Saturday, June 17, 2017

Contradiction, Paradox, and Your Inner Spock, Puzzling Our Humanity in this Age of Irrationality

I was an original Trekkie. Never missed a first episode, saw them all in black and white because we didn't have a color TV. My hero then as now was, of course, Spock. I wanted to be Spock and it took me forever to understand that Spock's Bestie was McCoy, his nemesis. Everyone loves the Captain, don't mistake me. But it's the person who brings out your shadow and so provides your better half that is that special friend. Think Mick and Keith, who may not even like each other. Same kinda' thing.

Spock's issue was made out to be his inner conflict with his half-human side. (I have the same problem.) But I think that's too easy. This guy could play three dimensional chess with himself the way Professor Ingalls could do Sanskrit and Greek at the same time. (I wish I had this problem.)

Spock would be puzzled by we humans' resorting to the irrational, how we would respond in situations that demanded logic with illogic. When you feel deep emotions you need not to lose your head. Spock was a lot like Krsna in the Gita when he made this point and when you need calmer minds to prevail in crisis, he was your Vulcan.

But then he would also be astonished when the non-rational came into play and the Captain--- so very human that you couldn't tell if William Shatner was acting or not--- knew what to do about it. He'd grudgingly admire that those who could understand the illogical sometimes had an advantage, though this didn't actually compensate for irrational choices. Always willing to learn, he'd find room for non-rationality (not to be confused with irrationality) in order to fathom what humans would likely do. People don't do the logical or rational thing, and _that_ too is predictable. Kahneman won a Nobel for this sort of thinking.

Spock wasn't failing to appreciate our nonrationality or its value. Rather, he failed to fathom the fundamentals of contradiction as a human _want_ and the ways self-interest denies the important power inherent in paradox. For this we need to understand Spock's father issues and his father. Sarek, after all, married his human mother.

Pundits query over Trump's irrationality, why he appeals to what appear to be otherwise sane people by non-rationality, and what to make of it all. Is it that they are compelled to espouse some sort of innate goodness? (They need more Hsun-tzu, less Mencius, please take my Religion 106.) I have pals who re-watch Maddow not only because she is really smart and sometimes as hard to follow as any gifted post-linear thinker but because she's trying to make _sense_ of what is going on. I have no doubt she understands far, far more than I ever will about everything except IE linguistics, the history of rock n' roll, and Fergie Porsche's invention of the 911. (She'd know more about those things too if she applied herself.) So what's my point?

The TV Punditry can't ---for reasons of sales, imo--- admit to enough human self-interest. We could call it venality or selfishness. If you had read more of Kautilya's Arthaśāstra on the "science of government" and not dismissed Machiavelli so quickly, you'd have a better idea of what is going on. Kautilya has whole chapters on the politics of lying, spies, and eliminating your enemies. He makes the Don (Coreleone or Trump) look like Saint Francis.

What Kautilya (not his real name, he likely didn't even write the book) knows is that people are capable of the worse. TV Punditry can't really go there. Either from denial or the need to sell soap, our brilliant analysts can't say aloud what they somehow must know in the marrow of their bones. People want what they _want_ and that self-interest, raw selfishness, is _as real_ as altruism, compassion, and human care. Love may triumph but its got only the slightest edge. Right on its heels, the fact is we humans suck. And we don't like to or want to admit that. Before you tell me I'm a cynic, I _just said_ that love triumphs (but just barely and not unwounded).

Let me give a short example. In today's Washington Post there's a piece looking to sort out the Newt Gingrich/Tom Price stronghold known to the techopolitical as GA-6. The article gives us lots of local voices from this mostly affluent, very white, reliably Republican district. And what's the take away? They will tolerate, even endorse Trumpism, if they can have lower taxes, great infrastructure, excellent cheap healthcare, a vibrant military and law enforcement, and make a profit for themselves. Paying for these things, well, that is not mentioned. They want what they want but the costs to themselves, to others, to society? Those are not taken seriously. Word has it too that there are gourmet donuts and who would not like that?

Now the residents of GA-6 reflect the other side of affluence, the privilege of education, so they aren't stupid. They just want what they want. That you can't have all of this Good Stuff without having to pay a lot for it, out of your own affluent pockets, is seemingly a contradiction not important enough to warrant thinking about logically. Embrace the contradiction but deny the paradox. This is the heart of the matter (and Spock too never quite got it either).

So we may know that you can't really have your cake and eat it too unless someone else is footing the bill. But why let that stop you? So when you hear Trump's 4th grade vocabulary (apologies to all 4th graders) and his promise of "great again", you're not only hearing white supremacist entitlement, you're hearing the human desire to embrace any contradictions that serve one's emotional needs. It's simple: ignore the irrational, embrace the non-rational, and forget the rest because, well, you're busy. The alternative?

Human nature isn't as complex as understanding human choice. We are selfish, we are not. We love a lot more than we reduce ourselves to selfishness but that doesn't always carry the day. When it does, it's heroic too because we have to defeat our self-preservation, our tribalism, our narrowness.

We may have to reject contradiction ---though we will not--- but more importantly we must embrace our paradoxes. We become more savvy, even more powerful, when we realize that contradictions are normal. We are bundled together to be both/and, so how to embrace that as paradox? Know when to give the edge. Choose the love over the selfishness even when its hard. Try to see when your love is your selfishness too or when being selfish is the better call. This I want to call the embrace of paradox. When the contradictions appear you may be as befuddled as Spock to fathom how humans can be so illogical but you will be far better equipped to deal with our far more than (and less) rational human nature.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Soul Listening What Do You Hear When You Listen for You?

