the work? Business knows this and so sells you calm. Religion knows this and so sells you "states" or attainments or, worse, "liberation." Trying to sell the harder part will never be less hard because there's no requirement for we humans to become more human. The ardor it takes and whatever payoff it will relieve some anxiety and stress but it will also cause a stir, it will cause more churning, more twists and turns, more days in the maze of feelings and thoughts. Wasn't that supposed to, you know, stop? Actually, no. Connection means the tandava, the dance inside, is even a wilder ride. And who wants that? I do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

An Ayyappa Vrata to You

These are the times that try the soul. Is there any other kind of time? But you know when there is more at stake. Sometimes everything is at stake. That's what is happening right now.

There is a call for soulfulness and we need ways to talk about that. Gratefully there are ways. You may have to work for this one so be patient, read on, and think about it after you're done. Ayyappa is here to help. Ayyappa is feminine, masculine, both and neither. There are traditions of Ayyappa and there is Rajanaka Ayyappa and, honestly, that is not much like the others. That needed to be said.

On Friday night I made an Ayyappa vrata. A vrata is an ordinance of the will, you might call it simply a vow or a resolution, but its purpose is to hear your beating heart when there's noise and storm and inner restiveness. When isn't there? And who is there to listen? If you bring yourself to the task, then you are Ayyappa and the vrata sings the body electric,

You can make a vrata anytime but its contrary purpose is to bring yourself nearer your core and your boundaries. Something of an oxymoron, no? Yes. It can 'be still this beating heart' or race with it. It can be tune out the noise to hear the silence or it can be listen for all of the voices and everything else that just sounds like noise. You needn't tune out that analogue noise behind the music; you can let it do its job too. 

The aim of vrata is to withstand the storm and to enjoy it; to make restiveness a power to be garnered, like the mekhala, the belt that you see Him wearing so that he assumes a perch, a vantage point, the perspective you need, especially in the bows of toxic tillai trees. A vrata holds you together because lokasamgraha, "grasping for light" is a reason to live, as Krsna reminds when he explains why human birth is remarkable for its gainsaying and chance.

A vrata doesn't require words nor need it be declared for others. Some may notice and ask why you look the way you do or that you seem to be onto something or in the middle of something. Something is different during the vrata that has emerged from the time before and carries into the time after. Vratas need boundaries to make boundaries that can be crossed, traversed, clarified, or violated. That is because you are looking for the space in-between, the serpent's way through, which means there is a way over or into, across the parapet, the barricades of thought and feeling into the dark, towards the unconscious which is not without its own passages. Rarely straightforward and you may get lost but the journey progresses though it surely twists and turns.

Rage leads the way, not as anger but as fury and passion and tears and blood. It's Rudra's roar and Kali's feverish solitude. It is Ayyappa in the forest of feelings where he keeps the company of ghosts. We should let the lyric help us, because it's about ghosts. The ghosts you meet, the ones you love inside you, the ones you hope to meet and the ones you wish you didn't. But they are all there and vrata is to become the sovereign of those ghosts for just long enough to know that you serve them and they serve you, like it or not.

It's your ghost moving through the night
Your spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I'm alive
I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I'm alive and I'm out here on my own
I'm alive and I'm comin' home

Vrata is in the first word of Odyssey, the Greek menos. Here is the first line of the poem. Vrata needs poetry because it is the long way home.

Rage---Goddess sing in me and through me
to the story of one skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
the one who twists and turns...

So don't mistake this rage for anger alone, it is what we call in Sanskrit tandava or in Old Tamil tulannku: it is possession and being possessed, all the selves hidden are invited. You're not sure who will come into enough light to be seen but they all recognize you because you have come to sing and to listen to the Sirens and the Great Devi who has sung you into being. It is all of the personas and all of the archetypes because they are all inside you, some never realized, others familiar enough to called acquaintance.

Become Ayyappa to one another. That is something more, even more than friendship if that is possible. And it is.

