Friday, July 22, 2016

The Deal Gone Down

I’ve made my own share of Faustian bargains. I have contributed to others’ work, either by writing for them or presenting myself as a representative of an organization. The outcome has included no small amount of personal regret, downgrades in public reputation, and has led to a great deal of contemplation in an effort to learn from my well-made mistakes. I’ve sought to make amends, admit to errors, and have surely received more than my share of forgiveness. No one gets a pass from himself and absolution is a theological fiction that renders more bypass than remedy. Learning from mistakes needs to linger, and you can’t learn if integrating the mistake comforts your belief that you won’t make it again. I mean, we need to make the shadow of that mistake a part of ourselves, the kind you can count on to haunt you, the kind that comes up in dreams, that takes you to your own Rosebud.

After Orson Welles made Citizen Kane he later explained more about Rosebud and his deeper motives. 

"The most basic of all ideas was that of a search for the true significance of the man's apparently meaningless dying words. Kane was raised without a family. He was snatched from his mother's arms in early childhood. His parents were a bank. From the point of view of the psychologist, my character had never made what is known as "transference" from his mother. Hence his failure with his wives. In making this clear during the course of the picture, it was my attempt to lead the thoughts of my audience closer and closer to the solution of the enigma of his dying words. These were "Rosebud." The device of the picture calls for a newspaperman (who didn't know Kane) to interview people who knew him very well. None had ever heard of "Rosebud." Actually, as it turns out, "Rosebud" is the trade name of a cheap little sled on which Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. In his subconscious it represented the simplicity, the comfort, above all the lack of responsibility in his home, and also it stood for his mother's love which Kane never lost."

What we will do if Trump does indeed succeed in his ascent to the Presidency, if he does not in the end fail like Kane, but suceeds to convince enough Americans that his story is supposed to be the American story? He proclaimed himself last night our “voice” and the only one who can lead us from the desultory, the dark, the failures that define us. That’s his story about us. There is more here to consider.

Welles says:
"I immediately decided that my character should be a public man—an extremely public man—an extremely important one. I then decided that I would like to convince my audience of the reality of this man by means of apparently legitimate news digest short concerning his career. It was of the essence of my idea that the audience should be fully conversant with the outlines of the public career of this fictitious character before I proceeded to examine his private life. I did not wish to make a picture about his public life. I wished to make a picture about the backstairs aspect of it. The varying opinions concerning his character would throw light on important moments in his career. I wished him to be an American, since I wished to make him an American president."

We all long for a simplicity and a comfort that we imagine to be taken from us, not only like Kane snatched from his mother’s arms. What lies beneath and within our subconscious is all we collect on the way to making dreams come true. Some of those dreams come true, others linger to make longer shadows. It’s what we do with those shadows that tells us more about ourselves. Welles explains his own artistry with shadows by making a story of wealth, power, and control:

He goes on:
"I wished to use [the sled, printed with the trade name Rosebud on it] as a symbol—at the conclusion of the picture—a great expanse of objects—thousands and thousands of things—one of which is "Rosebud." This field of inanimate theatrical properties I wished to represent the very dust heap of a man's life. I wished the camera to show beautiful things, ugly things and useless things, too—indeed everything, which could stand for a public career and a private life. I wished objects of art, objects of sentiment, and just plain objects. There was no way for me to do this except to make my character, as I have said, a collector, and to give him a great house in which to keep his collections. The house itself occurred to me as a literal translation in terms of drama of the expression "ivory tower." The protagonist of my "failure story" must retreat from a democracy, which his money fails to buy and his power fails to control. —There are two retreats possible: death and the womb. The house was the womb. Here too was all the grandeur, all the despotism, which my man had found lacking in the outside world. Such was his estate—such was the obvious repository for a collection large enough to include, without straining the credulity of the audience—a little toy from the dead past of a great man."

It’s likely plain at this point where I am taking this.

Over these past few days, witnessing the coronation of Donald Trump as the Republican’s nominee for President, Tony Schwartz emerged to tell us more about him.   Schwartz wants more than to provide just commentary, he's looking for confession, his mea culpa in creating Trump.  To be clear about Schwartz, he said regarding Trump’s best-selling The Art of the Deal, “I am not sure Trump read every word but I am sure I wrote every word.”