“When in matters of real disquiet one must turn towards the inner actor for a measure of truth.”
---Kalidasa from the Abhijñānaśakuntalam

The greatest of the Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, makes a lovelorn prince rehearse this line aloud to himself as he confronts his conflicted thoughts and unambiguous feelings. Our prince is conflicted over propriety and decency because he has the idea --- ill-founded we later discover--- that his real feelings of affection are misguiding him. Should he act upon his understandings or his feelings?

The poet tells us to use the measures and the means we possess inside ourselves. Rather then plead to an almighty resource or diminish our human abilities, he insists that we listen more deeply to what lies at our core. Kalidasa tells us we need to be soul listening and while he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do this, it’s clear he has an idea about what we’ll need to bring along on the journey. It’s a journey we need to take now because the time will come when, like our prince here, we’re going to need to have been such pilgrims of the heart.

The “means,” the “measures” to which the poet refers are the powers of the senses, the gifts of a well-tuned mind, and the sum of our experiences. There are technical matters here for the philosophers with the Sanskrit word pramāna (“means of valid cognition”) and our poet surely has those in mind too. But he’s not asking us to rework our formal lessons so much as apply them. We need to have done some of this work if we are going to do any of it when the time comes. But the key is simple: he wants us to use all of our resources to feel, think, and remember all that we can so that we will act from that soul listening turn.

The “inner actor” he has in mind, what he calls the antahkarana, is another technical philosophical term. Once again I think it wise to ask if Kalidasa has something more in mind. Were we not rich in other vocabulary that conjures notions of soul and self, we’d translate this “inner actor” by one or the other. Listen to your soul. Go to the self. And that is exactly what the poet wants us to do. But now the philosophers help us a bit more, not for what they say about the importance of connecting to our feelings but for what they don’t.

It’s not unsurprising that most traditionalist schools of yoga philosophy teach us to be deeply suspicious of our feelings ---misled as we are by impulse and the seductions of pleasure and gratification. Katha Upanisad reminds us (2.1) that the good is one thing and the pleasurable another. This is sound enough advice: doing the right thing is not always a pleasure and certainly not all pleasures are right or encourage us to do what’s right. The task is discernment---more technical vocab could enter the picture now, but let’s demur and take a less straightforward course. Our prince is not consulting philosophers. He is trying to hear his heart. But before that, one more point.

The mind’s wandering and the ideas we have of ourselves ---usually called ego, judgment, or just mind--- are also brought under similar philosophical suspicion. India’s yoga philosophers are unambiguously mistrustful of “going with how we feel” and skeptical, leery, far more than just cautious about where our minds can take us without a great deal of courageous effort and cognizant apprehension. We’re taught to be “mindful” ---usually involving some form of witnessing, that is watching the watching and the watcher. Or we taught some or another form of quieting, silencing, or focused re-focusing without subject interference or object appropriation. These are the twin cynosure of meditation practices: mindfulness and serenity. All still quite familiar to even the most preliminary practices of yoga.

Kalidasa the poet and playwright offers something more. I don’t mean to say that he in any way disputes or diminishes the philosopher yogi’s prescriptions and strategies. I think that would rather miss his point. Rather I think he’s inviting us to a further human assignment. He wants us to do more soul-listening with our bodies, minds, and hearts gathered all at once to the great project of being more human.

Act from the inside out, surely. But bring all of yourself to bear. Go from the surfaces, go with them further and further until you cut to the core. And there in the beating of a heart, in the real pulsation of being yourself, discern and choose, contemplate as your inner actor. We need to be more whole, integrative, and willing to incorporate what we experience from outside in. Kalidasa is asking us to do something far more difficult than sort out, discriminate, and use our suspicions as wisely as we can. He’s telling us that we have to bring all we have to bear on all we are because that soul listening reveals itself when we act, when realize that what we do tells us about the work we have done.

In the scene in which this magnificent moment of self-reflection and self-care appears our heroic prince wants to know what to do and he wants to do right. He is checking his moral compass but his wisdom lies in his willingness to do that work, to make the effort to act using the sum of his experience to create choices. Whatever may be possible to do, he is looking to make the right choices. These choices are, in truth, restrictions and qualifications, reservations and circumscriptions. Whatever might be possible is not the same as the wisest choice, and we all know that. But how does our course of action tell us about the course of our innermost being?

What we decide to do will depend on how we arrive at the core of our being. When we don’t know how to get there it’s because we won’t or don’t know how take the all of us with us on that soul-listening journey. More troubling still is that so many don’t know that this journey takes effort, that it requires skills and competence and artistry with one’s self wholly committed.

You can’t do this kind of yoga unless you know that you need to, that there is such a yoga to do. And then we have to learn how, do the work, move through the layers of feeling and thought to find what lies within. What we will find is more than mere certainty or clarity or answers to our questions. What we will find is a heart beating together with other hearts.  When you bring all of yourself, when you arrive at the heart you will hear still more and know there is more yet to hear.

As we become more soul-listeners we hear more than our own self or just our own heart. We hear others listening, indeed come to recognize that there are those not listening closely enough, and that we don’t always know the difference. Most importantly, we discover how all hearts beat together whether or not we learn to take their measure. We come to realize as we journey and listen that we want to take this journey to light and shadow together, because there’s room for everyone who wants to come.

