Saturday, June 1, 2019

Archiving Obsessions

One of the strange confluences of "yoga culture" and our American religious past is the predilection for austerity, self-inflicted torture, and the disapprobation for things of the material world. Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that even though it is impossible to know if you are saved by works in world, the northern bourgeois capitalism that brought prosperity to, say, the Dutch was the result of their obsession with trying to know if they were saved by hard work and their self-abnegating ethos of non-consumerism and no ostentation. Thus, they acquired wealth (to suggest that God will save them at death) and they didn't spend it.

This Protestant ethic provides the origins of the vulgar prosperity gospel that nowadays measures human worth by material success and also encourages the most vulgar expenditure. Think Osteen and the rest here. So the Protestants clearly lost the plot. But what they never understood is that being material beings in a material world is not not spiritual. (Homage usage of the double-negatives to commemorate Robert Mueller Week, "'If we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.")

Enter "yoga culture." Almost all yoga ever learned in the West originates in nivrtti or "turning away" ideologies. This would include classical yoga, Advaita, pretty much all Buddhisms, most everything. Kashmir Shaivisms, especially of the neo-varieties, have a you can have your cake and not be poorly affected by it too view which is little more than another way to rationalize _being_ in the material world but wanting to be oh so spiritual with all of your unconditional consciousness. Such bullshit.

But yogis, whether they know it or deny it, are steeped in that Protestant ethos and what they know of yoga traditions either is honest nirvrtti or souped up bypass via Kashmir Shaivism or some such thing. By "honest" nirvrtti I mean there are those who don't just say less-is-more, they say things are in the way of being a better human. By "bypass" in this case I mean that certain modern views of KS and Tantra teach that you can have a "non-attached" and "spiritual" life rooted in some purported unconditional non-material reality AND live in the material world, no problem That can be further explained and I will bother to if need be.

Rajanaka takes the old Vedic view: live long and prosper, "give to me, I will give to you" (dehi me dadami te), and try not to be too selfish, too profligate, too usury or exploitative. You know love your life, and life includes stuff, all sorts of stuff. When someone goes through some purge or burn, there's plenty of subconscious Protestant self-abnegation---"we are not so worthy as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table but Thou are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy."

This is how polite, rich Episcopalians tell themselves that they feel guilty about stuff and manage to tell everyone else without stuff that they shouldn't have it, much less like it. We are conflicted over stuff not just because we have a conscience about the planet or that we are involved in some or another privileged exploitation but because we have been told that we are not worthy. Marx understood this. All five of them and Karl too.

If you can possible reconcile your worth with your passions, inexplicable but usually invested in some deeper need, desire, shadow, or torment, then you immediately bump into quality and quantity problems. How do you afford what you like? Quality. And what does "quality" _mean_ to you? And how much of it or of this or that is enough? What's "enough"?

Rajanaka taught me that you might not be remembered for being generous but you'll always be remembered for being stingy. Appa suffered from his generosity but he didn't mind. He liked giving away the good stuff, as far as he could. He didn't have many material wants but I think that was largely because he had other sorts of interests, largely intellectual. He LOVED books once he could afford them. There were never too many. But he was a provider and was still taking care of everyone else up until his premature death.

Appa made sure that everyone in the family knew the value of things and never ever denied them their passions. When it was time to buy a silk sari it was only a matter of being able to afford it. No guilt in having another. You might be able to give some away too. But the point is that he loved la dolce vita and wanted you to love your life too. Material stuff is not in the way. Vedic culture is fundamentally about living well in a world that is beautifully, deliciously, sustainably material.

Sermon over. Maybe. This didn't mean to start out this way. What really happened this morning is that I got a few Japanese stationary notebooks today. So fun. I was excited to tell my friends. Don't you love FB? (<---laugh a="" am="" br="" determined="" have="" here.="" i="" laugh="" obsessed="" say="" the="" to="" way="">
Some people have obsessions and test the fault line between archives and hoarding. I qualify as one of those "some people" but I don't just have particular obsessions, I collect obsessions. I collect ideas, stories, and learning, with relentless obsession. I'm non-attached to keeping things I love---old magazines, books, notebooks, not so much of my 7th grade homework anymore.