Jane Mayer, in The New Yorker, describes at length how Schwartz helped create the myth of Trump and how he now regrets it. ( What Mayer explains is not only the book deal but the experience that Schwartz has so long kept to himself. He’d made his Faustian bargain and was content-enough living with it. Regarding his decision to write the book for Trump.  Mayer writes,

"Schwartz thought it over for several weeks. He knew that he would be making a Faustian bargain. A lifelong liberal, he was hardly an admirer of Trump’s ruthless and single-minded pursuit of profit. “It was one of a number of times in my life when I was divided between the Devil and the higher side,” he told me. He had grown up in a bourgeois, intellectual family in Manhattan, and had attended √©lite private schools, but he was not as wealthy as some of his classmates—and, unlike many of them, he had no trust fund. “I grew up privileged,” he said. “But my parents made it clear: ‘You’re on your own.’ ” Around the time Trump made his offer, Schwartz’s wife, Deborah Pines, became pregnant with their second daughter, and he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high. “I was overly worried about money,” Schwartz said. “I thought money would keep me safe and secure—or that was my rationalization.” At the same time, he knew that if he took Trump’s money and adopted Trump’s voice his journalism career would be badly damaged. His heroes were such literary nonfiction writers as Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and David Halberstam. Being a ghostwriter was hackwork. In the end, though, Schwartz had his price. He told Trump that if he would give him half the advance and half the book’s royalties he’d take the job."

Schwartz took the sweet deal that eventually amounted to several million dollars, the sort of money that can buy a house, education for your children, and enough comfort to do something else. Schwartz has done all of those things. He also finds himself in the very uncomfortable position not only of having taken the money and done the devil’s work, but wanting us to believe what more he has to say about Trump ---all of which is alarming, whether the issue is Trump’s intellect or his ethics. I have no doubt that Schwartz is sincere and that he is credible. What is equally as fascinating is the deal he now has to make with himself to live with himself.

As you hear Schwartz’s story you begin to realize, as he did, that The Art of the Deal was deal he knew he was making when he made it. Had Trump merely remained, well, Trump and not an election away from the nuclear codes, Schwartz would have had to contend only with his conscience, not the moral consequences of having helped create the perceptions that have undoubtedly “legitimized” Nominee Trump. Schwartz has dire thoughts about what Trump is capable of doing. It seems there is more than his conscience at stake, at least that is why he again risks his reputation ---and if Trump’s lawyers have their way, his fortunes too.

I’m not sure Tony Schwartz is feeling any better about all this despite his repeated interviews during the convention on MSNBC and in The New Yorker. He has thoroughly documented his experience, been threatened with cease and desist letters from Trump’s eager lawyers looking for him to return both his writer’s advance and royalties (his 50% deal is nearly unheard of generosity), but did not sign any non-disclosure agreements. It seems the call of conscience has inspired this warning to the country: don’t do this, Trump is a fraud. I think we would have known that without Tony Schwartz but I’m not ungrateful for his shadow awakening.

Urban Dictionary is going to need a new entry under “day late and a dollar short” for this one and while it’s too late for the Republican Party, the rest of us really can still do something about it. We can vote and make this a sorry footnote to history with lingering consequences, ones we have not even imagined. Tony Schwartz would be mightily relieved just to see Trump return to his fatuous self-ambitions, as will the rest of the civilized world. Schwartz repents his enabling and I admire his willingness to take the fall. I hope he doesn’t have to give back the money, at least not to Trump, and that his kids got that education. We all make our deals.

David Brooks, who similarly has enabled the rot that exposes the hollow core of Republicanism, wrote today, “This is less a party than a personality cult.” And where was he when that rot was something that sold more books or got establishment Republicans elected? And still gets them elected? Just when will this cease and desist? Let me put it another way: is David Brooks too capable of lingering long enough to learn from his mistakes? (

I’m going to take this just one more place because this is an essay about lingering, about staying with the shadow rather than escaping, forgiving, or redeeming. It’s about giving everything another try. So let me give this one more try with one more story because try we must if we are to learn and learn to linger in places too uncomfortable to imagine.

