Saturday, September 16, 2017

Lying and Leveling, A Rajanaka Experiment in Living

Over on Rajanaka Storm I wrote yesterday about Lying and Leveling with People.  You can find that archive here: http://contraiety.blogspot.com/2017/09/the-lying-strategy-or-merits-of-good.html

The thesis there was more political inasmuch as the choice is LIE BIG to (1) get the meme into people's heads ("Medicare for all!!"), (2) force the argument forward with promises you can't keep, and (3) deal with the consequences of not being able to deliver on those promises because you knew all along that it was based on bullshit or simply too impractical, not real enough.  Or the alternative, which is LEVEL with people: this is what's possible, this is what's likely going to happen, this is at least for now what we know and what we can say is most likely.   This line of thought also presents a different kind of chance to talk about our deeper processes of self-inquiry, our needs and hopes and dreams, what "mystery" means, and how Appa taught me Rajanaka.

Rajanaka began with two critical agendas.

First, Appa having been reared in the most orthodox worlds of caste and tradition was determined to change things.  He wholly and vociferously rejected the social and cultural prejudices of his society.  He would tolerate no such oppression and spent his life speaking out against caste, sexism, homophobia, racism, and injustice against the oppressed.  When he got involved with purchasing the Srividyalaya school he did so because he knew it could become a focal point for social change and a platform from which he could reach into the community.  Inviting me to live in his house was politically and culturally risky, not only for him, but for his whole family.  But Appa wanted a better world, little by little and again and again, he said, we would _not_ stop doing some good.  I have often asked myself how this man, born an orthoprax brahmin in a village in 1936, raised without a father from infancy, how did he come to these values?  This is another story to tell at greater length.

Second, Appa was equally determined to go toe to toe with Indian philosophy and religion.  Let me put it bluntly: he thought most of what was said about bondage and liberation was utter nonsense.  The crux of his objection was that it was founded on Big Lies.  Sure the diagnosis of yoga traditions is irrefutable: this embodied, mortal condition is going to suffer and its temporality is problematic by nature.  Who can argue with samsara?  Certainly Appa didn't even as he reminded us time and again that we are the lucky ones, we made the cut, we survived, and we're here to be grateful for life itself, and to give something back.  People will hurt. So what are you going to do about that?  But the Big Lie comes with the claims to liberation because no matter how you cut that cake liberation means liberation-from the terms of the human condition.  You can arrive at an immunized samadhi, you can claim Oneness that dissolves the dualist experience, you can say you have powers over the experiences of suffering, you can say you are god or that you know god or that having become one with the Unconditional you have arrived at an ultimacy of exception, invulnerable from the world's travails and free-to act from this place of "liberation."

Appa thought this was quite the sell, much like I argued yesterday about politics.  In other words, people seem to need to hear these kinds of stories and claims about liberation, about freedom from suffering, some razored edge distinction between "pain" and "suffering" as if we can't avoid the former but most certainly can be exempt from the latter.  People want there to be answers, a god, a method that really does exempt us from the facts of embodied life and its terminal conclusion.  To put it another way, a good life followed by extinction seems just not good enough for most and everyone wishes there's more and something else.  Rajanaka isn't here to dissuade you or deride your needs or attack your feelings.  Everyone has to tell the story she or he needs to hear just to make it through the day ---we need to be compassionate and gracious to peoples' beliefs.  And life itself is fraught with depth and mystery that leaves _all_ knowledge unfinished, incomplete, and partial.  What we don't know, can't know, and aren't going to find out is as real as all that we think we do.  What we can find out about ourselves is hard work and demands from us commitments to learning and practice, to criticism and painful evaluation.

One of the principles of Tantra has always been its various claims to secrecy and exclusivity.  There are initiations, secret mantras and decoder rings (like you get only from Cracker Jack), and other stuff that is supposed to make you feel Really Special.  You can even nowadays get Certified and use a Capital Letter too in words like Divine and Consciousness and think there are Tantric credentials and stuff.  Like you got something Really Special that somehow isn't what the rest of us already have but don't know it?  I'm not confused by the claims, just not all that interested.