Pieces of string, especially from India, gods, goddesses, demons, nagas, crows, monsters, kids's art, notes you've sent me, lots of stuff other people throw away, call clutter, and insist you get rid of. You know, another tirade about how you should "let go" of stuff because I have and that makes you spiritually superior. People who hold onto stuff, much less like it, are thus spiritual inferior or psychologically maladjusted. This is where the yogis and the Protestants align. (And just because you aren't Protestant doesn't mean you are immune to the cultural historicaI Kool-Aide. It's in the air, folks, you breathe it without consent.)

Personally, I have no expectation that anyone else cares about what I do and I particularly don't care what anyone thinks about my non-attachment to obsessions. I just like what I like and understand it is a privilege that hopefully does relatively little damage than other things. I'm not hoarding ammunition, dirty magazines, or running up the credit card, so having stuff _does not bother me_. In fact, I obsess over my obsessions and archive my hoardings. How very "un-yogic." Ha!

I have multiple obsessions one for every person in this group. I have been obsessing over all of the poets that Robert Bly mentions---hundreds. Over all the bands and singles cut by The Wrecking Crew. Over translations of the Iliad because I'm determined to get better at classical Greek and read Beowolf in Old English. Some obsessions are wonderfully mundane: bicycle derailleurs, kinds of string, Catholic saint medals, spare copies of books that I already likely have a spare.

Another one of them has to do with stationary: notebooks, pencils (ooooo, pencils...), websites specializing in Japanese obsession with stationary. I specialize in Japanese obsessions but try to avoid the really creepy ones. There isn't anything cool that Japanese folks can't obsess over: old Leicas, Fender guitars, vintage denim, nonvintage denim, old watches, niche racing bicycles, stationary. Anything westerners made or make of "quality" is usually something Japanese love, admire, collect, imitate, and often do better. There are really really cool stationary stores in Paris. Who's in them? Japanese people who have their own stationary obsession.

Some of this comes from Bushido culture with that Klingon touch: something worth doing is worth dying for in every breath. Some is Shinto purity obession (think: sushi and hand washing). Some of it is Zen discipline or just plain old discipline that gets to 10,000 hours in exactly 416.666667 days. And these are just the things I particularly share with parallel Japanese obsessions. Gladwell argued it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something. I want that 10,000 in less than 416 days (umm, do the math) and figure all of that is a down payment on real obsessions. To obsess is to hoard time. My goddess is called Kali: time, death, darkness. This is my puja.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Trying Not to Fall In Love With Lonely

Notes on Tradition and Provenance
The Value of Messages and their Messengers

There's a difference between tradition and provenance. Or at least we can imagine one. We need more space to move with boundaries and limitations. We need to feel freedom instead of just announcing its possibilities. Who we are cannot be separated from what we have been even when we lose the threads of contiguity. It's in the space where we lose connection that we can create another.

Tradition is about carrying on, the effort to bring the past with you as you. Its sweetness is to bring those past with you too. It's shadow is their weight, _their_ shadow unaddressed and incomplete. Tradition's warmth is in its invitations to participate in pasts as if they were present. And this shadow needs to be made altogether obvious: we become captive of what has been, truculent and less pliant to learning, to growth, and change when we hold too tightly. We will be lost if we abandon it all entirely.

Tradition "conserves" and when it serves us then we steward and sustain; when it does not we hoard, become passive, and, worse, merely recursive. How can change follow from recursion? The Latin is helpful, -servāre means to keep, save, pay heed to. The reply must include accident, failure, and the willingness to pay heed to these as possibilities and even gifts.

These strike me as undeniably worthy considerations that can all too easily devolve to that drowsy numbness that Keats writes about in three short but immortal stanzas sometime in 1819. The Ode on Melancholy reminds us is that these feelings are not best relieved with wolf's bane but with the joy that is _its_ shadow. We can no more know joy without that specter of grief than we will somehow transcend grief altogether.

The Japanese call this mono no aware, the empathy we feel when we recognize a deeper, gentler mourning that comes with mortal apperception. That Keats saw this before he was twenty-six should strike us as greatness nearly beyond human reach. But he knew he was dying. There was work to do. The way Zen treats mujõ, "impermanence" is more accepting and with a greater reach towards the poignant than the typical uses of the Sanskrit word anitya. But matters are more nuanced here than we might think. When anitya's impermanence is made one of the three characteristics (laksana) of reality (along with duhkha [suffering] and anataman [no-self]), it's sensibility is that it too is more asset than liability. There's no doubt that whatever asset this impermanence is cannot reach more deeply without its equally innate liabilities.