Okay, so there’s a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Picard makes a deal with the Alien Q to go back in time and get a do-over. Picard avoids a bar fight he always regretted and when he comes forward again in time discovers that he is not the same person. He is not only of lesser rank, his reputation and character are both requisitely diminished.

There are no take-backs, no do-overs and there are no guarantees things would be worse or better if there were. What we do know is that all of us have those kinds of regrets and skeletons and addressing the shadow means more than honest confrontation and excavation, it means there is still more hidden than we are likely to uncover. What we do about what we have done is enough to indict all of us and make us the real enemies to ourselves. McCarthy tells us in Cities of the Plain,

"Our enemies ... seem always with us. The greater our hatred the more persistent the memory of them so that a truly terrible enemy becomes deathless. So that the man who has done you great injury or injustice makes himself a guest in your house forever. Perhaps only forgiveness can dislodge him."

I’m not sure that forgiveness can dislodge such an enemy, whether that means forgiving another or forgiving ourselves. I am sure there is sorrow and suffering enough in every person’s life to disarm our most noxious hostility, even the sort we project on others to pacify our more primal instincts. Here the Buddha helps because the first of his Noble Truths demands we take suffering seriously. We humans find fault because it exists, not because it is our original sin (isn’t that sex or disobedience or something?) but rather because fault is part of a world that would have no character, would evolve to no better place without breaks and tears. How could we discover any more than what we already know without the connections that fail to bring us consolations?

In cases of defence 'tis best to weigh
The enemy more mighty than he seems;
So the proportions of defence are fill'd. (Henry V, II, 4)

Tony Schwartz, David Brooks, Jan-Luc Picard, perhaps all the rest of us too underestimate the power of this temptation, the Faustian bargain, whether we know we are making it or not, the one we are willing make to create the life we can when we cannot see enough life ahead to feel safe, to get what we need or want. I know I have done as much, made that choice that I see more clearly now when the dark glass then seemed a protection from the storm, not merely an obscuring of the light. We cannot do again what has been done. Instead we can learn from commiseration that who we blame always includes ourselves. How we change for the better depends on our willingness to act again, to make amends, to make the shadow linger with us. Doncha’worry, as my mom used to say, you’re not alone in this. We’ve all made our deals.  Own them.  Make sure they linger.

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.
Who alone suffers, suffers most i' th' mind,
Leaving free things and happy shows behind.
But then the mind much sufferance doth o'erskip
When grief hath mates and bearing fellowship. (King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

I am a part of all that I have met...

I am a part of all that I have met; 
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ 
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades 
For ever and forever when I move.   ---Tennyson

Why do you think you're right? How could you know if you were wrong?
This week Donald Trump nominated for Vice-President of the United States the Indiana governor Mike Pence who proudly refers to himself first as a "Christian," then a "conservative," and, last, a Republican.  In France a mentally deranged terrorist murdered 84 people likely informed, inspired, and motivated by religious ideologies, or at the very least ideologies claiming religion as their basis.  Great Britain, in response to immigrant fears and socio-economic distress, appointed a new Prime Minister dedicated to being less "a part of all that" we have met.  Then, just yesterday, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich once again suggested that religious tests be requisite to American identity and provide the criteria for admission to the country for visitors and immigrants. Today he "clarified" those remarks (which you can find easily enough in the "trending" column).