As soul-listeners we need not arrive at the same destination or claim it is same for all. The soul is too vast, too deep and complex, it harbors too many secrets and casts too many shadows to reveal its all. What we mean by soul is not a matter we will resolve ---or even if we have one. But what Kalidasa asks us to do is something we can agree is wholly human, and that invites us all.

Look with yourself and with all your effort and grace bring all of yourself along with you. Do just go with how you feel, don’t just think it all through, don’t distrust everything or believe everything because that’s not enough, that’s not what he’s asking from us. He’s asking us to include everything we can about ourselves as we choose, so that we can choose. And in the end, it’ll be in the moments, sometimes when we least expect it, when we’ll have to act that the work of this complex, often unsettling and formidable task of soul-listening will make all the difference.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Tests of Character and the Social Contract Comey as Janaka in the Age of Trump

The Tests of Character and the Social Contract
Comey as Janaka in the Age of Trump

The issue before is the test of character. It was not merely the test of two different persons but of the meaning of character. Because there is so much substance to the issues---collusion with an enemy of democracy and an indifference to the fabric of the republic, the separation of powers and respect for the institutions of government--- we can substitute their gravity for a lesson just as important.

What we learned is that American democracy is in jeopardy because the President's self-interest, venality, and incapacity for the truth is beyond any doubt. The person sworn to uphold the law _and_ represent our national character in symbolic and parliamentary roles is more than tragically under prepared and unfit: he is pathologically incapable of the truth and has utter disdain for foundational principles within healthy relationships.

We usually don't think much about the "social contract." It's too abstract and, in America, we try to act _as if_ it supports our everyday worlds. We make provision for real dissent by demanding that liberty's expressions retain some modicum of order. Freedom of assembly isn't supposed to devolve to riot, freedom of speech protects public discourse, and freedom of religion secures conscience. It isn't truth that grounds us, it is the trust we have in collective character. And that too is under siege. This is as much why we feel so unsettled.

Character is not an abstraction. We see it when we experience consistency, resilience, and enduring principles. There is the sense of fairness, the willingness to admit differences, and foster change through process. Like Comey, character can also seem self-righteous and too secure in institutional structures, but we humans fail at everything without community standards implicit and sustained by our "contracts." How easily we will degenerate to "the war of all against all" is why we have laws at all. We are creatures of propositions and needs that must make our inventions, imaginations, and conventions _real_ enough to "hold the world together."

The Bhagavadgita makes this insistence on character a vital starting point for every choice. Character does not finish the job but without it we cannot even begin. Krishna says to Arjuna, "For it was acting without selfish purpose that [King] Janaka and others achieved success, so you too must act acting only to hold the world together." (2.20)

It is in violation of this principle of individual responsibility coupled to social purpose that we are re-traumatized daily in the person of Trump. Somedays are more like a psychotic break, others normalize the horror. But the Comey hearing pointed out more than our national political divide--- it revealed how people with purpose deal with truth and its relationship to character. To be individually responsible requires trust in the greater goodness to which we aspire.

Speaker Ryan deflected Trump's pathology by calling him a political naif. Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee provided cover, the kind meant to suggest that there is no illness, nothing more unusual here than politics. Their mention of Secretary Clinton as frequently as they could was more than talking points for Breitbart and Fox. It was a symptom of their willingness to condone Trump's pathology because they have more and bigger fish to fry, above all their own maintenance of power.

When we witness character itself so flagrantly abused, sane people are forced to assess their needs. We have to try to retain our own decorum as we are being traumatized. That was what we saw in the stolid matter of factness that appeared on Comey's face.

This wasn't merely about Comey being in the right or representing institutions of legal principle, it was meant to offer a _comparison_ of character. There was Comey, under threat of perjury, telling us about a President so bereft of character, so pathological in his agendas of self-interest, that we must make this a test of character.

The take away had little to do with Comey vs. Trump's believability but rather how we all make our case for decency when character is so plainly revealed. Republicans took a page from Trump: we must not doubt their priorities of self-interest.

It is obvious that the real failure had less to do with Trump than with the state of the nation's character. We, the majority, _know_ who he is. Our more tragic failure to see the Republicans excusing his inexcusable pathology of character. Worse than that is the fact that some 62 million Americans failed the test to recognize such tragic, dangerous absence of character and voted for Trump.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Yoga Conflates and History Conceals

What Does it Mean to Mean Something?

The conflation of the word "yoga" is its very history. The word is defined by associations and claims, by _usage_ rather than specific common actions. What "yoga" means in Indian sources, in Sanskrit and any other language, is so varied, complex, and nuanced that we should understand all of the phenomena to which "yoga" _might_ refer have no normative guidelines, no simple definitions. Yoga means what any author in those sources say it means and no two ever completely agree. You are in effect no different when you use the word "yoga." There is no "real" yoga in any empirical sense but to discover meanings in the _use_ of the word by those who use it. The history of yoga is the history of the appropriation of the word and all words appear in cultures. So deciding its meaning is itself to appropriate from within cultures: words don't belong to cultures, they are used in them to mean what people think they mean.

The same must be said of "tantra" or even "kundalini" or other vocabulary that inhabits the language-worlds of "yoga"---pick nearly any word that was once used in other languages and now is an ersatz-english word. Did you know that "nirvana" is in English dictionaries? What it means in English is difficult enough to fathom, how much more so in Sanskrit where its definitions are formed in entirely different worlds of meaning. The transference of the vocabulary in complex histories of use and into differing linguistic and cultural settings is what we are _really_ studying. We're not studying "yoga" as such, we're studying what we _think_ people mean when they say the word.