So here is where Rajanaka wants to cut out the Lies that we tell and may even NEED to tell in politics because we need to get people's attention, more than just us.  Rajanaka thinks leveling with you is not necessarily something you want or will like.  Rajanaka doesn't want you not to have what you want or need.  So Rajanaka's idea of leveling with you may not be for you.  I'm kinda' thinking that if you are here and have tolerated these sorts of ideas this many years, you're more or less good with these sorts of ideas.

The Vedic world ---the one before all of the bondage and liberation models--- taught us to live healthy and prosperous lives, be generous and relentlessly committed to justice, decency, and compassion for all living things.  Who could disagree?  At death we return to the ocean of memories from which we emerged and what "survives" death is largely undiscussed.  Appa said that we won't remember our memories after death even as you become memory.  He was being nice, but what he was saying is that we don't survive death but in the form of living memories and information (like DNA) that we won't experience.  We're, umm, dead.  And that's not so bad, I mean you weren't too upset about not living _before_ you got here, right?

But as for these states or claims of any sort that somehow give you power _over_ suffering, exemption _from_ suffering, and then tell you you are somehow going to be immortal in ways that exempt you from death well, as far as Rajanaka is concerned: this is not leveling with people.  Leveling with people is not popular.  It has certainly not been a great business model.  It's easier to sell smoke, mirrors, and certificates. It's harder to love a life that is limited, mortal, and always conditioned, fersure.  It's not even religion to sell anything else, especially if you don't include some claim to the Big Enchilada ---call it enlightenment, whatever, it's liberation.

So if we are not free-from death, much less suffering, then what do we have to live for?  First, each other because you didn't get here alone, aren't alone, and you'll likely leave behind you plenty that bears your imprint.  Second, living to love this life is a complex, messy, unresolvable endeavor but oh so worth it.  There is beauty and nature, there are the astonishing achievements of human culture, from science to mythology and art, and there is your own heart's desire.  Whatever you think is your heart's desire, Rajanaka has a simple message: there's more, way more, always more than you have yet found in this mortal coil.  Stay in the conversation of exploration, never let up, ask every difficult question, and to fullest extent of your very being, try to level with yourself too.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Spiritual Life Inside the Maelstrom? Dialing 9/11 and Accepting the Invitation to Choose

When we let others choose for us, we need to know that choice will keep us safe or at least make an investment in our present goodness. It's going to be some time before we get to vote again in America for any palpable hope for collective change. So today I'm taking some warm advice from Charles Blow who writes, "...give a bit more space for the activities that celebrate the creative imagination and that express the long tumultuous span of the human condition." 

This same bid for sanity is as well the very heart and soul of the yoga called "Rajanaka." No astral tales of wistful enlightenment or claims of an ennobled exemption from our human situation. No strategies promising soporific peace. Instead an invitation to the conversation welcoming the bounty of mortality as the ostensible gift we can all share. I am ravenous for the real, for the colorable world of many colors. What do you want? Ask yourself that, not to become the follower of any "path" but instead to find your own heart and to choose for yourself what you want from life.

But do choose. Choose a way to live in these troubled times that does you and the world some honest good. Remember how choice is a human privilege we must not diminish or imprison in fear or anger or ideology. We must make choices that can shape shared futures, not merely our own. What risks are worth such a gambit? That being human _together_ is indeed our best hope? Find a way for yourself to celebrate that human condition, no matter what more you want. That's a plan we can all measure and practice without taking anything that isn't on offer to everyone. Apologies that this little sermon turned up on Monday. But today is Monday, September 11th.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Weather, the News, the Dream


Hurricanes, you mean another one?  Don't be lulled by the flavor-free names, there's another after this one.
Then there's news about that guy. Every single day it's just more insane.
And now we have Dreamers who have to worry about dreaming in this life?
It's not so much about facing the facts as it is living in them.