When does tradition give us weight and value? When is it a burden we bear, both to carry and from which we might be relieved? I prefer the form of questions because answers too often pursue closure. This is precisely what we cannot admit if we still find value in tradition; closure is our nemesis because it can only be another form of annihilation, a wolf's bane for truth. Traditions that pursue the absolute---the only begotten, the final truth---either suffer from shiftless righteousness or _must_ be put to an end because they were insidious from their outset. We're more confused by these issues and differences than we are usually aware. Not knowing when to hold on and when to let go is to be human. The divine is our usual bypass so we can tell ourselves that there is an eternity that knows when we don't. Pretending we know is another false finality. We're going to have to be able to change to find tradition's deeper value. Eternity presents only closure.

If that seems paradoxical you're not surprised. If we can become more alert to our losses, be not quite so drowsy as Keats urges us, then we might avoid "the ruby grape of Prosperpine" and rise instead “on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave.” Where else too but in eyes of one's beloved? This is no mean avoidance but a path to avoid bypass, which if we let it will steal our humanity by making false promises of blissful exception. There is no exceptionality to our remarkable opportunity to experience a moral life.

Keats knew we must become more stalwart in our vulnerability, not passive but more receptive lest we yield our power to more soporific babble. The more formidable task will not banish apathy nor indulge indifferent denials, it will demand we look back and forward at the same time. Tradition is only confinement when we move in only one direction, in only one form of time, captive of its arrows rather than whirling in its creative maelstrom. Chaos is never comforting even when it's necessary.

With provenance we want to draw out a comparable set of ideas but also feelings that tradition can take only forward. Provenance moves in more directions at once.

Etymology is not definition but every Sanskritist has this weakness and too few consider how usage alone discards meaning as if there were no archetypal values. What resides in the root becomes the possibilities emerging above. Provenance has to do with origin and production, from the Middle French provenir "come forth, arise, originate," from Latin provenire "come forth, originate, appear, arise." But the -ven(ire) is to come, and has the sense of an onslaught, even an attack. (The Sanskrit cognate is likely /gam, as in āgama, that which is coming _all the way_, [prefix ā- plus root /gam]).

Thus provenance is there from the start and comes all the way, it comes through and with. We do not carry on, as in tradition, but carry forward and _towards_ and _with_. Who do you carry _with_ you when you step forward? That is your provenance. What is coming at you from behind as you turn to take your stand in the world, knowing you must also keep moving? That is provenance.

Tradition does not like to admit mistakes much less learn from them or correct them. That's not its job. Its job is to not forget what was. But provenance tells us who have been and that that is still coming towards us as we go forward. Provenance is more willing to change because it does not fix us in a past but point from the past into the future.

If we fail at both tradition and provenance then we desiccate conversation and consign it only to an eternal present. However much we might insist on remaking every self as the moment this strategy of the always be here now is interesting for its requisite denials. When we deny our intellectual ancestors we become captive of our limitation when we might actually be freed by provenance.

In the opening pages of Walden, Thoreau made this mistake. He wrote, "I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of value or earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose."

I can admire Thoreau's petulant rebellion, his deep desire to be unshackled and willing to take his own steps forward. It seems remarkable to me that he should refuse his mentor Emerson's advice in Nature, but creativity often yearns for something new. Innovation knows something more from the past and might spare the folly of believing we invented this inner fire. Thoreau burns within but with too little love for the source of his message and its messenger.

Agni is the first word and the first god of the Veda. (cf., Latin ignītus, past participle of ignīre to set on fire, ignite, equivalent to ign(is) fire + -ītus.) Provenance reminds us that Agni invented us no matter how we cultured ourselves with its messages. Agni is the source, the messenger we are seeking inside and conveys the message when we offer something of value. Provenance is sacred because without it we can only invent ourselves.

If you fall in love with lonely you'll end up that way. Please don't.

Without our offerings to Agni, the fire within burns with the delusion that we have invented ourselves without each other and those fires we cannot see. Provenance is our willingness to acknowledge that the messages we create now, in our present, also come from these inner messengers of time and fire and life's ever kindling memory.

Provenance is more than acknowledging or honoring the ancestral fire that burns in us now. It is the effort to do what feels wholly impossible. The old Zen adage puts it right, "to surpass the teacher is to repay the debt." But it is the feeling that this can't be done but must be tried, with al our heart, in every effort, not to achieve perfection or finality but instead to carrying on and forward---this is the value of provenance.