I'd contend that something like modern postural yoga (MPY) is what is meant by "yoga" now in America in the meme-sense, in the sense of a broader identification. It's what I call the Aisle 11a argument. (Aisle 11a is where you find YOGA next to CANDLES and OUTDOOR GOODS at our local supermarket.) Yoga is sold there next to other stuff that smells, some organic fiber clothes, and right next to various kinds of bottled water that purport to be good for you. Yoga is _by association_ being defined as well. My point is that the argument over how the word is used in our common parlance is largely over and I am not here to dispute that. We are studying associations and uses and, for the most part, when we say "yoga" in America it refers postures. There is no "real" yoga anymore than there is a false use of any word.

How one is led to make associations with words is the issue but there is no misleading, there can be no this is _it_. I mean, think about it, how did Pringles make it into the potato chip aisle? Are they _really_ potato chips?

How teachers of yoga conflate meanings is the new yoga. What's "spiritual" about it? What's primarily exercise?
What yoga was is all mixed up with what yoga is nowadays and that is not easy to sort out. When yoga is religion ---and it is indeed that by any traditional empirical account--- it is liable to the same hucksterism, abuse, and snake oil as any religion. As for "yoga ethics" I think we can be clear about one thing: there are no special ethical rules for yoga teachers who teach modern postural yoga except those that would apply to anyone who touches someone else. When we are conflating with religion or even "spirituality," then you must beware the usuals of all religious power plays, and don't put yourself where you're not invited, using every ounce of your awareness and care. Err on the side of less. Yoga is now _yours_ to define and what you decide it includes or is about, what you decide it means is not some new age appropriation. The history of "yoga" shows us that the meaning of yoga has _always_ been the history of the word and its applications. To define yoga is to do yoga: apply yourself to meaning and you will define what you mean.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Trust in a World That Tests Values

Trust in a World That Tests Values
London, Kabul, and Wherever You Are

What holds us together is our credibility. To be credible is to have heart, to take matters to heart, and there to test them in the crucible of experience, in time and trial, in character and value. Testing is trusting. We might call that another test of our character. If you are trusting without tests of character is that credible?

The word "credibility" itself tells us as much, look for cognates in "courage," the French "la coeur," in the deeper meaning of "creed," and then all the way to the Sanskrit word shraddha, too often (mis-)translated "faith." Shraddha doesn't mean "faith" that bypasses our _most critical_ awareness, it doesn't mean "believe me." It means "test me." Shraddha means the trust we put in those persons and values that have earned our confidence, won our deepest sense of fidelity. No one is beyond criticism, none without foibles or faults. But one of life's true tests is to assay words, actions, and histories, to take the tests of trust seriously. Mencken once wrote, "For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together."

While our country faces these tests in ways most of us truly cannot fathom, such matters will surely appear in your own life. One hopes most days pass with bluer skies and gentler breezes but when the storm rages, shake your fist and look inside, look to your heart and your head. Look to history and time and take their measure. Then look beside you and see who is there. If you repeat the inane meme "not to judge" you abdicate your power to draw upon the test of your heart, the power of your reason, your human ability to choose your company.

I have a few friends, maybe far more than I realize, who would leap with me into the fray as if every day were the Battle of the Somme. I hope you do too. When that whistle blows, go with them not only because you trust them. Go because they trust you. One of the most important things in life to realize the value we have to each other: you have earned that place beside each other, you're inside their hearts and they are in yours, and the company we keep makes all the difference.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Liberation and the Values of an Education

Higher education in America is prohibitively expensive if what you want is an education. That's because it will require more than the skills you need to be employable. To be educated is not merely to be skilled or employable. Bees, ants, even planaria can _learn_ but I'm as sure as human can be that they can't be educated. To be educated is to learn how to think, not what to think. It's no small task. I'll take this a step too far too: to be educated is, dare I say? My religion. That's because the only salvation, the only liberation I can admit myself to being real is learning _how_ to learn.

Every what needs a so what, but none of that matters unless we can think with thinking. That's more than learning. (I'll also claim fellowship with Van Zandt and the Boss that rock n' roll is my other religion but that's another essay. And, yes, you can have more than one religion. ) All the rest of "religions" are to be learned from and to be learned about, but take note of how rarely they educate us in learning how _to learn_.

What we learn is not unimportant. How we learn changes _everything_. Yesterday I was trying to explain to a perfectly lovely soul that his son, who wants to be an engineer and is working as a carpenter, might also want to be an English or a History major or study religions or poetry or storytelling because _education_ adds to _life_. More importantly, that learning how to learn in these subjects is practically different from analytical sciences. We have to become more willing to suffer ambiguity and like it. We have to like confusion as a vital feature of learning. That imagination is not unreality. Well, you get the point. But much is the same no matter what we learn:
(1) ask every, any question, even the ones, especially the ones that make you deeply uncomfortable;
(2) follow the road, the evidence wherever takes you, and be prepared not to be applauded for changing your mind;
(3) and always look for the black swan. (Check the Rajanaka Sammelana and Contrariety blogspots for plenty more about this.) These are all familiar bits from me. Are you still awake?

Here's today's point: yesterday's case for education was downright impossible and proved impenetrable, utterly. Everything had to be reduced to utility. "What are you going to do with that?" This wasn't the issue so much as, _everything_ must have utility and translate into skills for commerce. I thought to myself, is this a feature of unadulterated American pragmatism? Must education always be useful because it translates into commerce, into things? But what's practical and useful is in fact not the same as what's sellable. We might need education to be human enough to share a world in which commerce, use, and ends will destroy if we don't imagine more. But if we never learn to think it becomes tough to imagine what more an education offers--- because unless we are taught to think all we can do is learn.