We would all like to return to a womb of safety if we could but that will have to wait till this life ends. There are no safe places. There are just places where you drop, like the liquid fire---call that place bindu but don't mistake it for the destination or the escape hatch, it's more like the cliff in front of the wall that is you, like you, not you, and always more than you. More confutation to consider but not for too long, you don't have forever until it's too late. Keep going.

She will decide when it's time for Time to be all that remains. You will disappear into the darkness someday. Not today.

You're not alone, crows. You have each other because while you make the vrata alone, you travel in murders and parliaments, following the moon it's called, like wolves of the moon, lupi della luna. Watch where you walk because there are nagas, snakes beneath your feet showing you the way if you are careful to honor their danger. The road is not smooth up the mountainside, towards the boundary, into the core.
Embrace the fury---in Sanskrit, the manyu, the samrambha. (It's not that you need yet another word here but words can help. Samrambha is a commingling of vehemence, eagerness, ardor, impetuosity and care. It is rendered auspicious by choosing character in a potency of choice.)

Keep going, use intrepidity and, at the same time, try to be still as the naga who knows when to move and when to still. Instinct commingles with choice. Manifest the gift of your sarpadrshti, the serpent's vision whose light is ahi, literally made of anxiety made an asset. Everyone knows that the world is filled with terrors and all the rest of the unexpected, uncontrollable, unfinished possibilities that surely come. Most ignore this but never the Ayyappa.

Your vrata can only be a private matter because it is your resolution at work and it is your darshan because it is you doing the seeing. Darshan means to place oneself nearer the boundary to peer into the light of the heart's sanctum. That womb follows the roots of banyan that grow up and root down again. Sometimes you are pushed or you have to wait to have your chance to see. Sometimes you are invited in but you never trespass. That would be unseemly, that would not be Ayyappa.

It's personal, it's not selfish. Sometimes your darshan is help others have their darshan. And while seeing appears to be the most important operative metaphor---since darshan is the seeing that looks into the dark using the slightest flame as your guide---it is never far from all of the other senses and feelings you ordinarily possess; you come to look and hear and touch and smell and taste and in all of these ways to test the will.

Your resolution for darshan is an experiment in the making and in being made by determinations and choices, even promises, but nothing is guaranteed, and going without certainty is always best. Resolve needs no certainty because it is an experiment in virtue, not in goodness but in courage, in the heart. You may fail but you won't fail to learn something if you are willing to wait and think and fast. (Do remember Hesse's Siddhartha here, okay?)

This vrata is for Ayyappa to become Ayyappa so a word more about that. We'll keep it simple for now. In Tamil ayya is the word you use to address someone you don't know politely, kinda' like "sir"or "hey you" but in a particularly kind way. It is also the word you use to honor the ones you know and love best. Instead of using their given name you say Ayya as if to say Beloved.

Yes, with that kind of love and affection unmasked but made easy and comfortable in any situation. It is a signal of care and approbation and tribute to friendship. It is a way of deferring without submitting, of offering distinction and esteem without being maudlin or insipid. Hear here the voice of MLK, Jr. calling you "brother" or "sister" and you hear Ayya. The extra -pa on the end is still more affection and you can add that in Tamil to nearly anything you love or use it as it's own word. It's like the -ji ending that we borrow from Hindi, same same, in Tamil -pa is -ji. Got that, Ji? I hear you, Pa.

Ayyappa means bringing some decorum and decency to a world in which there may be none. It is the choice to be more than what the world made or even what it seems to demand. When you realize that the natural world has no care but provides what you need and society and culture move you but can't make you, you can become Ayyappa.

For Ayyappa is the decision to be better and more than you have to. It is to live with your wounds and cares and passions and losses and victories---all with the choice to be decorous in a world that can defile you. It is not so much rising to the occasion but the determination to respect, to love life and to love others' lives as if they do too.

