Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Say a Prayer for the Pretender

There's an interesting advice piece in the Washington Post today about religious employers and requirements of faith. It seems the person writing has "lost her faith" and no longer attends the required events. As a result she will be "immediately terminated" once her review comes. The columnist then notes that this kind of employer behavior is, in fact, legally sanctioned. That is, ironically enough, the right word. She recommends that the person in crisis go and declare a "crisis of faith" to reap the sympathy of the employer and keep her job while she sorts things out. But this is just false: the angst is about losing her job, not about whether she believes any longer. She doesn't. She doesn't mind the company of believers and wants her job. So what do to?

Here was my advice offered in reply in the newspaper.  But what I really have to say comes a bit later.  Stay with me.
If you need and love your job then just go back to church and pretend. Is it that hard? After all, all the rest are just pretending too.

Further, this advice columnist is giving you terrible advice. Your angst is about losing your job, not about whether you are having a crisis of faith. Your faith crisis is over, you don't have it. The rest is coercion, anxiety, and the pressure you feel to be what people want or expect from you. Those are legitimate concerns. Now what?

So as I said, if you want to keep the job, go back to church, pretend, say all the required things you need to say, act the part, and move on. Everyone else is living their fantasy too. Bad faith is not your problem. Your problem is religion itself and it's protected status in America. The law is on their side. Be practical. Besides, given who is president, lying is just normal. Now if that is too cynical, try this...

This is in fact no violation of your conscience. It's just another way Americans must use their wits to contend with religion as a protected category that prevents them from living freely. Your employers can demand, you must comply: that's America's religious freedom in a nutshell. Step up or quit, but it's all the same.

But this problem raises far more interesting questions not just about American law and religion but about the pretending and the _necessity_ of bad faith. I will take a more decidedly realistic line here---one that may not win fans. The reason is that I think the relationship between intention and action isn't just overrated, it's a false premise. What is important is the way we live _with_our "bad faith" as an _ordinary feature_ of our lives and then turn those less-than-perfect or even utterly compromised intentions into decent actions, both for ourselves and for others.

Do you not come to, say, a yoga class you are teaching and _really not feel like it_ sometimes and then just go ahead and pretend brilliantly? Sometimes you feel better and regain your "good intention," and sometimes you don't. You just need to act, either way. If one is pretending and the other is "good faith," so what? Do your friends believe or think things that you really don't and that, more honestly, you think are sort of ridiculous? Do you just tell them or do you just let it pass? The relationship between what you believe and your intentions and your actions is complicated. It not includes "bad faith," it depends on it.

Now your job may not depend on it in just the way that this person conveys: she apparently works for a religion that demands loyalty oaths _and_ behaviors. Because America. But the point is simpler: we're all doing what we must and trying to live with what we do. It's not just, or even primarily, a matter of good faith or honest intentions or real belief. It's how we negotiate with ourselves to do what we must so that we can tolerate ourselves, other people, and what the world expects of us.

I have been a college professor in the same job now for 31 years. I do my job and I try to do it in ways that are productive for the students and respects the rules of propriety. But no one gets to tell me how I feel or what I should feel. And _neither do I_. I'm happy to do it somedays, others I just loathe it and would rather be doing something else. But everyday I show up and pretend in ways that I am supposed to. This is at least in part what Mahabharata describes as "Dharma," as your duty. You're not obliged to _feel_ good or even to have good intentions so much as you are required to give others their due. What you give yourself is your own yoga and "yoga" is how you engaged your disparities, your needs, whatcha'gotta do to live day in and day out so that tomorrow you can do the same.

So your "truest" intention gets the job done, it creates some good in the world no matter how you feel, and it attends to your needs. That would include "I need this job." How you decide to live with yourself is up to you. Some may need "good faith" but I suspect that that is another false consolation  we use to deal with the simple fact that our conflicts between what we feel and what must do are not matters we resolve with faith. They are matters we don't resolve. We live. Live on. Try to live with yourself best you can.  We're all pretenders.

And when the morning light comes streaming in
I'll get up and do it again
Say it again
---Jackson Browne

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Note on Community, Character, and Shared Values, Because Sometimes Obvious Things Need to be Said

Most of us here, I'd venture to say, have left institutional religion, which is why so many prefer to use the term "spirituality." In academic worlds "spiritual" is a technical term and academics protect their authority much the way medical professionals do when we try to call Trump "mentally ill." Be that as it may, most of us here too did not leave familial religious customs like Christmas or Jewish holidays, and we all know that the imprints and shadows of our upbringing, religious or not, are never going away. We want a host of things from that religious/spiritual feature of our lives but here are four to think about.