As a professor of religions, I take seriously people's convictions no matter what I think about their sources, interpretations, or actions. The history of religions is a history of differences that shape the character and behavior of individuals, groups, cultures, and nation states. To ignore those ideas, values, and calls to action is to fail to appreciate human complexity. Let's not make that mistake. If we are anything, we humans are not simple. We don't agree on much, which means that there's more than one view: simple ends _there_.
What Mr. Gingrich is suggesting is more than a little ironic given his own self-proclaimed religious values and public behaviors but no less despicable even if they were based on American separation of church and State. As the President so aptly pointed out, his ideas are thoroughly un-American to even the meanest sensibility. When Mr Obama says "we are better than that" I would suggest that he overstates the case. "We" Americans include these grotesque sensibilities and calls to action. "We" include not only our homegrown terrorist and criminal acts, some significant portion of "we" is about to nominate Trump for President. To Gingrich and the thousands supporting him (n.b., do check the comments on his remarks, just here on FB), there are solutions based unambiguously on their own religious claims (see the R-Party platform regarding same sex marriage, "religious freedom," guns, and comments regarding Islam) and subject Muslim Americans to citizenship tests based on religion.
How do we address our fellow human beings who each take their religions, along with their veridity, so seriously? Today in the NY Times there is "A Lesson for Newt Gingrich" about Shariah law in Islam. Fair enough, the author contends, Gingrich is not only monumentally ignorant but warrants our opprobrium. He fails even the meanest sensibility of understanding history or humanity. In the same Sunday Times, Professor Stanley Fish, who has in the past been a thinker with whom I have resonated on certain topics takes to task this past week's efforts of those professional historians voicing their own claims to authority as critics of Trumpism (which I think we can rightly associate with Gingrich's calls.) Professor Fish maintains that these professional academics (secular by definition) should not use their academic authority as any basis for furthering public opinion. Apparently, nothing about educational achievement matters in creating authoritative opinion. Are all opinions really of the same value? Are all sources of opinion reduced to individual conscience? There are really no truths greater than our personal views? And those with experienced understandings should not band together to influence others based on their claims to the authority of facts, of history, and its lessons? What makes us "right" and, perhaps more importantly, what gives us reason to think so? Clearly the religious have their claims but so do the secular academics.
The issue isn't merely that human beings, recognized to be flawed and of varying interpretations, reach different understandings that inform actions, it is the contrasting models of religious and secular "truth" that are just as important. We must accept as fact that millions of 21st century human beings understand a particular 7th century work, the Qu'ran (and its direct legacies) to be much more than an inspired opportunity to contemplate ethics, human relationships, that it contains incontrovertible God-spoken truths which humans interpret, and so provides (the sole) valid resource for discerning life's meaning. Of course, the same can be said of the Bible, the Veda, or any other religious who raise some particular content to the status of transcendent values and assigns the notion of immutable truths. Such claims are religious because they assert that more than human experience makes them so and something more than individual is truth. This is the root of the conflict that defines the modern incongruity between the religious and the secular. No one can refute another's experience. All we can do is claim that another's experience is not ours. What do we make of the methods, the ways we claim to _share_ experience? That is the task before us.
Religions always want to know how their claims are right in face of human interpretation while the secular humanist asks instead how can we know when those same claims are wrong in light of contrary evidence and reason. The humanist exacerbates the incongruity between religious truth and secular method by asserting that all of our sources and interpretations are by definition incomplete, provisional, and necessarily products of human imagination. Religions almost always reject the assumption that the primary resource is _flawed_ humanity. (n.b., the Buddhist sources too maintain that Buddhas are no longer flawed in their understandings or actions, and for all of Confucian claims to discounting the supernatural, the sage is largely regarded too as incontrovertible.) No one gets a pass here. 
There's no resolution to such different world views: people create values, they act in ways that change others' lives for better and worse, and so must distinguish what is acceptable from what is not if we are to be at all civil. The claim for authority in religious sources is always the most dangerous form of power. Who could dispute that? Someone will. But without creating some notion that some opinions are indeed better than others, we are left only with opinions reject the reach of facts, evidence, or reason. Call me old fashioned or worse, but _how_ we think comes _before_ what we think. And thinking is something we must _learn_ to do, much like all of that "what." Invariably we humans will not agree on those secular methods of learning anymore than we will dispose of our religions anytime soon.

Friday, July 1, 2016

SAY goodbye, it's Independence Day

ON the Freedom to be Yourself in a World of Difference

TO honor the day of American independence, a few words on freedom, religion, and what we can and  likely can’t do in this age of global connectivity and terrifying isolation.  To write about one’s self is vanity but to reject vanity is merely to refuse the value of our prerogatives to feel and to think as we please.  Vanity need not be vice however circumspect we must be to think it any virtue.  So here goes.