Belief in A Shared Humanity, a Parenthetical Response.

Belief in A Shared Humanity, a Parenthetical Response.
Our Sunday Sermon (Apologies for the Preachy), Part I
(Because Part II Remains Unfinished)

With whom do we stand when we stand together? This is far more than a political question. It tests the very meaning of civilization. Global warming, terrorism, the relentless stress on our shared human fabric are all at work, no one can deny. The news from abroad is terrifying and sad, much like it is at home. We must admit that there are those who just want to see the world burn. Whether they are terrorists killing innocents or elected and appointed government happy to isolate us from the facts of climate change. We are victims of others' beliefs and too often of our own. But without belief in a shared humanity can we be human? On this we must disagree too.

At the heart of a shared humanity is something far more deeply interfused: it is how we must each decide to the limits of our abilities, how we to _choose_ to be human. Whatever choices are made for us--- by history, by circumstance of culture and upbringing--- those are also in play. And on all such matters it should be plain that all of us will not agree. We are creatures of difference; that is our shared lot. Without our differences everything is lost. Living with our differences is a challenge we must learn to love.

Choice is a restriction we place on opportunities we consider truly possible. We are only as free as we are willing to acknowledge meaningful boundaries and their changeability. I was recently at a "yoga gathering," a roomful of progressive, thoughtful people where the speaker said, "the objective scientific view is USELESS here." I object to this proposition with every ounce of my being. It is, in a word, nonsense. We cannot, we must not throw away truth to find "truth." I also realized that some in that room needed, really needed to believe. This is the question that then stormed inside me: is their belief a positive detriment to our shared welfare? I found their assent to this proposition of rejection terribly frightening but another important part of our story of belief.

People believe because it's so damn difficult to deal with the more complex tasks of coping with our always unfinished, oh so human knowledge. But however we negotiate truth because it is a construct of minds and interpretations, we must not reject what we can know for mere personal opinion. That is to resort to ideology, dogma, and alternative facts. The elements on our humanly constructed periodic table don't depend on us to be real. Belief will not set us free when it claims truth has no boundaries. Not in the name of mysticism, much less for profit, a global 21st century civilization needs resilient facts engaged in honest discourse. I believe in a "spirituality" that includes all of what we can call "facts" because those are not mere beliefs.

Not every kind of human endeavor of real value is objective enough to be deemed science. My point here is not to be reductive. What we learn from myth and metaphor, poetry, art, and deep contemplations of the heart is of inestimable human value. No one could love exploring those worlds more than I do. I've made it my living to study them. I hope you do as well. Well, at least study them. We can share in these matters too knowing that we need _not agree_ to find something purposeful, meaningful, and helpful to one another. What are we in this life for? Is it just to believe what we want or is there _more_ than that to share?

Our democracy was not created for unity but to secure human rights, and foremost among them our rights to dissent. These are complex and demand our engagement. To take them for granted, to abdicate the discourse is to believe that your belief will suffice. To realize there is more at stake, that learning is unfinished business and human purpose a creative enterprise makes us a messy lot. We don't have to agree with those with whom we disagree, we don't have to unite, and we don't have to ever believe we will. Such disagreement is a shared principle of freedom. It also means we will have irreconcilable differences. The issue at hand is not resolution or unity, both of which will stifle our pursuit of truth, but how we choose to live with our pursuits.

We live together not to unite but to share. Sometimes that means "coming together" and sometimes it's far better to admit that good fences make good neighbors. Fences, not walls. Open hearts and minds, not dogma, censorship, or tyranny. When does your belief help others or, at the very least, not cause a positive disadvantage to others? Frame more worthwhile questions because belief is not the same as the pursuit of truth.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Our First 100 Days, The Shadow of an Embattled American Soul

When has 100 days ever felt so much like an eternity? I am not the sort to pinch myself with incredulity but instead more inclined to bouts of acidic realism. I can also count. There are currently 560 more days until Election Day 2018. If Republicans gain in the Senate, which is currently likely, and retain the House, there may be little left to do before every bit of our environment, women's rights and LBGTQ rights, healthcare, education, and the rest belong to the plutocrats. However, an election won't turn the tide even if it can slow the fiasco. This president is the symptom, not the disease.

We can acknowledge the anachronism of our electoral college and the success of Republican gerrymandering, but American voters put them all in charge. Some of them know he is impenetrably ignorant and fundamentally corrupt and don't care. Many say he reflects their values. He reflects their resentment and validates their own ignorance. His sources of information are their sources. His soul is their soul. Their share something deep and abiding, that is what we must recognize.  Let us take them at their word.  It’s important to understand how words emerge from real before-words places.  These are soul issues.

Nearly all of them say they would vote for him again. The obvious embarrassment he has been to the world will not stop them anymore more than what he is doing at home. They may accept that his promises are empty and are daily being broken, they seem not to care that his cabinet appointments are nepotistic or intentionally nihilistic. They are more than just willing to "give him a chance," because while he does not look like them, he shares their American soul. His unconscious rises to the level of a 6th grade vocabulary and they see themselves.   I am not merely demeaning people here.  I am trying to describe the disease of our American divide.

Many, like myself, fear what will come when the country truly begins to wear the mantle of such a thinly guised fraud. But the heart of the matter is that we are already in the midst of this second civil war. It is not unlike our first civil war in many respects because it comes from the _same place_, from the heart and soul, from the unconscious reality that informs our awareness with or without our acknowledgements. It is the conflict about who we are and want to be.