Try something impossible not merely revering the past but creating from it what you imagine could be. When we live in between what is and who we hope to be then we have found the seam between tradition and provenance. That is a space we might seek in both memory and the present if there is to be a future worth living.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Letter composed on 9.11.2001

I wrote this to friends on the day the Towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, the fields of Pennsylvania left more death---and America began its own Mahabharata.

Brothers and sisters,

Surely these are trying times for all the people of our planet. Lives

we have not yet even imagined to be affected by recent events will be

unwittingly drawn more directly and deeply into the conflict, just as

so many have already been so deeply changed by events so far. Innocent

people are destined to die, just as innocent people have already seen

their lives end without the slightest moment's notice. What lies before

us is a conflagration that promises even more devastation of lives and

we will constantly be asking ourselves if we have the moral wherewithal

to lay claim to notions of justice, goodness, or the right.

These are important issues within the Mahabharata, one of the sources

from which we can gain a deeper understanding of what lies before us.

Scriptural resources of our tradition are as rich in solace and comfort as they are in wisdom and

reflection. Sometimes that reflection and wisdom is unresolved, it means

not to offer answers but to consider possibilities, realities, and

stubborn facts about nature and civilization.

The Mahabharata includes within it, as you know, the Bhagavadgita whose

Voice of Divinity is a call to action even as it demands a deeper

contemplation of life in every form of the everyday as well as in its

ultimacy. There is also a sober message that we might resist as

peace-loving and non-violent people and that is what I wish to bring out

here, not as an advocate of such views

but simply for reflection. There are teachings here we may find a

valuable resource not for their solace but for the wisdom that might

emerge from reflection upon them.

So allow me a moment to turn to events in the Epic as an instruction in

matters that we can usually resist taking seriously because we don't

have to. Now I think we need to take them to heart and choose for

ourselves what to do and what sorts of persons we are and wish to


First, it is crucial to remember that the struggle that emerges in the

Epic is of one family with many branches. We are one humanity and yet

we have different mothers and fathers, different up-bringings, different

understandings from the experiences that have informed our lives. We

are one human family but with genuine differences. We must remember

that there is as much to lament, regret, forgive, forget, and remember

as to celebrate and affirm. There is no polly-anna-ish vision of

spiritual goodness in the Mahabharata: good people make serious mistakes

and are admonished to learn by acknowledging them and turning to a

deeper reality, one of Divine Goodness in the Self. We are born of God

and born to uncover that Divinity in our hearts. That, we are told time

and again, is our most noble purpose even in the face of other stubborn


As Mahabharata unfolds we learn that Dharma, manifesting as the heir to

the throne in the form of a man named Yudhisthira must assume the

responsibilities of leadership. Yudhisthira is a reluctant king, as all

those with such power must be. He would prefer transcendence and

retirement to worldliness and engagement. He seeks the noble purposes

and goals of human life. And yet as the Epic evolves he is drawn deeper

and deeper into his responsibility as King, as the leader of the Pandava

branch of the family, and the leader of civilization itself.

Civilization, we learn, is the only context in which we can uncover our

common humanity and reveal our essential and common divinity. Without

civilization we are as less than animals: surviving merely to eat and to

persist without higher or nobler aims.

Duryodana, his cousin and adversary, believes he and his side of the

human family have been disinherited unjustly and that their portion of

the kingdom cannot suffice to satisfy their claim on all of it. Despite

the entreaties of his father, Dhrtarastra, Duryodana ultimately rejects

Yudhisthira's final request for peace, just five villages in which to

live in obscurity. Duryodana will settle for nothing less than the

destruction of his cousins. He seeks to deny them life itself, the very

right to be.

We can wonder how people, such as Duryodana, come to such destructive,

dare I say, evil aspirations. For to deny others the right to live, to

be, is indeed at least some definition of evil, as is the hope to make

others' lives as miserable as possible to satisfy one's own interests.

Evil has more than one face, more than one form, just as does the

Divine. It is difficult to comprehend Duryodana's "irrationality" but he

seeks first to terrorize his cousins and then to destroy them finally,

unequivocally, without mercy or care for the destruction he may bring to

his own people. (The episode of the cattle raid during the Pandava

exile, in which Duryodana and his lot come to disturb even the withdrawn

lives of their cousins, is indeed "terror" made manifest, even if it

fails and backfires against them. The Pandava end up saving their

terrorist cousins and retreat again to the forest to serve their term in

hopes of peace.)