I go on Hindu pilgrimages with Hindus.  I’ve just returned from one that I have dreamt of doing for nearly 40 years.  I’d explain it all to you, if you’d like to listen, and I’d try not to explain away the things about it that are far from easy to pardon or approve.  We will all come to terms with our choices not because we all necessarily mature into a greater self-awareness but rather because we know that “the bell tolls for thee.”  Whatever your religion or spirituality or absence thereof tells you, this being mortal has terms we share: its finite, its likely painful, and whatever you might think of death, life promises neither fairness or exculpation.  I can’t think of anything worth doing that I could recommend for everyone and I’m hoping that others won’t insist that I do what they select either.  Tolerance isn’t merely about accepting another’s choices, it’s about reconciling choices we accept and reject.  It’s not always the case that one person’s freedom implicates another’s oppression but there’s burden in every life because we all take, not only give.  As one Hindu text puts it, “we are all food and eaters of food.”  That’s a religious claim I can fathom.

I read and study sources in Sanskrit, Tamil, and other Indian languages, most of which come from a hoary past and are filled with admonition, advice, and genuine religious invitations.  I feel no compulsion to believe any of what I read and when asked why I participate in rituals or tell these stories, it’s because I’ve decided there is something in it that I can’t resist.  What is unresistable to me may be of no interest to you.  I’m not the least bit interested in compelling your interests or persuading you of anything.  “Zealous convert” is an oxymoron and I’ve got nothing to preach.  We all, however, have something to learn and for that we will need teachers.  I’ve spent my life studying religions not because they are true or somehow teach truths common to all humanity but because people need what religions do.

WHETHER it’s to procure our life passages ---hatch, match, dispatch--- or create the solitaries of tribe, culture, or to meet some other social or creative expression, humans have offered the best and the worst of themselves through our religious cultures.  We don't all meet at some cosmic place of reconciliation unless that is your chosen worldview, but we do have shared human needs.  Just as we’ve never met people without language, I think we’ll never meet people who have no need for religion, and by that I mean what religions do for us.  Even if that’s just lighting a candle at a memorial and involves shifting our language to the most secular registers in our pursuit of commonalities, we do not become moral beings because we need religions, we are human beings with impassioned, sometimes urgent needs.

MYTH defies credulity and thwarts the powers of reason if all we admit are the resources of waking awareness and yet it is only in waking awareness that we can interpret what more mythology, ritual, pilgrimage, and study might mean.  My Hindu teacher taught me how to think, not what to think and that means he taught me that every question that is worth asking does more than inform us, it challenges our self-representations and invites self-subversion.  There are 330 million gods (at the very least) because this is how many questions we can ask, how many conversations we can have.  And to have a conversation it’s often helpful to have it with someone, especially the gods, the demons, and all of the denizens of one’s experience.  For me, to be “Hindu” is to be every character in the story and then some because I am more than any definition of Hindu that I’ve ever read or contrived.  Being “every character” means I must be more than Hindu, but that’s part of the definition. 

BESIDES, I grew up in New Jersey, born an American, and that means there is little that makes me like my fellow Americans than our shared proposition.  We claim “all men” [sic] are “created equal,” so we begin by stating as fact what we know is a far more complex, even murky demand that we’ve spent the past 240 or so years grappling with, and denying as the right of our fellow Americans.  That’s not “another story,” that’s the story.  None of us are less than the sum of ourselves or our histories and that can never be zero-summed anymore than we can claim to know the all of ourselves.  We are limited beings, somatic creatures, part of nature that we’ve only very recently in our history as a species have come to understand with any modicum of reality.  We are historical beings, privileged and deprived, made and in the process of making with only the tools we have as humans.