We can call this a battle of ideas, but the ideas involved don't actually require words or coherent thoughts. The conflict emerges, as Cormac McCarthy has recently put it, from the depths of a knowing unconscious. The president is the outbreak of an underlying sickness of the heart, and not the kind that can be healed with compassion or reason. The work of compassion can’t get to these places from which these feelings originate.  That’s because they are part of a deeper imprint.  We must learn to contend and confront these feelings inside ourselves, not merely seek a remedy.  We must accept that staying in the battle requires more than our “positive” strategies, like compassion or hope.

No amount of goodness can check what is possible within all of us, not when the world inside looks like The Road.  To find other roads, more than just the painful and disturbing road to the dystopic self will demand more, not less, personal discomfort and deep assessment.  We’re going to have to go to the hard places and decide who we want to be because they too are real in us.  Not everyone wants to do this.

We are a nation that has acquired over generations a deeper pathology rooted in our shared history of racism, class division, and _divided ideals_. There is no America that we _all_ want to be. There is instead an American malady we all must endure if we are to change it, just enough, into something more livable lest we all die or divide irrevocably.

To  acknowledge the dystopia in our souls, _all_ of us, is to engage the story of hope. We need to plant seeds in our unconscious as Voltaire reminds us, “to tend our garden.”  And do the work required to hear _more_ than that despotic voice of nihilism and self-interest. We do indeed have voices of hope, of love, of soulful awareness but these are easily drowned out or allowed to become wistful consolations that remain powerless. We substitute belief, magical thinking, mysticism, just about anything we can rather than do the far more challenging work of self-engagement. To empower the soul is to engage all of our voices, and this is no small matter. A comprehensive self is always incomplete and unfinished, but as a work in progress it requires work.  We’re going to need more stories, better stories, and develop the ability to interpret them.

This malady of America cannot be fixed with an election nor the most erstwhile efforts of a resistance. It's going to require a new generation of active, determined voters in places they are unlikely to live. These same people will need to do more than listen to their hearts, because for now _that_ is the problem. They must wake up to hear _more_ of the voices within. Certainly they will need a new education in civics, sources of information that they can trust, and a solid understanding of the facts and issues. Above all, they will need to reject the huckster, fraud charlatanism that characterizes our politics. And, dare I say it, they will need leadership that looks more like the country ---browner, younger, diverse, and yet somehow appealing past the whiteness that cripples the sea of suburbs and the rural American lifestyle. But to do any of that practical work, they will need to do far more than that. The work of the unconscious does its work on us no matter what we do. But what we do makes all the difference.

We should not underestimate how difficult this is going to be, both in the practical realms of election outcome and with regard to its deeper sources. Education and activism will be deliberately crippled by conservatives committed to religion---religion that means to coerce, manipulate, ignore, and empower false consolations and reinforce dogmas. They will defund the arts and sciences and working tirelessly on their memes and strategies to direct the public discourse and use the law. They have clear allies on the Supreme Court and control nearly every level of government in more than 36 States. They understand that politics comes from feelings before emotions, ideas before words, and actions that can be directed by impulse and by deep seated, unconscious experiences.  This too is shadow work because it means to create willfully ignorant and compliant sycophants. 

There is hope for the country and for all of us, but the problems should clear. American needs to care who it wants to be, it must understand the power of the soul, the unconscious, and _decide_ to create _more from_ those voices within. To do this, we must become smarter in very practical ways as well. Trying to make people care is easy enough, but trying to get them to think more deeply about their cares is the greater task. As Charles Blow put it this morning, "For far too many Americans in this digital age, stamina is rare, attention spans are short and the urge for instant gratification, or at least for expedient resolution, is enormous." This has always been true: the work required to learn, to change, to endure criticism, evoke the disciplines and commitments to develop our hearts and minds has never been harder.

Blow is sanguine about the resistance and about how so many have risen to the challenge of Trump's fakery and the very real consequences of Republican rule. (Not governance, _rule_ because people often prefer to be ruled than deal with the messy, difficult busy of self-goverance.) We can also hope that Republican incompetence, division, and resistance do their job of slowing down this debacle. Those for whom the Randian dystopic vision is a paradise are as blind as they are bankrupt to their choices. But their failure will not be enough.

Change will require two things. First, in a very simple way, we need a more active _and_ a smarter electorate that turns out in unlikely places. This mundane task includes as well an increasingly ignorant electorate. But by "smarter" we can't just mean in the formal sense of civics and issues. There will be very few Republican voters who can be persuaded or converted by reason. The power of the unconscious has already done its work on them and we creatures of habit never, ever like to admit we've made a mistake. We don't like the work of learning. We are easily moved by emotions, impressions, and fakery.

The Republican voter will continue to cling to Fox Limbaugh habits with all of their guns drawn and requisite religious fervor. The few that can be peeled off or are disaffected enough to stay home will not make the electoral difference. The real hope for change is in education, but also in a deeper education, not only in the formal sense of civics and issues. America needs a change of heart.

We thought we achieved some of that in 2008 with Barack Obama. But that merely further energized the unconscious driven by fear, resentment, and genuine depravations of spirit and material life. America's most incendiary shadow woke up and since it has so few resources of reflection ---and because the work of addressing this source of consoling treachery is difficult and must be _chosen_ to be countered---it has a nearly intractable foothold on a significant portion of the voting country. There _may be_ just as powerful a resource within the American soul that wants a _very different_ world. The French seem to be in a comparable place _right now_ in their election.

