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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Tiger's Tale: Earning Your Paws and the Meaning of Mahā

Tradition says that it falls to the rishi Vyaghrapada to gather orchids not yet tasted by bees for the purpose of making a perfect offering to the Great God Shiva.  Vyaghrapada was born for this greatness and yet makes himself greater still when, by the power of his tapas and his love for the Lord, he earns his tiger paws so that he can climb to the very top of the toxic tillai trees.  Deep in this impenetrable forest is where greatness itself protects greatness, at any cost.  The task of greatness has no end, no reason but itself, and calls us to embrace all that is great for its own sake.  Greatness means you earn your paws.

There are few words in Sanskrit more important than mahā, the “great.”  Grammatically, mahā is used in the familiar form as a prefix to nearly any and every word.  Conceptually it carries every sense of our contemporary use of “great” and “greatness,” which has its own likely proto-Indo-European root *ghreu.  These are very old words.  “Great” replaces the older English usage mickle, which takes us back circuitously to Sanskrit and the antecedent Vedic.

Mahā is derived from the Sanskrit verb /mah, which appears in the oldest works including Rg Veda, where in addition to the sense of magnify, esteem, honor, and revere, it carries other positive intimations: to rejoice, elate, and gladden.  The Sanskrit nominal weak form is mahat, the strong form is mahant, which help us too recognize cognate forms in Greek μεγάλος (megálos), the familiar Latin magnus, Old German michel, and eventually in English, “much” and other familiar words “magnify,” “magnificent,” and the rest.

But it is mahā- as a prefix that tells us something important about India.  There is mahādeva, a great god, and mahāsura, a great demon.  One can make a great vow (mahāvrata), live in a great place (mahārāstra), and be a great lord (maheśvara).  Perhaps, for we humans, the greatest of great matters is that we might ascend to the status of mahātma, a great soul.  Just what such greatness entails will depend upon who we ask.

Mahātman ---this is the root form--- may be a metaphysical claim, a description of moral character, or a marker of nearly any form of greatness a person might achieve or be recognized to be.   I can think of no other Indo-European language in which this prefix, this sense and sentiment is so ubiquitous.   In Sanskrit, great-something is indeed something that has never diminished in usage or in sensibility.  And this is the centerpiece of our concerns.

Everything about ancient India is described as mahā- and this larger than life, greater than great affectation is a fact and an aspiration, a description and prescription.  Dharma is not only virtue, religion, duty, righteousness, and law, it is mahā and so too it must be eternal, universal, expansive, and encyclopedic.  Just as much will be attributed to liberation, moksha, and those who are understood to have reached such a state: unconditional, certain, unequivocal, and genuine.  Such liberated beings have great powers (mahāsiddhi) that are similarly exalted.  To wit, whatever exaggeration we might find in such unconstrained embroidery, Indian culture regards as authentic and legitimate.

India loves greatness, and with it nearly any and all exaggerated attribution, in ways we find difficult to fathom and appreciate.  Ours is a culture reared on religious repentance, contrition, humility, even humiliation.  While we are no less inclined to aggrandizement and our forms of idolatry, especially in our culture’s theatre of spectacle, India has made an art of such elevation, homage, and ennoblement for as long as there has been India.

When the subject turns to government ---including the wiles of rulership, kings, warriors, spies, and the rest in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra we will find no less commitment to all that is mahā.  The hyperbole transfers to the methods, means, and teachings of kings and rulers, and all of the ways a raja is a mahārāja.  To call these injunctions and recommendations extreme and often in directly, unambiguous violation of the greatness of Dharma is beyond dispute.  Machiavelli would blush at Kautilya’s art of governance by domination, corruption, and any means---that’s the mahā.

When we turn to matters of sex in the Kāmasūtra, there is a similar mahā, and that would apply as much to its endorsements of adultery, seduction, and just about anything that would enlarge, fantasize, and inflate possibilities.  That there is contradiction, incongruity, and discrepancy between all of these various mahā-s as applied to each subject is also mahā.   We should expect nothing less: every subject raises itself to the level of its own supremacy, its claim to greatness is that there is nothing beyond the claim it makes for itself.

Wherever we look there is mahā in India and this is what we should recognize as the defining judgment and commendation of cultural identity.  India has never shrunk from its claims to greatness, not then and certainly not now.  All things valuable by self-definition are mahā even if that means there are mahā-conflicts or negations.  Facts, history, contradictions, it matters not, everything is beholden to the Rule of Maha, everything that is true needs to be run through the algorithm that endows it with mahā.

So let us take up a few matters where mahā might cause us to think there is more consternation than composure, the kind that comes with maha-contradiction.  How is it that Dharma virtues and standards held to be inviolate, irreproachable, and immune are so wholly rejected, in mahā terms, by authoritative works on government like Arthaśāstra and sex like Kāmasūtra?

I submit two reasons how this kind of inconsistency is normal and what we might make of that.

First, India’s larger-than-lifeness, its commitment to mahā is itself sanctioned.  Mahatā, greatness, is the category that supplies permission and need only confirm itself: everything that is great neither diminishes nor intervenes in any other greatness.  For India this is normal, traditional, even routine.  Greatness is a convention that does not diminish any greatness but rather provides the standard required to represent the relationship between power and authority. 

Second, and this, I think is the crucial point: India is a culture of radical affirmations.  We are as capable of virtue as we are of venality.  We are as good and as beholden to the Law (Dharma), to all of its prescribed virtues, as we also are within the terms of, say, the Arthaśāstra's truly diabolical machinations.  Dharma may intercede, claim authority and superiority but this is no more great than another’s greatness, be that the great words of a great sage or command of a great god or another realm of great knowledge, such as Government (Artha).

India has not succumbed to moral insouciance by admitting such multiple, contradictory great authorities.  On the contrary, I think what we see here is India’s deep, abiding sense of realism rather than fantasy.  We must do what we must do.  And in all such matters, no matter what it is that we take up and what we must do, we are charged to take the great course.  If our task is goodness, we are enjoined to great goodness and if it is liberation, then its own form of greatness.  And if we are thieves, gamblers, sinners, kings, whatever we are, we are adjured to be nothing less than great.  Like Vyaghrapada we manifest our own tiger paws to discover and offer the delicate orchid that is the gift we make of ourselves to greatness, at every cost.