MY American identity troubles me not because we have failed to meet the lofty claims of our shared proposition but rather because we reserve the right to fail, to reject that claim as part of our independence.  I’m troubled not by our freedom but by what we believe it permits us to be: beings apart, beings free to feel and think in ways that refuse other human beings our shared humanity.  As for my “religious” identity as a Hindu, that is more chaotic than it is disorganized, a source for both personal elasticity and self-organization.  As a “religion” being my-own-version-of-Hindu  has everything to do with a contention that the methods of modern science provide our best, albeit provisional and incomplete understandings of this world.  Left only with science we will forsake the poetic, the indirect, the power of the humanistic to tap the grace and goodness that we can create.   No religion I know of has more options to consider the elasticity and viscosity of human possibilities than the Hindus.  There’s not a belief that doesn’t seem to appear somewhere and there’s not one that I know of to which you must adhere.

WHILE religion too often demands we forsake our powers of reason for a claim to higher force, mine contends that we are that higher force and that our prospects for success, even greatness, requires we use the all of ourselves.  We’re going to need all of the gods and demons, all of the words we know and don’t; we going to need every bit of reason and our feeling to learn how to love life and embrace each other.  That latter task is no small matter because we can be equally assured that we human beings will disagree about fundamentals, not just peripherals--- that we will vociferously object to others’ values and behaviors; that we will discover conflict to be as real, often far more real, than any possibility of harmony.  So what are we prepared to do about it?

AS if you haven’t noticed, I write long pieces with words---spelling bee words, occasional f-bombs, and punctuation.  If you’re looking for spiritual Capital Letters ---The Absolute, Consciousness, the Divine---or for memes that work on Twitter, there are plenty of other people who are happy to accommodate you.  If you’re spirituality isn’t focused on humanistic concerns, which includes politics, then you’ll also need someone else to think with.  I realize that life’s messy, irresolvable issues drive people to seek answers in places that satisfy our hopes and dreams, in fantasies of consolation or ultimate freedom.  But if your worldview requires theologies or theories that take you from this world and into another, then you’re asking for religion.  This is means you’ve essentially given up on reality and I can understand that but I don’t empathize.  I don’t feel your dissociation anymore than I share your affinity for an alternative spiritual reality.  I’m stuck in this one, the one that involves being involved in the whole world, in the conversations that involve opinions and contrariety that aspire to make accommodation for differences and include the admission that we’re all compromised.

WE THE PEOPLE all make concessions to our ideals and principles but I’ll take that a step further:  concession is the path we must tread to incremental progress when there is no real prospect for consensus.  This has never been more true than in America this July 4th, 2016.  I’m here now and mean to work for a future dramatically different, the sort that replaces the tired conflicts of the past with something more inclusive and progressive.  But I think that bending that moral arc is serious, hard work and that it’s nothing like a certainty: we humans are just as likely to regress, degenerate, or allow ourselves yet another impenetrable form of self-satisfying ignorance to lead the way.  I’m not sanguine we Americans really are up to it since changing things for the better is no simple matter and we’re good at making it more difficult.  Our government is designed to be cumbersome, slow working, and to demand from us the recognition of our deep disagreements.   This design was, in part, a method to prevent even more revolution and violence but it has its downsides:  we complain “nothing gets done” knowing implicitly that can’t and won’t agree on what to do.   Progress is not inevitable, those are social and political realities that demand our attentions.  And as for spirituality, whatever one proposes that to be, no one’s gonna get a free pass because their meditation practice or their world view, their god or their enlightened master confers dematerialization into your own personal dome of silence.  (There’s a Get Smart joke in this somewhere.)  Don’t mistake me, I’m all for vacations and peace of mind but do come back.  Those of us still here will take care of things till then.  I hope you’ll do the same for me when I occasionally check out.  Carry on, and if handstands make you feel good too, how could one seriously object?  I’m done debating the “real” meaning of “yoga” because it never actually ever had one real meaning.  There’s not one of anything but the utterly useless idea of uniqueness.  Revel in your individuality but never in your aloneness ---the best of being alone is also made possible by other people.