To make an Ayyappa vrata you need only say Saranam Ayyappa, "Refuge is Ayyappa" as you approach your boundaries and make pilgrimage to the liquid fire that flows in your living veins. See others as Ayyappa even if they do not. Dignify this fragile humanity we share and act as if there is more in all this strife than selfish interest. Then say it again to yourself when no one is listening but you. You don't ever have to say it aloud but say it when you need to make a resolution that will not end even when the time of the vrata concludes. Then do it all again.  I am off to cast my vote, to try to help end this nightmare.
 Saranam Ayyappa.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Before the Storm: Candid and Innocent, Neither Cynical nor Optimistic

Fending off the demons will be no small matter for the coming week. The demons will be your own---the worry, the fear, the anxiety that is not unwarranted or false. They will also be real and out there doing what they can. The demons millions of minions may be delusional, defrauded, naive, it really doesn't matter but they are not going to change their stripes and suddenly be our friends once this all goes down.

I'm hoping for a victory worthy of the gods. That is, one so convincing that they must cower back into their orc dungeons thus letting us breathe and heal, even just for a moment. Even in the event of resounding, unambiguous victory---say, a Biden win in NC, AZ, maybe not in FL or OH, but then PA, WI, and MI---there will be Trump and his cult. I'm sure the lawyers are ready. There's a piece in The Atlantic about how to deal with a coup, yes, a coup, which is real enough an idea that it's neither alarmist nor mere hand-wringing. You do have smoke alarms in your house, right? (We just spent a small fortune, deeply unsatisfying as an expense because a fire _really could_ happen as much as you do all you can to never need those alarms. Same deal (<---add Joe voice here for reassurance.)

The more the cult tries to intimidate and suppress the vote, the more resolute we must become that every vote is counted. There is no time to hesitate much less cower. I am heartened by the people standing in long lines who will not be stopped. Will young people actually show up in real numbers that make a difference? Never before has a party so shamelessly attempted to defeat democracy, which means they are certainly not done when they lose. The cult will not accept defeat because they cannot deal with truth in any honest way. If they do win then we know that America is a failed state and we'll each have to make choices about what is possible.

In yesterday's Saturday Conversaton I hammered some of the binaries that make demons demons and outlined how to avoid becoming the monster we can all become if we fail to fathom what's before us. We have the tools if we know how to use them. The tools are candor and innocence. The monsters are cynicism and corruption. The impediments to understanding the differences that make the most difference are false hope and untempered optimism.

Candor is not cynicism, it is the hedge, the way to truth. We must accept that truths too are incomplete and provisional, that they are all too human is what is sparing us the delusions of certainty and the kind of righteousness that makes certainty so dangerous. But we can sure enough. We can use facts and face the music. We need not give up on truth---we must not---because it's what we have and the demons know this too. That is, they know that our candor can be turned to cynicism and that is what they have chosen to do. Their own cynicism is delusional not because it lacks candor but because it indulges in the joys that cynicism provides: certainty, incontrovertibility, the self-righteous choice to claim superiority as an entitlement. Indulged cynicism brings many favors but none favor decency or truth.

Cynicism is not only defeating the idea that we _can_ keep it real and must, it is the choice to degrade and destroy that there is anything at all that stands behind your candor, that there _can_ be truth or facts (albeit human as they always are). Demons use candor for the purposes of cynicism to degrade our humanity, to cause us to choose demon over the human divines. There are no perfect, infallible, always correct, immune to cynicism gods. There are just human gods, which means deeply flawed but resistant to cynicism---and always still vulnerable.

Choosing not to indulge the cynical may not tell you who you want to be but that is for another day: it is there to tell you who you need not be, who you can choose not to be and sometimes that is enough or it will just have to do. Can we do better and more than that? Oh yes. But it will take more time and commitment. Choosing not to starve your inner monster is a way of creating the opportunity for more. The dragons in the dungeon can create a pause in the plot line and where that plot line goes depends on what you do with the demons inside yourself. We all have them.

Staying human-divine is no small matter. There are no god-gods, no divine divines, just human gods and human divines---that means there's always imperfection, flaw, vulnerability, and possibilities for better and worse. We aren't wholly in control of these matters because demons are the first to tell you that you can be the master of the universe and master yourself. Don't buy it: the world makes you in far less commanding formats of self.