I’ve been hearing a lot about death, devastation, and possible armageddon lately. Some of these cats who've died aren't that much older than I am now. And I’m taking this all very personally. So rather than ponder news we thought unthinkable, let's make this personal.
I need to ask you something.
I want you to do me a favor.

Don't pass me first on the way to oblivion.

I've studied immortality my whole life, professionally even, and I suppose that's why it generates such a splenetic inner conversation. There's no doubt that my lifelong interest is my own shadow's reflex to the greater certainty of annihilation.

Why is it so hard to allow ourselves the feeling that we simply cease to exist? What's the fuss and anxiety about while we're still living? I still study religion because I'm interested in avoidance and the ways we humans will do just about anything to give ourselves the slip. In India the masterpieces of consolation are astonishingly understated, usually involving ineffable alternatives that perfect, annihilate the annihilation, and otherwise promise a promotion to "bliss" when you’re finally up to it. Western monotheisms play a different gambit, usually involving some impressive sounding next life.

When it's all a mystery of some Knowing Eternal, refuge is in the invisible. We've learned while living that invisible things have meaning, like when we feel love. I’m for that. Why should we desist from efforts to describe in detail what we can't know but feel? As for the Almighty Boss, the western traditions make him (always a him) more demanding in the here and now than I could ever honestly tolerate. I'm all for following the rules, so long as we say we make them up. His rules? Not so much. I’ve never been a fan of The Man.

What exactly are the rules? These are always more open to interpretation than religious like to admit. But they have a solution to that: claim you are the Commander's counsel, or better, his authorized agent, his dealer, that you control the warranty. This will let you claim the Great Unknown as familiar territory and let you say that you know a lot about it. You might also get to wear a really cool hat. Think Pope or Dalai Lama. These superintendents of El Jefe tell us he the cares deeply about all sorts of stuff that we can't quite connect to either oblivion or eternity, like who we sleep with, what we eat, and what sort of hat you may not wear. If you're gay or somehow not in the pre-approved lot, there’s more than your credit score you can’t know. You may find it harder to buy a wedding cake than you ever imagined in this life.

My favorite versions of the Honcho tell us that he loves us so much he has plans to barbecue us in a kind of treacle that promises Him an everlasting flavor beyond our comprehension. So be good, or else. Love him, or else. And on a really good day, just plead for mercy and say yes to that dress you'll only wear when everyone else alive can still see it.

My point is simple enough, there's just a lot of fear. Not just the usual insurmountable anxiety because there's a real coda and then an ending but because we spend a lot of time programming in more fear about what's next _right here_ in the land of the living. We want inoculation and spend our time catechizing fantasies. I’m going instead with the ruse that living now is all the difference I can make.

I will do my level best to resist your explanations of eternity that's anywheres near as good as living but I won't resent them either. Everyone needs a way to get through this world with love, mercy, and a whole lot of tolerance for beliefs that make no sense when you’re willing to admit it. What I won't do is accommodate your religion if you're homophobia, or your need to force women to do your will, or your plans for war include me. We've seen the consequences of voting Republican and they aren't pretty.

I’m not sure I'm cool yet with oblivion, pretty sure that that's what on offer, and I’m going to ask now for two favors instead of one. First, if you love your life now, I am sure, really sure we can be friends. The second one was what caused me to write all this in the first place. Please don't pass me first on the way out. I have had enough of that for a lifetime already.












Friday, August 4, 2017

The Storm of Self and Otherness, Finding Refuge and Living in the World

I'd venture we identify with words like "tolerance," "inclusion," and "empathy." We fancy ourselves unbound by dogmas, receptive to differences, and willing participants in diversity. We even try to think about these feelings and issues, understanding that our personal views are shaped and are being shaped by social, cultural, and political forces we neither control nor approve.