CAN we admit there is an invincible ignorance in the world?  (N.B., again a claim with which some Hindus, nay, all sorts of others would adamantly disagree, which tells us nothing more about ignorance but rather a great deal about differences.)  Yes, it is invincible and no amount of education or wisdom is going to change that anytime soon (or more precisely, anytime).  Don't take me for the glum cynic here, it’s just that it’s far easier to fuel emotions than it is to change minds, and there’s always someone we can blame for what we can’t control.  Our job isn't to cure this ignorance but to offer alternatives.  If your religion conspires to bring the rest of compassion or even an indifferent tolerance, then you’ll hear no objection from me.  Go on, believe what you like but know that there are costs.  When those costs cost the rest of us, be prepared to hear about it.  This is all made the more difficult because you'll never penetrate the impenetrable, never will evidence or reason actually determine the story.  Instead you might reach into more willing hearts that can change because you are the example of an alternative to the one with all the answers.  We’re not always so exemplary and we’ve all got our shadows and pasts, but receiving the world for what it creates requires more than the recognition that power is the story.   There’s more than power over in a world of power: there is power to and power for.  This may require something more like what Frodo and Sam did, or what you see when a firefighter runs into the fire rather than away from it.

TEACHERS will be examples of that required misdirection because they’re not just performers or entertainers or star athletes proffering up their genius.  Teachers struggle in public with what it means to be learning.  Learning involves opinion, experimentation, which implies failure, and a process devoted to a tedious, not always rewarding project that guarantees neither applause nor self-satisfaction.  If you’re looking for contentment, it comes only when you decide not to refuse the other alternatives.  Happiness is built on paradoxes and covenants, you can trade-off without entirely selling out but that too comes with costs.  So if you are a teacher, off the example of the alternative to ignorance.  Knowledge as far as we can know is provisional, never absolute in the sense of being immune to reexamination, but that’s not to say all opinions are equal.  Opinions respect the facts, which is why both can change.  Wisdom isn't an action but it appears in actions: like courage, it is no virtue but rather the requisite for virtue.  And as for the stupidity in the world, well, since there's no fix, just drive on past those billboards that make your blood boil, baffle you with unbelief, and then say to yourself, "I'm not alone, I'm not alone..." And write to me when you can.  Or join in a seminar or some other conversation.  I'll be 'round.  Keep to the ardor.  It's our only calling.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Towards the Freedom That Binds Humanity

A few thoughts from the far side of the world this morning before we begin a long-awaited pilgrimage. I have prepared some forty years to have this opportunity.  I have always wanted to make this particular journey in India ---and I don't expect that others would want to join me.  I revel in our ability to create lives in which the things that move and inspire us, the experiences that nurture our spirit reveal something important about the diversity of our shared humanity.  I go on this pilgrimage not seeking god or enlightenment or some form of liberation.  I go because, for me, this is how I might find a richer sense of what binds me to our shared humanity. 
But this pilgrimage comes to on the heels of news from home--- the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida---that also makes me consider more seriously how we must turn to the powers of the secular in order to dignify our spiritual and religious claims.  Not the other way 'round.  We need not share religions because we already share humanity.   Our recourse is not making the same pilgrimages but in a democratic process that maintains that we need not agree in order to share an ethical life and a meaningful human journey. 
There is only one way to change the laws of the nation and that is to put forward candidates that will change them because _you_ voted. Imperfect as that system may be, imperfect as all candidates may be, the alternative resorts to the violence we must condemn. More cowardly still would be to abdicate the power of democracy and make yourself marginal by the righteous indignation that claims to want change but rejects the painful, slow process that democracy can create. However, to change the culture of America will require far more than laws to enforce. For that, we must change hearts and minds. That possibility lies not in furthering claims to shared religious values but instead understanding that there is a shared humanity that can appear in religious values common to humanity.
This is the power of the secular over religious discourse: if we take seriously what it means to participate in society in which _shared_ values are made into laws created to tolerate differences. Religion, of course, is not the sole source of intolerance but neither are its claims to altruism, inclusion, and tolerance reason to deny its role in the worst things we humans do and say. What is left is not an appeal to religion, for better and worse, but rather to human decency that compels conscience to admit that it is humanity that transcends such personal, religious claims.
While we cannot compel others to share our religious values, we can disempower and marginalize those who will not share in our humanity by tolerating their views only on the periphery of democracy. We will not all agree but what have we taught each other about inclusion that confers human dignity? When we are not educated to appreciate human differences and the role of religions in history, how can we engage in serious conversation or use the tools of argument? Do we refuse to invest in the public good because there is too much profit to be gained and too little shared conscience? Change will be incremental because all of these issues require time, effort, and seriousness. Our outrage is justified, no doubt. But outrage can, at best, inspire a meaningful process, it cannot create a durable result. To create a deeper humanity, we will need to learn more about how differences make us human and how we are only the "same" in the dignity of our differences.
Svamaye Saranam Ayyappa.  This is the chant we will make today on our pilgrimage.  It matters not if you understand or care what it means.  What matters is that we can appreciate in each other a humanity that speaks in many languages but commits to the dignity of human feeling and expression.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rajanaka Summer Camp 2016