But the demons do have a point: the world taken seriously (use your candor) is a very, very dispiriting, rough ride filled with hypocrisy and failed ideals. Your ideals and aspirations and values, which are never going to be perfectly realized, are nonetheless worth having. That does not require faith in the sense of someday my prince will come or there is going to be a heaven. Rather it is a matter of deciding for better, for more than cynicism when that is what is before you. Candor doesn't allow you to make fantasies more real than they are (and neither does it deny you a fantasy, which means you can still play air guitar in the mirror if that's your thing.)

The other requirement to fend off the monsters is to cultivate an innocence that nurtures sympathy and empathy. The presumption of innocence is more than some legal posture. It is the moral hedge against the certainty of guilt that we will otherwise project and use to advantage over the innocent. We must be vigilant not to corrupt the possibility that we could be wrong or that we need to be giving benefits and doubts their productive place. You see someone or something and no matter how "deserving" they might be of the plight they are suffering, you argue their innocence before guilt.

Optimism is false innocence. It is the fantasy that they are not only not guilty but couldn't be, or they didn't do it when candor demands the otherwise possible; they could indeed be guilty or are getting what's coming to them because they brought it on themselves. We need more innocence than optimism because it provides more honest inquiry. How big your nose looks today, grandmother; how big your teeth, says Red Riding Hood. Her innocence makes for query and doubt that empowers her to act. The wolf will do anything to eat you. (Apologies to real wolves.)

Optimism isn't required for innocence to keep away the demons. What we need is to put innocence in front of guilt, not to protect us from candor but also to protect us from giving up on decency. The monsters don't care about decency or sympathy, much less empathy: their selfishness, corruption, and graft tells them that the only truth is their personal experience. This is why some monsters alter their views when it happens to them or to the people _they_ care about: then "suddenly" they see that their personal experience confirms what could have been known with a dose of sympathy and the cultivation of empathy. Alas, don't count on the demons to be less demoniacal. Chances are they will be more selfish and as corrupt than you think is possible precisely because you can't imagine that, because you're _not_ that demonic.

What the gods know is that the demons are far, far worse than your imaginings, that monsters are real, don't become one and if you think you can't become one that is no guarantee you won't. Demons are radicalized gods or at least once they were because they all started out as human. There are no gods or demons that aren't human though humanity can be forgotten, hollowed out, forsaken, and corrupted beyond reclamation in this current birth. Evil becomes real when there is no reason to think otherwise, no evidence to mitigate, no innocence left to retrieve.

What it takes to be human only begins when we know that we can fend off the monsters. We can defeat them but they will come back. We can not become them even in our efforts to defeat them and in gaining the power that we need not to grant them power. Not becoming the monster is something we really can do but it takes some understanding and practice. We have to practice not being monsters and understand what it means to be one. No small task given it can turn us into what we need not become. We can become more human divines but again, that will take some time because it demands we integrate shadows---another topic entirely.

The understandings we need defeat cynicism and wage innocence, refuse the war once the battle is won. To become better, this is just the start. We are only at the very beginnings of what we call yoga and greatness, the mahā, is still over the horizon. That greatness is possible but only when we understand that the demons are real. More soon. Because there is always more.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Got Anxiety? Part 2, More About Anxiety as Asset and Liability

It's the end of the world and we know it and I feel fine? Maybe not. I am inclined to take on the prospect of America failing because if it does it fail it will be because more people voted for racism for whatever reasons than showed up not to resist it or because justice was stolen. Lots of things can go wrong.


But I think today that Trump, along with the Senators and all the way down ballot, are going to face truly crushing defeat. However, Trumpism isn't going away nor the horrors that created it. What created it is smallness, certainty, and a genuine failure to appreciate how the world invites more complexity, never less. You would have to reduce to an issue or just reduce to say yes to Trumpism and that is entirely possible. Today (I mean TODAY) I'm feeling like that Trump will fail but most assuredly not the causes of Trumpism. If you're not nervous and upset about what could happen, I have no idea what planet you live on.