First, we want from our inner lives, our spiritual contemplations one of the most important things we want from intimacy. We want our autonomy, we want to feel secure and protected to lay claim to our own experiences, preferences, and desires. We want to feel like those experiences are valid simply because they are ours. And since no one can tell what _your_ experience is, we want some kind of validation that is more than our own. Humans are too social, too collective not to want to feel that personal feelings need some level or kind of validation. We all want to know we're not isolated or alone or delusional. Well, some of us do. But the point is simple enough: we want some kind of family, friends, or community to validate and protect our private experiences.

This takes us to point two. Whatever our relationship to family or immediate community, or to the strained, difficult, nearly impossible forms of polity in which we survive, we want community. We want to have a sense of shared interest (turns up the temps) and importance, that is, things we care about enough that give us pause. Community is fractured in our post-institutional religious lives because that is one of the most obvious features of what religions do: they give you a community that extends beyond family, that acts in ways as an extended family. We need that because we only flourish when we are more than a few, isolated. Contemporary nomenclature has seized on a kind fo pop sense of the word "tribe" for this but that's too narrow and too parochial. The "problem" is that community does _in fact_ impinge on one's privacy and autonomy because community creates constraints, expectations, and provides some form of standard. This is a very good thing when it promotes character --- we see the world, we act to help a world greater than ourselves encouraged and rewarded for that effort. Community gives us a chance to find our courage, to act out of good character, to tell us that it's okay to succeed and to fail. And it is in that latter matter that community can fail us terribly: community can punish, shame, or dictate when it needs to hold a more complex role that accommodates, adapts, and welcomes even as it creates boundaries and values.

Third, communities need to form provenance, a sense of the values that endure and to do that communities need institutions. But I thought we left institutional religion? We did because they impinged on point one, our conscience, our autonomy, and on point two, as community becomes more coercive than it does supportive and constructive. But what we have learned from Trump is that communities need institutional values and that those values are fragile, precarious, and must be supported by real efforts. What institutions provide, like it or not, is a greater accountability and responsibility. Who among us here actually KEEPS COMPLETE TRACK of, say, your daily bank account. Sure, you have an eye on it but it is the bank that does the math. It provides an institutional reliability and when institutions fail us, like Wells Fargo or FB with its privacy invasions, we are particularly angry. We want institutions and we should be vigilant and wary of them too, but we have to admit their value if we are going to be _civilized_ and take this being human seriously.

Fourth, we want stuff that religions do well. Religions give us myth, ritual, art, music, dance, storytellers, poets, and nearly all of the real content of symbolic thinking and feeling. Did you have a wedding ceremony? Don't all of us here know that we don't want to live without the myths and poetry of life? Religion does this well because when it is done well (rarely) it knows that we need artistry and indirectness in order to become more adept at thinking and feeling.

So that's the sermon-y part of this sermon. The rest below is something of a repeat and a revision of a post that was buried in a reply I wrote this morning. It's sort of a summary of the points I made above.

We need more than ourselves when the tests of character emerge. We need each other to help and just to be there. When we know we care about others and what others will think and say and do, then we are truthfully more likely to rise to the tests of character. Lemme put it simply. I don't want to let you, all of you, down. You inspire me to be good and to do good. Your trust and company, your decency and examples, make me a better a person because I want to be as good as you are, I want to do what I can to help you. That sounds maudlin, soporific but I'll be damned, it's true.

Next, we need the community as something _like_ an _institution_, much like the FBI needs its culture and atmosphere of "rule of law" to be better than partisan and try to be fair. That has not always happened and Trump wants to destroy our faith in every institution to take all the power, as does every two-bit authoritarian huckster guru charlatan fraud. The alternative is that we have each other in an ethos, an atmosphere of collective accountability. I feel that with our Rajanaka "community," most of which exists apart or just virtually. WE make something that helps all of us, even when we are not physically together.  We try to become an example of what communities and institutions can be: honest efforts to be human together with values.  We don't always succeed, each of us fails and has all the usual human foibles.  We try and it's done us all some good.

It sounds corny or overstated and it might make you worry, but I say, don't worry, in the age of Trump what we have further learned is that Rajanaka is something like an "institution" because we have 20+ years together of trying to keep it real, keep each other cared for, holding us together to do good work and realize what we want as free individuals. We support each others' dreams as a collective. That is what I mean by an "institution" and in the Trump age we need this more than ever. That "vigilance" that I speak of in the list of matters--- that is what we are doing and what we continue to do when we take care to respect and honor the community's needs _and_ don't forget to take care of our individual lives, hopes, dreams and all.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Bad Religion, Bad Politics, and Good People

No one familiar with "yoga traditions" should have any reservations about just how close "guru" is to fascism. There is no sense in which the word "guru" is used that is not authoritarian even if your guru is love or yourself or some other warm and fuzzy feeling. We _want_ some authority over ourselves and admitting just how little we have or how precarious, fragile, and determined we must be to "hold the world together" is no small matter (in Skt., loka-samgraha, cf. Bhagavadgita, 2.20-23).