There are lots of reasons to be frustrated, infuriated, and eager to withdraw. We need consolation and reprieve, tools for mental health, and methods to flourish when just surviving is no small matter. These stresses are real because no one can manage them to immunity or invulnerability. Being human is a storm punctuated by moments of fair weather. It seems enough to have to care about our own lives, it will require that much more to care about others.

This piece makes a simple enough argument and uses an example that is likely unfamiliar to most.

*First, we must find a deeper peace in the disturbance itself. The hurricane may not feel like refuge and it may not be safe, but that's the first acknowledgement to be made. There is no safe and refuge is not just in some calm eye or at the periphery or in the few days we get "off." Meditation may take us from the hurricane's forces but the weather awaits us wherever we go. Our thesis is that the storm itself is our primary resource. Put another way, it is in being with our contrariety that we become more attuned to the feelings and ideas that shape us and that we try to shape.

*Second, we need to look at others' worlds, others' views, others' imaginings, histories, and traditions. We must do this not only because we live in the world with people with differing views and values (like it or not) but because to see oneself we must learn how to imagine who we are not. Introspection is comparison, evaluation, and preference--- to think otherwise because you are tolerant or inclusive is another kind of self-delusion. We cannot question our assumptions but from within the greater structures ---somatic, cognitive, social, historical--- in which they already exist. To frame worlds we need to try to find the outlines, the dimensions, and the forms that shape. None of us are immune to our bias and neither should we be. If we have done the hard work of contrariety then our opinions are hard won _and_ we might be willing to be changed. Let's embrace that paradox to move this argument forward.

In the deeply arcane world of modern theologies where angels still dance with pinheads, I take a certain notice. It's my job and I still work to fend off too much familiarity, because with too much "I got this" and one becomes lazy, predisposed to think that you _really_ got this. We're better off staying curious enough to read closely, reach out to hone our critical skills, and remember that contrariety means looking for _yet another angle, argument, point of view_. Part of being in the storm is knowing that you can't always predict the weather. Taking imbalance, asymmetry, and limited lines of sight as normal creates more alignment, greater resilience, and honest perspective. Let's not get grandiose: our limitations are crucial to developing our gifts and making the most of our assets. To progress and to grow is to invite the discomforting and trial some for the sake of greater findings.

To take up the contrarian life is to bathe in the irony that to cultivate "contrary" is to soak in empathy. To criticize ---not to diminish, discredit, or project disdain--- but _to understand_ means doing the impossible: trying to see the world as others see, imagining a life you don't lead and aren't likely to embrace. And then apply this very strategy to one's self. This is the core of the contrarian method: learning to imagine, to think, to feel so that one can evaluate, take stock and pause before a hasty judgment. And, yes, you _will_ judge, to dismiss judgment is just another form of judgment. We are always in the business of deciding, classifying, ranking, gauging and guesstimating.

Vital to the process is how we understand the stakes. When the stakes are low for us ---what do you think of the guy who doesn't share your love of beets?--- we need not lean so angularly into our preferences as if they are superior. We endanger our abilities not only to tolerate but to fathom the difference between what is important and what is not. But make no mistake about it, we may be flawed, inadequate, and out of our league when we assay the world, but we are going to do it anyway.  Even the most virtuosic stumble and fail.

Rajanaka calls that humbling process of learning "contrariety" so that we find out what more is possible than confirming our opinions. Rather, we learn more about how to question, placing our arguments (not quarreling, arguing) and feelings (bias, preference, structural prejudice) more in front and before. This could take time to explain but the storm will not wait. Contrariety is the process of being in the storm, staying in the storm, storming back at the storm, and knowing that whatever fair weather you enjoy is worth cherishing. It's coming again, there's nothing to protect you but your willingness to stay in the tempest of learning.

It's crucial too to consider how much is decided, appraised, sized up and negotiated _before_ we are aware cognitively. Our bodies assess first, our minds follow, and the process of choice is neither self-evident nor always actual. Appa used to say that the unconscious is front of us looking back towards us---even when we think it is deeply buried or informing us from behind our awareness. What has been chosen or adjudged, derived and reckoned is no small matter. There are many tools for interrogating these processes, not the least of which are the evocative, symbolic, allegorical resources of myth, poetry, mantra, and other forms of "indirect" inquiry and exploration.