I am happy to announce Rajanaka Summer Camp 2016.
Registration is now open. 

It was Once Upon A Time when our invitation to Rajanaka Summer Camp was a few emails to friends that said, "come up for a weekend...well, a little more than a weekend, we'll talk."  It's evolved over the years but I am happy to say that our gathering has never lost its charm.  People come from all over, some who've been for years and always plenty of new folks.  We're still keen on making everyone feel welcome and leaving no one behind, just like we're keen on taking the topics to places where everyone, including me or especially me, has reached to the boundaries.  It's so beautiful in south Bristol in summer and there's time to settle into the conversation and really go deep, enjoy great company, laugh a lot, learn a lot, repeat.  Join us, it's just a great time.

July 7 -11, 2016 
The Forest of Ferocity: Chasing Shiva's Shadow

When Shiva returns to the forest of the Tillai it is to meet his own shadow.  As the mythos tells us he must face his own betrayal of his beloved Uma and consult with Visnu to make the "arrangement" for Ayyappa's future.  We'll tell the stories of Shiva's shadow conversations, learn more about Vyagrahapada and his history, and discover more about the relationship between Bhairava, Kali, Ayyappa, and the denizens of Pulliyasrama of Vyagrahapada.  Bhairava mantras and mudra will be the practice focus.

Aug 11 -15, 2016
Beneath the Forest of Shadows: Kali's Fate, Her Daivya and Lila. 
To understand the great ferocity and beauty of Tillai Kali we must return to the mandala of her Temple and uncover the yantras of her forms as she transitions through the shadows of her betrayal by Shiva and Visnu.  She must evolve herself and find company in conversation and through the many forms of her own self-organization that will empower her to interpret a reality that has entirely reshaped her experience.  Kali myths, myths of Nagas, meetings with Ayyappa, and forests of rasas, here we look deeply into Kali again with more mantra and mudra through her multiple forms.  She must make her way back to beneficence and this requires the rich re-examination of the circle of feelings, rasa.

$625 per person per retreat. Tuition includes lecture, vegetarian lunchFriday through Monday, plus Douglas's famous Curry Night Dinner one of the evenings.
Travel, accommodations, and other meals are not included in the tuition.

We begin Thursday at 2:30pm and end Monday after lunch, about noon.

Please email Vishali for details and suggestions for travel and accommodations. She will let you know how to get to Bristol, information on the different housing options, and will invite you to a Summer Camp facebook group so you can make plans with

Logistics Conference Call:
Getting to Bristol, NY and securing accommodations can seem like a lot if you have never been, so to go over the necessaries of coming to Rajanaka summer camp, we will have a call Monday March 21 at 8 pmEastern time. Call into 605-562-3140 and punch in access 468906#.  If you cannot make the call, email Vishali and she can assist

a) Deposit
To register send Douglas $125 as a deposit before March 31. Mail a check or Money Order to Douglas Brooks 7296 Gregg Rd. Bloomfield, NY 14469.  
Please send $250 if you intend to attend both retreats. 
You must include with the deposit: 
* Your name  
* Email address 
* Which dates you are registering for (or both)
* Phone number
 b) Balance 
The $500 balance of tuition per retreat will be due by May 1st
Final tuition not received by May 1st forfeits your deposit.