All of us have some part of us, some need to _feel_ saved from _something_. So even if you are the "guru within" and so somehow save yourself ("my guru is kindness", pick your soporific), it's still a call to command and resolve the human condition. The usual fatuous and grandiose claims about how it's up to you come quickly and the next thing you know we're asocial introverts ("go inside") or messianic do-gooders ("be the change you seek").

Since we are incapable of saving ourselves because there is no such salvation (it matters not what it's salvation _from_), we turn to the idea that _someone_ or _something_ (like "oneness" or "love") to do the impossible. What we don't really relish is the more sobering truth that all we really have are our wits, each other, and this complicated, risky, and painful mortal life. Don't mistake me, there's plenty of joy to be had, it's just that it's of temporal varieties. All we can really do is get up each day until we can't, hold ourselves together, and do what we can for others. When salvation-needs are projected onto politics it's all the more dangerous. Our salvation-desire from pain, from poverty, from unhappiness, from loss, from the ordinary, inescapable travail of being human is nothing new.

The "better" part of the +indefensible+ guru concept is to attribute it to an incontrovertible god who is not actually human. India has survived the real threats of guru despotism by simply having a lot of them so that everyone can have their own form of personal savior (anything will work: "love is my guru") with the result being a kind of Nash Equilibrium--- the really catastrophic political ends are defeated in advance.

But the "guru" is a con game because it takes your confidence, your need to trust and value your heart, and it uses it to satisfy its own needs or wants. There is little more insidious or useful to our human condition than the notion of "perfection." Perfection is static, atrophic, and debilitating, no matter how carefully we craft the idea or to whom we attribute it. But there's a more important point. Pursuing perfection in oneself is perfectly compatible with being wholly indifferent to others. This is true no matter how one proposes the journey ---be it "spiritual," political, or personal. To admit our own and others' imperfections may not go far enough that we are also able to admit that being human must be good enough. That "perfect" thing--- enlightenment, God, again, feel free to pick your soporific---will diminish our shared humanity because it places something above us. Above us is only sky and within us is a mortal self. To look "beyond" is tantamount to giving license to shame, guilt, and humiliation, as if those were intractable and fixed features of our character or somehow curses rather than limited assets and liabilities. There is a humanist alternative: to commit to being people of character, which may not require us to reject every notion of perfection but will demand we take a very hard look at what happens to us when we claim perfection as a truth.

Enter America's right wing and it's religious fifth column because it's all about the same needs and feelings that fuel our hopes and dreams, our desire to be saved, to be more than doing what we can:
*Albright warns us about impending American fascism and its threats (NYTimes)
*Goldberg reveals the depth of conspiracy theory on the right (NYTimes).
*Trump holds campaign rallies and it's not false that his approval ratings have indeed ticked up.

For Trump Scott Pruitt's only crime is that he has drawn attention to himself in ways that Trump reserves for himself. All the rest of the corruption, selfishness, and need for revenge, are fueled by a deep sense of entitlement and the fearless bluster that they are invulnerable to the law, rules, or any accountability. Pruitt might well be the otherwise perfect Trump appointee since he is so much like the puerile narcissist himself.

Jonathan Chait has argued that Democrats should run on corruption, that it will hurt the Republicans enough to win votes or dispirit their exurb supporters. Chait writes, “Historically, corruption — specifically, the use of power for personal gain — has played a central and even dominant role in American political discourse.” But Trump's goal is to normalize corruption, to claim that his status as leader, as guru, as savior, as "the only one who can fix it" exempts him. This is not a new claim. I'm not yet convinced that anything will penetrate the Evangelical Fifth Column's grievance based culture war and their support for their designated savior. And because those people are with him then Congress, and its current leadership, will remain silent and complicit in any corruption.

Our best hope may seem more cynical than we should tolerate: the Republicans may have to succeed in ruining the country with debt, environmental deregulation, wealth redistribution, trade policy, and war before we rid ourselves of their committed nihilism. Democrats could win the House but it's more telling that they can't or are very unlikely to win the Senate. If we think that Republicans could not pick up Senate seats we underestimate how divided America really is. So the question that remains for me is this: will there be enough of the experiment in democracy remaining once the effect of Republican failures send rural and suburban whites into further desperation and failure, or will that only lead them to pursue more authoritarianism.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Liberty in a Transactional World

"The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."
--Patrick Henry

The "transactions" of our "rulers" are just as dangerous as they have ever been, whether or not they are concealed. There's nothing about 21st century living, particularly in America, that isn't about being transacted.