It's hand wringing, pearl clutching, angst, anxiety, ahi time. Ahi is another Sanskrit word for snake (naga) and serpent (sarpa). Possibilities like the truest human self are made by in large part by forces we don't control, didn't make, and and can't know. Add complexity and every effort to make the world simple, or reduce self to something essential (Vedanta), simple (more Vedanta or just plain unreflective), or non-existent (peskyB'ists again), we bump into Emerson reminding us that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

We may _think_ we like consistency or would love to embrace real certainty but such thoughts quickly and always become more problematic, to say nothing of being just plain wrong. The price of clarity is the similarly "satisfying" but wholly unproductive belief that there is somehow less world and real finality (i.e., no more) when of course that would be another short cliff leading to another long road. Worse, we say we got this when there is more, no end, and we don't actually got this yo.

Delusions can feel good. We may have _some_thing but not all. Life, like self, will permit us to sojourn briefly in our serene complacencies and assume whatever delusion of surety is today's soporific remedy. Whole religions (think: umm, yoga) are devoted to advancing the delusion that life has a solution.

But the myths know better. That ahi (n.b., YOU are that anxious serpent) inside you will wake up soon enough to remind you that if you don't embrace being that ahi, procure it, use it skillfully and with some effort remain engaged despite all of the concomitant terrors and inevitable horrors everything will get even worse not better.

In other words, if you are in touch with the trauma that is natural to the unknown, you stand a better chance than staring down that inner consciousness cobra, hood espeliering like the wisteria eating your house one vine at time that you don't really notice until you realize it is _really happening_. Then you can figure out what you can do rather than be destroyed by it.

There's no transcendence, cure, nirvana, or other exemption from the complexity of a self that refuses to be confined by a desire to contain it or reduce it to singularity. The plural self ever remains three-fourths hidden and we never get to encroach on that percentage precisely because the more we learn, the more self appears that we have yet to learn.

That was supposed to be the simple explanation of this situation of being human. Let me try again. If we recognize how our anxieties lead us to our hearts rather than away from them, we can love and grieve in ways that allows us to take the next steps, live to die another day, live to live with what is just true about a world we don't control. Less victim, more participant is the idea: dancing with your devils is better than letting them haunt you.

Monday, October 19, 2020

About Soulfulness, Artistry, and Future

"Just tell the truth about your own life, what you're experiencing, what you're seeing and dig into it. Don't be afraid of it, confront it. Let's see where it comes out. Let's describe our most intimate relationships with the hopes that other people can see themselves in our work."---Bruce Springsteen quoted by Steve van Zandt, talking to the Band.

I want to say thank you. You keep showing up. If there's going to be any future worth creating in this troubled world, it's going to take the likes of you. Where would we be without each other?


But there you are for Saturday Conversations, with all of their eclectic madness and occasional disorganization and hours of preparation, all of which seems to disappear as soon as we lift off. And Gita Sessions for their reliable indifference to sticking to the text but also never really leaving it either. You've been there now for months and there's no end in sight really. I'd tell you that you've saved me but that would underestimate the truth, which is that you really did save me. I don't presume any such drama on your part but I'm confident you have felt deeply too. I no longer shy from the tears anymore than I shrink from the argument. With you folks, I know humanity stands a chance. It's your goodness, your curiosity, your commitment. I think to myself after every session: How he would have loved to have met you too.

Since pandemic and this madness that has infected America, you have dedicated yourselves to a deeper sadhana, a soulful life of learning, company, and conversation. "You kept returning," Appa said when I asked him, "Why me?" It wasn't about talent or ambition though what I lacked in one I tried to make up in the other. It was about the good company. It was for love. That's just got to said.

"Rajanaka" as we know it together turns 20 or thereabouts this year. But it doesn't matter how long you've been around. What matters is that you've been willing to reach into your heart, offer yourself up, to stand in yoga as Krsna puts it. Yogasthah. In these troubled times you've all managed to look across the horizon to ask what more there is even as the world burns and rages and quarantines and some people can't even wear a mask to keep their neighbors safe. But you have all this and then some.