How can such devastating evil arise and sustain itself? Doesn't

Duryodana know that he will bring upon himself and those he loves even

more pain and devastation?

Mahabharata makes clear that desire, fear, anger, hatred, and delusion

can indeed infect a human heart and that as they grow and mutate, they

seek to perpetuate themselves at whatever cost to that heart. Evil is a

cancer, a virus, a reality defined as that which self-destructs even as

it seeks to foster its own presence in its host. Evil is a corruption

of the Goodness that is the Heart, a corruption that is permitted

because human spirits are free to choose and to manifest the conditions

that permit its growth because we are made Free. But it is plain as

well that Mahabharata does not always consider "redemption" possible in

this civilized world if the contagion of evil has reached a stage of

growth in which its course is sure

self-destruction. No, like cancer in advanced stages, unfortunately

not detected when less violent or drastic means might have prevented its

spread, the Mahabharata offers in Duryodana the example of an evil that

must be rooted out before it destroys that which gives civilization its


And so we turn again to Yudhisthira who is responsible not only for

nurturing and protecting the good but facing those situations in which

there is no alternative but to face the reality that evil will not

contain itself. We admire Yudhisthira's constant hope for peace and

reconciliation, hi willingness to turn his cheek and to accept

responsibility for the injustices his own family has perpetrated against

their cousins. We wonder how far he will go in making amends, how

deeply his instincts for peace and non-violence will serve his family's

interests, how far he is willing to go to protect what is rightfully

theirs. Yudhisthira ponders and reflects; he often appears indecisive

for his patience. But he understands, certainly better than any of his

brothers and perhaps even his elders, that as soon as he acts to counter

the threat of genuine evil taken root, he runs the risk of becoming that

evil or, at least, succumbing to the moral bankruptcy that expends

whatever goodness motivated his actions. In short, Yudhisthira knows

that cutting out the cancer of this evil will cost him and his family

their dignity, their moral claims to goodness; he knows that he will

kill innocents even as he seeks to destroy only that which is bent upon

the destruction of his family. He knows that by "winning" he will lose

some part of himself. He knows that by "losing" he puts at risk the

very notion of civilization itself. He knows that it is possible to

co-exist, to live in difference and with difference, that we need not

agree to agree that we all have the right to live. He wonders why

others cannot share this conviction.

Mahabharata presents a reality that accepts the possibility that others

may insist their differences are irreconcilable, that some may reach the

point of conviction and action in which our very existence is beyond

their willingness to admit. Mahabharata presents to us the fact that

their position, their vision of uncompromising destruction violates the

deepest principles of civilization itself. And Mahabharata understands

that those who must defend civilization even as they contemplate the

meaning of justice itself are not just liable but assured of inflicting

upon themselves the curse of acting in uncivilized ways.

There are no "good guys" in the Epic, not in the sense of untainted

warriors whose principles remain uncompromised by their deeds. No,

everyone and especially Yudhisthira is morally compromised. And yet

Krishna ( a deity) insists that Yudhisthira act as he does, that he not

allow the evil that has arisen---even if he, Yudhisthira has helped

create it and is, at least in part, guilty of creating it---to sit by

idly and accept his own destruction. Krishna insists that the Pandava

have a right to life itself and that they not, in the contemplation of

their own creation of the evil of their cousins and their complicity in

their oppression, fail to understand their grim duty.

There is no glory in the Epic's war. It is war in the truest sense of

irreconcilable differences resolved by violent means and unremitting

will. It is painful, horrible, ugly: the longest book of the

Mahabharata, the sixth, is called ironically the "Shanti parva," the

book of "peace" because here begins the war and the nearly endless

descriptions of devastation and battlefields strewn with innocents as

well as warriors.

Throughout Mahabharata we need to take note of a few persistent points

of contemplation:

* Yudhisthira never takes delight in the destruction of his enemies,

even as he realizes that there can be such a thing as an enemy. Instead

he is sobered by the ways his own dignity and goodness are invariably

compromised. He constantly seeks peace even in the midst of war.

* It is wrong, plain wrong, to allow the contagion of evil to persist.

Even as we seek to foster the cures for such evil in ourselves and

others, we cannot allow it to wreak its havoc. The Mahabharata is not

passivist nor does it wholly reject violence as a "solution." Instead

it means to explore the implications of the moral compromises that

violence as a solution will bring to those who seek justice. It means to

point out how it is possible to discern the difference between

justice and vengeance or terror.