But the work of change is soul work, it must come from the unconscious because that is where it begins and that is what speaks to us, with or without our awareness. The unconscious must be brought into the light and awareness of hearts and minds committed to making the shadow more than darkness. We cannot, we must not deny the darkness of the shadow as integral to our being. Like it or not it is part of our soul and never is less real. The more brightly we burn, the more shadow we possess.

But we are not helpless, we need not empower the worst of ourselves. We need to create more from the soul we truly are, listen more deeply, and turn up in the waking world with a plan to act upon _all_ of the facts. Learning to listen, finding our voice, doing the work of waking up to the soul's fullness is a difficult path. But it's the real source of hope because what's up for grabs are hearts and souls. Minds are already made up. What we do next will make all the difference. Is America up to this task? We will need more who are willing because the rest will take the far easier path to Trump.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Reframing the Spiritual Life and The Certain Failure of the Guru Tradition

From Guru to Teacher
Reframing a Spiritual Life

I'm honored and delighted when I get a message or email from folks who ask my opinion, maybe even are asking for some insight. So thank you for that. I'm going to paste in the note I received this morning with just enough edits to protect privacy and make this more germane to us. So here we go.

As an individual who learned the yoga first in a guru do I reckon my desire to surrender fully to the presence of the outer form, the Guru as reflection of my inner self/self, master.
Like Shiva shares with Parvati in the Guru Gita?
Does one ever come to fully embrace ones own reflection as the guru? I am having difficulty "surrendering myself". I have been for years. But the current climate both political, social, my very personal life all reflects the dissonance of the outer.
I look back on my days of being fully in love with the was so much easier.
How do I surrender to a higher power?
What does this surrender mean?
How do you surrender, lay your burdens down?
How do I recognize the presence?
I am in tangles over such a basic question...

dbrk replies:

When first I went to India I too went looking for someone in whom I could entrust my heart, surrender to learning, and regard as the _perfect_ example. I had only limited exposure, the Upanishads and other written sources, and then the very limited resources of the Tantra as it was represented in English. (I particularly loved Sir John Woodruff.) When in Wisconsin studying Tamil in May 1977 I found Swami Muktananda's "Siddha Meditation," a book that I helped edit many years later in the retitled form "Nothing Exists that Is Not Siva." (I'm pretty sure that's the new title.) In this little page-turner Muktananda offers short commentaries on works of interest to him from Kashmir Shaivism and elsewhere, including the Gurugita. I read it 10,000 times that summer.  Oh how I wanted to believe.

I wanted to find _that_ Guru, the paradigm of perfection who was wise, loving, _complete_. It never occurred to me to go looking for Muktananda but I was also just young enough to have had a lot of exposure to gurus, including Maharajji, the Maharishi, a book about Ramana Maharishi, and, of course, plenty of Hari Krsna. I was dead set against that scene.  It looked like a scam because it is a scam.  But I had also worked up this notion of a more serous kind of textual and personal study, I had heard about how brahmin tradition had created gurukula, studying in someone's house with a small group of likeminded, serious students. You would learn not just texts and languages, you would learn the practices the only way you really can: first hand from someone with virtuosity, erudition, and seriousness. So I confess that I was never a candidate for the ashram scene. But I was a desperate seeker. And I mean desperate.

I could write more about what happened to me and why I think I was so very desperate to find help, to find a teacher. I believed with all my heart when I arrived in India that there had been such gurus, people whose character and probity matched their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual achievements. My first months were deeply sobering. To quote a quote, "who knew that this guru business could be so complicated?"

I was depressed, lonely, and more desperate than I had been before I left. Everyone I met who was a candidate was more disappointing than the next. My Jersey instincts were keen not to be conned, and to this day, I realize how I wanted that, I wanted to be conned, I wanted to _believe_ and then experience _that_ person. Then I got lucky. Really, that's the only explanation.

Fast forward because most of you know the kernel of this story. When I met Appa, he was forty-one years old, a father of three, the principal provider for his entire extended family, and already professor of Sanskrit at Madurai University. He dressed in western clothes at the University and was so soft-spoken and demurring that you had to lean forward to hear him--- or at least I did. Many of you know the story from here but suffice it to say, that dream, so vaguely and romantically envisioned came to pass. I lived as a member of Appa's family for many years. Our days started before sunrise with practices and meditations and ended when formal studies concluded about 8:30 every night. We studied, talked, worked all day ---in Sanskrit, Tamil, and English. Some other students came and went but I was the one who stayed. The work never got easier, but it did go faster.

Appa knew quite well that I was looking to him to be that guru. But for only the briefest time did he let me offer that kind of surrender, that complete feeling of being held and guided and allowed to be the disciple. He knew exactly what he was doing, as I look back on it. Little by little, again and again he dismantled the guru ideal as it was historically and culturally constructed. And in our lives together he brought me closer to him to reveal more of his humanity, not more guru perfection.  This was his plan all along.

Being a part of those worlds entirely, Appa saw the beauty and the beast of this concept and he was _wholly committed_ to a _radical_ revision. The heart of the matter was the charlatanism, the _impossibility_ of the ideal, and the failure to embrace a serious humanity and humanism. It took me quite a while to catch on. In the end, it was about creating a different model, which I'll say more about below.