To discover more about ourselves we actually have to care about how others formulate their worlds. We need not assume everyone wants the same things from life, much less that there is a right way, a destination, a goal, or meaning that we all share. In fact, none of those things might exist at all but for our complex processes of invention and contrivance. This doesn't make them less real, only more human: conditioned, provisional, unfinished, and dynamic. "All," "every," "always," are words that we must use and cautiously if we are to fathom the real diversity and difference that is just as human as our sameness in species.

So again, what's with people? And more pointedly, their deepest convictions, traditions, traumatic histories, morals, and feelings that get channeled through the word "religion." If you prefer to say that you are "spiritual" and not "religious" it's worth considering more seriously what it is you think makes you warm to one word and rebuff the other. It matters more that you embark on this more illusive task: what do you want from this distinction rather than what you already believe is the distinction you think you're making.

I'm making a claim here that warrants divulgence. Religion deals with incongruities: between what we want and what say we want, what we hope and what happens, about the difference we try to fathom between what we experience and what appears without our input or consent. In Rajanaka we use the word "paradox" to describe our human condition. The world we see does indeed "go on" without us ---before, during, and after, there's a world "out there." But that same "object" world is our human experience world and we are each "subjects" in it and deciding about it (until, of course, we are not). So there's a there out there and it's also in us and this situation of realities isn't one way or another, it's both and. We left to consider what's on offer and what do we want. Religion is a real part of that story because it informs from behind, during, and it helps determine important issues for our future. The point I want to emphasize is that we're not all the same even though we are all human---more paradox to embrace. I don't expect everyone to agree. (This fact only makes the point, of course.)

I have a good friend who describes himself as a faithful, relatively conservative Catholic. No amount of 21st century evaluations of the natural world's origins and processes repudiates the tenets of his faith. He is educated, sophisticated, and skilled in critical thinking. But he _really_ believes this stuff and when I tease (not really) and say things that would offend (deeply), he takes it well and maintains that his convictions inform his life. I am content to regard these matters in terms of his behavior. He would not contend that one has to be Catholic or religious to be moral or even to get to heaven, where he assures me he will advocate for my inclusion should Peter not find me wholly in the Lord's graces. I jest, but the issues at stake are certainly practical: how do people treat one another, what do they expect of others, and in what ways do their views and values shape, influence, and impose on others. Who gets to decide what?

Appa took ultimacy off the table. He centered his concerns on living our mortal life as wholly mortal. He didn't think that opinions, feelings, and behaviors about things ultimate don't matter. If you think there is a God, an afterlife, a before-life, enlightenment, superior forms of awareness (put here _every_ meditation tradition's claims), all of these sorts of beliefs tell you not only what you want but how you might interact or influence others. We might claim that we are not interested in imposing or indoctrinating others but that is always more a matter of degree than of fact.

It's not a simple equation that allows us to say 'live and let' live is an absolute, no matter how that value plays its part. We actually care what others insist is theirs to believe even if they insist they harbor no views at all (this is an interesting Buddhist claim, for example) or that their views do no mean to impede others' freedom. The important difference between what one believes one "should" or "must" do--- and so others too--- and what one will tolerate even when such ideas or actions violate one's own norms or tenets. What really is okay with us is not always okay with others, not by a long shot.

Inside the Catholic Church right now is a deeply insular argument that involves the role of Catholic dogma and political involvements. If you can stand it, look at this piece in the NYTimes where the factionalism and the dispute involves Vatican politics that represent very different interpretations of dogma.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/europe/vatican-us-catholic-conservatives.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=19&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2017%2F08%2F02%2Fworld%2Feurope%2Fvatican-us-catholic-conservatives.html&eventName=Watching-article-click).