We as an American nation are on the brink of this last stage of moral

compromise in which we will certainly have no unequivocal or untainted

claim to being the just or the "good guys." That could not be plainer

to me. Let us pray that we retain some deeply rooted and serious

capacity to reflect upon our moral responsibilities. Surely the

American nation will act and respond to this horror with violence. I do

not mean either to exalt or condemn such a response but merely to

suggest that we have sources that enable us to reflect upon violence as

a course of action. Less clear to me is how we Americans will avoid

triumphalism and prevent our banners, our flags from becoming symbols of

vengeance and anger just as they represent "evil" to those who oppose us

or use them to represent their own pain and discontent. We have within

our military power such devastating means. What remains to be seen is

the character of our will.

I was deeply moved by the statement of the Dalai Lama who has, in the

traditions of Buddhism, made clear that violence begets violence. But

the sobering reality of a pernicious evil, be it cancer or human

intolerance, is in the view of the Mahabharata a fact that must lead us

to reflect more and more deeply on violence itself. We are born

violently, lovingly cut from the cord that gives us life as we are

pushed into the world from the womb of a mother who loves us

unconditionally. This is a fact of life itself and how Life seeks to

remind us that we exist only by Grace and Love.

But if we allow those who deny life itself to become the paradigm of

civilization then life will surely not be worth living at all. That is

surely one important teaching of the Mahabharata.

I am not advocating a view here and do not mean to propose solutions.

I've tried not to interpret the Epic in ways that reflect a particular

bias but merely to present to you its ancient understandings as I have

reflected upon them. We are warned not to become the evil we must

confront, but we are also reminded that the failure to confront that

evil consigns us to a death of ignominy and a future in which there is no possible co-existence of

differences. We must somehow seek to remind ourselves that justice is

the foundation upon which we create a context for civilization and that

civilization, however fragile it may be, is our collective, human


I hope you will forgive me the vanity this missive suggests.

I find no self-importance in all of this. Instead I mean

merely to reflect aloud in a reasoned voice with those whom I love and

respect and who I believe will love me for who I am even if we come to

differences of understanding or opinion. In my heart I seek to

experience the deeper unity in which the Self is One and in my life I

hope to live in ways that reflect how that Oneness assumes the infinite

forms of difference that make the universe so remarkably sublime.

with great love,

Douglas Brooks Professor of Religion University of Rochester Rochester,



Thursday, May 9, 2019

About Those Crows

You've been seeing a lot of crows lately.  And we’ve been talking about the serpents.  The crows and snakes come together. That's the secret we need to begin with.  The snakes feature in the stories as the representatives of true source, the unconscious, the deepest and most primal forms of desire, fear, beauty, and awakening. The Hindus tells us that the snakes are the sons of Kadru whose sister Vinita is the mother of birds.  The myths never lie.  Or to put it more properly, the myths lie so that we can find the deeper truth.

While the mythologies of the snakes describe the self in three selfsame forms, the birds are more varied, more complex because they come as messengers, vehicles, from above rather than below. While the raptors soar above and the songbirds and peacocks make themselves known more proximate, crows are the birds of the in-between worlds. They are here and there, above and below but also neither because they reside in the seam. This seam, the place of in-between is where we reside as beings of paradox. We want to be close but not held too tightly. We want to be free but not left to loneliness. We want the blessings of capacious memory but know that every form of light casts its own shadow.

Those messages we are not always keen to hear but they come in the unmistakeable sound of the crow. What we can learn from the crow comes from a deeper place but that means coming close to them, keeping their intimate company. More about this as we carry forward. Mythic worlds never leave out the serpents and birds. Hindus know they are step-siblings and that their father Kashyapa is the sage of light.

Crows have storied histories as shadows, messengers, harbingers of prophecy. All of us share the same “prophecy”—we mortals are born from the depths of memory, from the unconscious into evanescent forms that must return to that common source in death. In the meantime we share the gift of life because of the dead who’ve come before us and who will inevitably join. It’s not all so maudlin—the crows coo, growl, nuzzle, and love deeply. We rarely hear those intimate conversations because they are held close but never mistake their public announcements.

Where there are crows there is food, life, often in the form of death. Without the carrion-eaters the world of food—always rife with danger— is even less safe, less pure, less “clean.” It’s a ceaseless and settled matter that we find our way through life to death but are as much in avoidance, delay, and circumvention. We retreat from the truth when it comes in black because its announcement is unmistakable.