You have two choices: you can live in the capitalist world in which everything about you is known, used, and manipulated for profit by _someone_ without your consent or knowledge or you can retreat into the wild off the grid. There's no compromise because the forces of capitalism keep us all tied to our requisite rice bowl needs. You need rice in your bowl and there's no other way to get it.

You still have liberty insofar as that is defined by how you choose to participate in the surveillance society that at once protects you and loots you. You don't get to make this deal by yourself or on your terms. Click the box. You have to just to survive.

You didn't think that your information _wasn't_ going to be used to sell something, manipulate, or invade your privacy, did you? You didn't think that law or ethics would stop those who seek profit or are willing to do _anything_ to you, did you? The "revelation" that FB doesn't even know who has your information or even how they got it is not news. That people will use anything they can about you to sell, to steal, to hurt, or send you happy birthday greetings? Come now.

The alternative is nothing. No amount of security or privacy is going to make your information safe or private. My paltry income taxes have been hacked for the past five years. My credit card info is routinely stolen. I try to fix it and move on. Could this "ruin" my life somehow? Of course it can, no matter how hard I try to do the "right" thing or be a good person. Because the alternative to being used by "the system" is to be cut off. You are alone. Do you need a phone, electricity, or a job? If you are lucky enough to need none of those things because you are Grizzly Adams or because you live "off the grid" then I envy you.

In the meantime, just cope, be vigilant, keep close to your friends, trust people you know and others when you have to, and remember that, as the Rajanaka always reminds us, the villains in our stories out number the divines by matrices. Nothing about life is safe, private, or without terror just a moment away and it never has been. What's different is that it's now impossible to live without that being a global matter. Stay in the game and learn to play well because "leaving" or rejecting the system is a complete fiction. Character, truth, intelligence, and vigilance are your best assets as much as they are your vulnerabilities.  Feel free now to move about the cabin.  There's really no other place to go.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Easter Yantra, Or How Do You Get There From Here

"Is this heaven?"
"No, it's Iowa."

Let's first remind ourselves that the machine that has made us is what we make of ourselves. In the worlds of horology, creating a machine--- a watch, a timepiece that can follow the phases of the moon, the day of the week and month, offer the equation of time, or any other sort of measurement adds what are called "complications." The world is a complicated place, no doubt. What we measure just as vitally are our commitments of the human heart to look for meaning.

īśvaraḥ sarva-bhūtānāḿ
hṛd-deśe ’rjuna tiṣṭhati
bhrāmayan sarva-bhūtāni
yantrārūḍhāni māyayā

--- Bhagavad Gita 18.61

"The Empowered One abides in the heart of all beings, Arjuna, turning all beings by taking their measure, as if mounted on a machine."

In other words, "If you build it, he will come."

I am particularly interested in orderly disorder and how that encodes itself in the world, particularly in ways that we humans try to locate ourselves in fields of māyā. That is, how we invent life's meaning by creating significant measurements that keep us aligned with nature, culture, and our own need for order.

Just to imagine that these sorts of problems have meaning is to put things in human perspectives, which are but grains of sand scattered on the desert of time itself. So all of this is, how shall we say? Of relative interest? 

Here is an exercise in māyā that might puzzle Srinivasa Ramanujan. It was just Easter and April Fool's Day and the first Sunday in more than a month that I was able to spend at home. I'm pretty sure that last week I was in Iowa.  It all got me thinking about the calculation of the Easter holiday since like all "moveable feasts" it, umm, moves. But just how does it move and how might we move with it? I have a deep, morbid fascination with all the ways humans calculate time. After all, my favorite gods _are_ Time: Kālī and Mahākālā, Kālāsamhāra Bhairava, Krsna, We can talk about them more.

Since we all live in the ordinary fiction of the 24 hour day with little regard for the Equation of Time, which is what I like to call "real time", we are always living in some or another _more convenient_ invention than in _actual reality_. That is the very core of the Rajanaka notion of māyā. Māyā is the illusion that allows us to live in the world.  This is because adjusting to reality is just too hard, too complex for our naturally and culturally selected bodies and minds. In other words, we _need_ ways to measure (māyā) the world that further our abilities to cope, to comprehend, and to collude with the imagination.  Put yet again, māyā is the ability to collude with our powers of imagination but not suffer the illusion that we control a world which we never fully comprehend.