Tonight I was reading an interview with Nils Lofgren and Steve van Zandt about the new E Street Band album that will be released in full this coming Thursday. Yeah, I know, here I am talking about Springsteen again. And I'm not trying to make you like anything I like. Music leads the way, like other art, and we're all made to hear our own songs. But this record is going to come some 10 days before the election and whether it stirs your soul or not, whether its lyrics about love and friendship, grace and death are to your tastes, what it _means_ to do is remind you that art is something we are going to _need_.

We're going to need to do a lot of hard work if there is to be a reckoning with all that has been hurt. But we are also going to need art to heal. We're going to need art to address these terrible challenges we will face, some deep and foreboding, and with those who will not love us even if we offer an open hand. We'll do what we can, you've proven you will go as far as it takes to create community and conversation. But I tell you, we'll evolve, perhaps even take a few steps towards progress if we make art that bares our souls.

In Rajanaka the soul is not a metaphysical fact or an argument made through dialectic. Soul isn't something we contest or need to prove---or disprove. (Those pesky Buddhists. Gotta love'em.) Soul traverses through feelings, all feelings, but it's not itself a feeling. Soul is what _moves_ feelings. It is the prime mover within us and requires no cause or reason, no maker because it is the creator. It takes courage and humility to bare your soul. It takes work to dive deeply into parts unknown, unasked for, into shadows hidden by the light that creates them. Soul is a journey best taken together even when it is wholly ours.

Soul happens when we dare to turn ourselves inside out, what the Tantrikas call, what Rajanaka calls uttanita: the extended, the upside down, the contrarian way. Art dares to move with and against, towards and away at the same time; the soulful doesn't resolve such paradox so much as it brings out its beauty and power and strife and value. Your art is whatever you do that makes that happen for you and it's your artistry, your soulfulness that changes the world. Don't suffer alone. Don't be alone unless you want to. Share that journey and your artistry becomes a gift.

Becsuse art emerges from soul it can't help but create more soul, more connection. It's no small task to learn how to reach into the unconscious and from that source create the forms of memory that express the heart's secrets, its wishes and desires, hopes and fears. Some of us do that with music or dance or in our commitment to a yoga practice or in raising children and caring for them, or even through the power of food and love and other forms of human care for the world.
Soul comes from the depths but means to reach the surface. What happens then isn't something we can completely control or direct but it is ours to experience. The worlds of yoga, worlds of care, of artistry are truly astonishing. Soulfulness is the liquid fire, the source of rasa, the essential, the elixir; it is the self coming into its own light, emerging from mixed up, muddled up, shook up worlds that invite us to _see_ ourselves and _be_ ourselves at the same time.

Everyone has the talent but not all get their chance. And somehow it doesn't seem to burn as hot for those who never kindle the fire. Or maybe they never learned how. And as we have come to learn over the past four years, soul can be callow, damaged, and even empty. There are no guarantees that the soulful will be found or cultivated, much less evolved into distinguished artistry and authenticity and take the shape of the integrity of self. But most folks, given the opportunity to love deeply will find the soulful because they will experience joy and pain and they will grieve too and likely find their way to offering something of what they have learned and felt.

Now I confess, the real reason for this note was to cite from this interview in Forbes what Bruce told the band when they got together to make music.
That could have been Appa those years ago because that is what he offered. He wished for me---and for you---that chance to tell the truth about your lives, to not be afraid of what you find and to share it because it is in your soulfulness we will all grow, each into our own artistries. If the love we give is equal to the love we take--- to quote those other guys who put it all on the line--- we'll have lived enough.

Sing on, Rajanaka. And dance like Nataraja is delighted you've come. Kali is holding you close. If all that seems a bit much, well, we've got even more stories to tell. I hope to see you more, and soon. If we dare to tell our truths then we will have a future. Better yet, together.

Friday, September 4, 2020

45 Years and More Broken Pieces and Sammelana

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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