It's important to say that Appa, for all of his blistering criticism and disavowal of the guru, was not actually anti-guru. He believed that we need to see ourselves in forms, in examples, and that good teachers say over and over again that the "real" guru is one's own truest self reflection. But he railed against the concept of "perfection" and thought every last traditionalist definition of liberation and/or enlightenment was a misleading fantasy and a scam. He did this with such gentle, unassuming clarity that you hardly fathomed how determined and adamant he was. But he also embraced the idea that other people have their own ideas and their own needs. Appa's liberality and tolerance were as essential to his character as was his own unambiguous opinions. He could say in the same breath, some people need and want a guru tradition and yet that will NOT do for me and neither would he agree to allow me to treat him as such a person.

So what is the alternative model. The critical phrase is this: Deference but never surrender. Respect but never an abdication of critical self-awareness or relinquishment of the personal responsibility we have for thinking. Appa taught conversation, contrariety, and the methods of critical analysis that rely on evidence, reason, and shared argument. We learn trust and care, character and love from a deeper appreciation of our humanity, with all of its flaws, foibles, weaknesses, and failures. The best teachers reveal theirs and show us how to allow these shadows to become part of our greater narrative, a human story where there's no need to be perfect and we gather a story that lets us _live_ with _all_ of our person. We never stop learning, we still err, and we find out what is _really_ possible rather than wishing for a world and a life that doesn't actually exist. Appa wanted us to be peers, conversation partners, and the kinds of friends who would create _deep acceptance_ of our humanity, compassion for our individuality, and collective effort for community.

Each of us has talents, expertise, and experience that makes us a gift to others. We defer to each other to learn but surrender no power. We let mutually conferred authority become the seat of the teacher and require accountability in the simplest human terms for _all_. No one gets a pass, no one gets a privilege unearned or prerogative that is not offered freely, and every one gets a break. It's important to honor people's achievements and, at the same time, retain our power to determine our own lives as we see fit. It's critical to accept people for their gifts, liabilities, and personal character features ---we all hope to be growing and learning more and from mistakes.

Appa sought a humanism that guru traditions often _say_ they endorse but then utterly fail to represent.  This is because the guru is somehow more than human.   Appa had no such aspirations.  We need not be more than human.  Indian spiritualities rooted in liberation traditions are looking for immunity, invulnerability, and a person whose authority ---morally, personally, intellectually is more than decent, honorable, and ethical, but is _perfect_. That guru only exists as kind of chimera of wishful thinking. Don't we all want mommy or daddy, god or guru, to keep us safe, know everything, never make a mistake, redeem us, enlighten us, and have nothing to do but make the world wonderful? Right, I thought so.

So what about all of these guru traits that don't pan out, aren't true, what about that kind of exaggeration and hyperbole? What about the kinds of spiritual longing that envisions such a character or generates such a need?

First, we need to be weaned from that ideal and those kinds of needs. We need to learn how to embrace the mortal and conditional with cool, steady realism ---even when that entails a very disturbing and sobering set of facts. Life is harder than we wish it were, more conditional and unpredictable and painful than we are likely to imagine it can be. Life requires more trust, conversation, acceptance, and seriousness than we are prepared to have, but still must have. We'll fail at these things but that does not mean we failed. We'll be in deficit and make all kinds of mistakes but that doesn't mean we aren't doing what we can. The people we count on will also fail and fail us, because that happens too. But this doesn't diminish their greatness, and that's the next crucial piece.

India is a culture in which things great, mahā, is part of a way of understanding, a tool for imagining, a method for dealing, and a claim to be understood with paradox, contradiction, and hyperbole as critical features. I've written about this at some length, but "great" is fundamentally a way of saying: we must learn to do what we must, we must accept and deal with everything as best we can, whatever that means. We must not reconcile or dismiss the contradictions or incongruities, but give them a place in a life of radical affirmation. This is what Appa called the Rajanaka way.

A few more things in reply to the question.
*There is no higher power to which we must surrender but to the facts of a mortal, human life. Surrender to nothing, defer and accept instead what is and innovate to address what is next.
*How do we lay down our burdens? With each other, day by day, little by little, again and again. No take backs, no do-overs, but plenty of room for regret and wistful hopes, fantasies, simple pleasures, and plenty of coping, dealing, and carrying on. We need each other and conversation, we need to be committed to learning and to accepting our shadows as part of our stories. Then we can decide what to do.
*What should we do? We need a comprehensive plan: physical, emotional, intellectual, practical, all for the sake of a comprehensive self (from somatic to autobiographical).
*The presence you seek is in every little thing you are experiencing. Sure, there are big moments and important events but once we stop looking for what isn't there, we can start loving what is possible. Hope is the art of the possible.
*Never deny yourself a simple love of life and that means your desires, hopes, dreams, wishes, and plenty of fantasies. To have those work for you, well, you're going to need to keep things practical, patient, forbearing, and use all of your resources to do what you need to do. To flourish we must first do what it takes to survive and live with the consequences of being human.
*Last (for now), if these questions and issues don't tangle you up, you're likely not trying hard enough or thinking deeply. So you are and being confused, finding complications, knowing there is more you don't know and much you will always struggle with, well, that's normal, that's human. We don't need to be _more_ than human ---and this is why the guru concept has to go.
*We need to be more aware of what this being human will bring us--- comfort and discomfort, clarity and despair, hope and hypocrisy, the all of life is all we need recognize. That's no small effort and certainly is going to be incomplete. Imperfection isn't perfection and when we think it is, we're not being quite honest enough about our irresolvable self. We're going to need to learn how to live in the spaces of incongruity, in the ordinary crisis, and with the incomplete business of a moral existence. Now let us care for ourselves and each other.