We are wholly incapable of living with the _real_ complexity of the real world, which is why we need to make a measure that works for everyday needs. That measure is called māyā. For example, only four times a year is the clock actually touching the hour that coincides with ellipsis of the earth's orbit around the sun. We just pretend there are 24 hours _every_ day because we have to. Like I said, that's called māyā. Now back to Easter, which is much more complicated than the equation of time problem.

The basics of Easter are simple enough. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring (that is, the first full moon after the spring equinox). This practically speaking means that it falls somewhere between March 22 and April 25. Considering leap years we need a correction every 100 and 400 years, which of course are predictable periodicities. But to find Easter nowadays is more than it looks, and that's because of Pope Gregory XIII. Stay with me here...

According to the previous Julian calendar the full cycle of full moon dates followed a 19 year cycle. This is called the Metonic cycle, which consists of 235 lunar months. A fully cycle of the Julian calendar is 76 years, so after four Metonic cycles (19 x 4 = 76) a full leap year cycle is also completed. This means that Easter dates repeat on the Julian calendar every 536 years. According to an article by Ian Stewart ---not to be mistaken for the famous fifth Rolling Stone, the blues pianist who played the classic songs that Nicky Hopkins didn't--- the mathematical principle is that, "532 is the lowest common multiple of 76 (the Julian calendar’s cycle) and 7 (the cycle of days in the week)." (see Scientific American 2001). But the Julian calendar did not correct for the actual time of the earth's orbit around the sun vis a vis the number of days in the calendar, so it eventually fell out of sync with the seasons. Back to Pope Gregory. Umm, that's Gregorty the XIIIth, if you are still reading and still counting.

Greg was the cat who made the day after Thursday, October 5th 1582, Friday October 15th. Nice work if you can get it. Not everyone was thrilled. Follow the money, umm, the rent, but let's not go to that part of the story. What happened is that Easter had to change too. Now it gets very complicated indeed. Still interested?

Each year is assigned a number called the Epact. The Epact is the age of the Moon on January 1, and that number could be anywhere from 1 to 29. Each year is assigned a letter corresponding to the date of the first Sunday in January, thus A thru G, and these are called the "Dominical Letters." Leap Years get two of these plus the Epact for that year, plus the so-called Golden number, which is where you are in the Metonic cycle. And THIS is what you must FIRST know to calculate the date of Easter. Why?

There is more māyā involved. The so-called ecclesiastical moon and actual equinox must be aligned to the astronomical dates. This means periodic adjustments have to be made which make the actual calculation much that much more complicated. If you REALLY wanna know go here: You will learn about the length of lunations, a lot about how the Athenian astronomer Meton in 432 BCE discovered the 235 lunations, just what is meant by an "embolismic month" as well as the cycle of epacts, the metonic cycle inaccuracy, and just how to get to Easter all the way to 3099 CE provided you have the epact correct. Got that?

So why is this such a brilliant example of māyā? Well first, let's start with the fact that the astronomical events are not the same as what The Church considers. To wit, The Church (always THE Church, mind you) considers March 21 the fixed date of the spring equinox. In fact, the date of the astronomical equinox is not the same one year after the next, it varies. Second, the astronomical full moon doesn't _always_ correspond to the ecclesiastical full moon.

This means we need algorithms, which will mean employment for mathematicians. That's been going on since Gregory XIII shook up the calendar and, in fact, way before that. Karl Friedrich Gauss, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 19th century, developed his algorithm in 1800. In The Art Of Computer Programming, Donald Knuth reminds us that the use of mathematics once had a lot to do with religion. He writes, "There are many indications that the sole important application of arithmetic in Europe in the Middle Ages was the calculation of the date of Easter." (N.B., Knuth also coined the term "surreal numbers" to describe John Conway's discovery of a set of numbers larger than infinity. Now that's cool.)

The Church calls the method for calculating the Easter date a "computus." Gauss's algorithm works and I'd bet that plenty of coders could write the program nowadays. AND if you really want to see the coolest YANTRA ever and ever, there is an astronomical clock in the Strasbourg cathedral in Alsace. This was completed in 1843, designed by one Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué and has a _mechanical_ computus. That yantra, as it were, requires a lot of gears and a great deal of māyā to lead us to the correct date of Easter. But like all great devices that lead us to the heart, it is an invention of human genius created with devotion, by the power of love, and with a great deal of skill.

*All glories and reference goodness to Hodinkee for their article on the Patek Philippe Caliber 89 that provided a good bit of the data for this faux lucubration. The Vatican website helped too.