If you have a real fascination with how these things are argued using terms like "dominionist theology," "Manichaeism," "prosperity gospel," and all the way to "in hoc signo vinces," go read the article that is all the current fuss.

(here: http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/evangelical-fundamentalism-and-catholic-integralism-in-the-usa-a-surprising-ecumenism/).

Okay, that was asking a lot. So here are the two crucial paragraphs that outline the so-called liberals' position.

"The religious element should never be confused with the political one. Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other. An evident aspect of Pope Francis’ geopolitics rests in not giving theological room to the power to impose oneself or to find an internal or external enemy to fight. There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends. Francis empties from within the narrative of sectarian millenarianism and dominionism that is preparing the apocalypse and the “final clash.”[2] Underlining mercy as a fundamental attribute of God expresses this radically Christian need.

Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church. Spirituality cannot tie itself to governments or military pacts for it is at the service of all men and women. Religions cannot consider some people as sworn enemies nor others as eternal friends. Religion should not become the guarantor of the dominant classes. Yet it is this very dynamic with a spurious theological flavor that tries to impose its own law and logic in the political sphere."

This is not easy to interpret, as if Pope Francis is somehow okay with legal abortion rights (actually human body rights), same-sex marriage, or other matters the Church is willing to see politically to its own ends. So what in fact is the tribal fight among Catholic theologies (authorities, hierarchies, etc.) if both sides agree that certain claims on human behavior require "moral" adjudication with plainly political outcomes? Both conservatives and liberals believe the sin of abortion warrants political intervention. How is their moral and religious conviction not political?

It's complicated then how these folks think their religious worldviews implicate others who share neither worldviews nor values--- and would oppose their impositions should they demand too dominance in doctrinal views in the realm of opposed secular law. The liberal authors in the cited article clearly see the threat of secularism to be a major concern. But the heart of the matter for them is that conservative Catholics are distorting religious views _and_ becoming political bedfellows with evangelical Protestants in America particularly. They are indeed arguing for _some_ kind of important distinction between Church and State, though it's seems too nuanced to give them more leverage than the conservatives' who say in effect "our beliefs demand _these specific_ political actions." Black and white is always an easier sell and that is a real part of what hovers around the issues dividing these factions. After all, rearranging hearts and minds means finding triggers, appealing to visceral experiences, thinking-less, feeling-more is the easy path.

In another strange feature of this story there is yet another NYTimes piece from a conservative Catholic the core of the argument is that to be an "orthodox" Christian will take removal not only from political allegiances but from the secular world as such. These folks are advocating for a kind of Catholicism that like orthodox Judaism has restricted contact with non-believers and even less political investments. They have decided the jig is up, they've lost to secularism, and it's time to retreat into their own kinds of belief communities. This is a very different strategy that will appeal to very few.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/trump-scaramucci-evangelical-christian.html)

Just how we think our beliefs and values _should_ enter the world in ways that impose upon others is something we all need to think about. Not only because America is politically in the hands of religious fanatics but because _everyone_ harbors convictions that are beyond compromise. Differences cut deeply and when they cut to the core, we must each ask ourselves what we are prepared _to do_, what will we demand and insist, when do our beliefs and values ask more from us than tolerance. The storm will never rage less.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Five Essential Epic Truths, On the Field Where Politics Meets Spirituality


My spiritual life has everything to do with being a political person. I don't know how or want to live a life in which my responsibilities to family, community, and my own conscience are somehow separate or sequestered.  None of these "worldly concerns" are other than my spiritual life. Where to start? Life is a storm, I'm happy to start there. Who doesn't love the fair weather, the ease and beauty that also comes? Who doesn't love the sweet life and wish for more of it? Life brings it all. Let's go there.

Out there in my public life, I'm getting it again for being "negative." Meh. We all deal, we all cope, we all have our ways of addressing the mortal condition and our shared humanity. I'm not doing anything in my life to be popular, rich, and I do indeed have the luxury/privilege to say pretty much whatever I want because "the man" owns me a lot less than others. I get why people don't speak up or can't.  I get why people take a break, retreat, or check out.

Everyone does what she or he needs to do and if there is #0 Epic Truth, it's that: do the needful.  I have no complaint, grudge, or advice about how _you_ need to deal with events personal, political, or spiritual. But my own views are grounded in a great work that is hard to fathom because, like life, it is written as a riddle that is incomplete, digressive, and filled with contradictions.

More than any other historical or spiritual resource, the Mahabharata shapes my world. This is not a story about how great its going to be. It's the story of making success out of the horror you can expect and greatness from what you could not have anticipated. And here are a few epic points of departure.

One can be happily "negatively" motivated because,
(1) most positive motivating claims are basically wishful thinking that stand no chance in hell of coming true. Justice does not prevail, there is no arc to goodness, and people are just as capable of being venal as they are wonderful.
Epic Truth #1: The most likely possible things must be given priority to know what is coming next.

(2) being honest about how things actually work is a far better strategy for winning. You might still lose but it's vital to keep it real about your strengths, weaknesses, and your opponents. They may be detestable but you have to learn to think like them and with them to deal effectively. I'm all about winning because losing means those jackasses are in charge and that is far, far, far worse than our worst people. If you start with the acidic facts you can develop a strategy based on the truth rather than what you wish were true or some rosy picture scenario.
Epic Truth #2: Do not be a victim of principle when you can be a victor that changes the world incrementally for the better, even if that's not all you want or hope for.

(3) you are dealing with the real world where bad things will happen, best to be well-prepared, and give it your worst. This doesn't make you a "negative" person, it's not cynical, and it's not somehow "dark" or worse. Rather it's a way of dealing with a blind, pitiless, often meaningless world so that you can _make_ some meaning, create lots of happy, and manage to do lots of good. Keeping it real is often a darker than lighter task and, NO, it's not "all light" now or in the end.  If you need pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows, we'll take care of you when that doesn't happen.
Epic Truth #3: Krsna means "dark" and refers to the color of storm clouds ---take his advice, prepare for what the world will do to you and you stand a chance to love life more and more.

(4) it's important to sell hopey hopey positivity because most people _need_ to feel this way just to deal.  Heaven? God knows all? Karma will balance the scales?  Have it your way.  This is why any  candidate, any successful public hero will bullshit us with how great or better it's going to be blah blah.  They are never all wrong anymore than they are all right.  Truth is, you can't sell laundry soap, cars, liberation, entrees on a menu, goodness, or just about anything without telling people it's great, it's going to be great, while you keep that happy face on. 
Epic Truth #4: Lying in the service of deeper truths is why we need myths but a certain amount of dissimulation to reach far better outcomes is going to happen, needs to happen, and is part of the complexity of the deal. Make that deal carefully, with as much savvy as you can.

(5) humans are flawed, deeply flawed, being in politics requires some soul-selling and corruption just to survive, get used to it. The perfect really is the enemy of the good. Good people are far less than perfect. Now take the money, the ethical compromises, the humiliation, the vitriol, the criticism, and the heat it takes to be political, or to live a life in public, or even try to do some _good in the world_, and the outcome is complex and likely morally indefensible. Good deeds will be punished, good people make mistakes and do bad things. We're all accountable and we all need to make our judgments about the company we keep.
Epic Truth #5: Even Yudhisthira. No one gets a pass. He, the very best of us, did the very best he could, and so should we. But no one gets out alive. And even Yudhisthira failed, lied, and did things he regretted. So will you, so will the people you love. Keep good company.

My politics are my spirituality. Mahabharata is not a particularly popular text in Indian spirituality unless its innate conflict, real corruption, its lies and gambles, and above all its ethical compromise are utterly whitewashed. This is the usual interpretation because reality, well, that's a lot harder to take. But there is nothing else quite like it because the great epic invites us, like no other source, to love our humanity for _all_ that it is.

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.