In Hindu worlds, the crows and ravens are the keepers of memory, conversant with ancestors, the vahana of Lord Shani, who offers the saturnine dispensations of karma. Each day before food, a pinda or ball of rice is thrown upon the roof so that the crows will eat first—feed your shadow, nourish memory, honor those who’ve come before, keep the company of the entirety of self. That pinda-feeding is done by the cook so there is no further intermediary. Crows are what we call “first category beings,” and first category is food—it comes before sex, survival, relationship, even death. To understand the priorities of the world is to see food first because we have arrived, we are messengers from death come into life, the living eat, the dead will be eaten again.

Such is the nature of reality itself—to have become food is to live, to thrive, to carry forward all that has come before. No less an authority than Taittiriya Upanishad makes our point, and it’s worth quoting at length. We learn that “food” means every kind of food, be that for the body, the mind, or soul.

 Here we go:

annadvai prajah prajayante, “…from food all living things live,”
yah kashcha prithivim shritah, “…whatsoever dwells upon earth,”
atho annenaiva jivanti “by food alone then do they live,”
athainadapi yantyantatah “and to food in the end they return,”
annam hi bhutanam jyeshtham “for food alone is the eldest, ‘most victorious’, of beings,”
tasmat sarvaushadhamuchyate “this is why it is called ‘the medicine for all,”
sarvam vai te annamapnuvanti ye annam brahmopasate “for those keeping food close as the Creative obtain all food,”
annam hi bhutanam jyeshtham “for food is the ‘most victorious’, the eldest of beings,”
tasmat sarvaushadhamuchyate “this is why it is called ‘the medicine for all,”
annad bhutani jayante “from food creatures are born,”
jatanyannena vardhante “by food when born they grow,”
adyate atti cha bhutani tasmadannam taduchyata iti. “because it is eaten and because it eats beings, this is why it is called ‘food.’” (TU, 2.1)

We feed the crows to feed ourselves, especially those parts of ourselves we cannot remember or choose to forget. We feed the crows so that they will leave and come back everyday. We may not always welcome their messages but without them we starve in only the light, we cannot rest deeply in the darkness that restores us because we must close our eyes to rest. The crows watch while we sleep in the unconscious, wander in dreams, digest the food of thought and feeling to transform it into more memory.

Of course, we fear our memories as much as we treasure them; we lose more than we ever can recall but the crows bring them back and forth from the immense serpentine self that resides below. All medicines put us at risk, for what heals and nourishes challenges and includes some or another toxicity that we must also assimilate. The crows are our shadow messengers and when they appear, when we hear them caw, we need to come closer, to become them so that the songs of intimacy that coo and growl can be heard and shared.

Crows, like selves, come in threes. When you see two in a tree, look for the third usually feeding not the dangerous below. But they are like the star of the same name (3 Corvi) because they appear as one, like the self in its triadic singularity: I’m not you, I’m like you, I’m nothing but you. As the messengers of Apollo, the crow is perched on the back of the snake Hydra where it cannot be eaten because it has decided that this most dangerous place is the safest place from which to see more. The Greeks also tell us that the crow may even take the rare white form to dispel some of that serpentine anxiety: the messenger does not, after all, always presage dark news. 

None of like to “eat crow,” that is, to acknowledge that our certainties have failed, that our claims have been overwritten by time or circumstance or some other better truth.

We become twice-eaters because the crows have already eaten, whether that is the fresh rice of the day on the sun burnt rooftop or the carrion that comes day or night. But it’s when we become twice-eaters of light and shadow that we alchemize into greater souls, nourished by the cycles of death and rebirth in each breath.

There's more because the archetypes carry across multiple cultures and many, many histories. I'll be writing about this more than you can stand. You know being a crow and a serpent every now and then.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sarpa, Ahi, & Naga, On Being Your Serpentine Self

Be yourself.

How many times have you heard this one, followed up by the joke ‘cause ya’ can’t be anyone else?

Advaita Vedanta wants you to know that you’ve always been and only been yourself and that any experience that compares selves or even claims to comprehend self is, you know, some sort of mistake.  The One True Self cannot apparently tolerate that it might have broken, missing, or extra selves. The Buddhists insist you’ve never been a yourself except maybe in some sort of heuristic imagination, and so self is a device meant to remind you that you’ve never been yourself ever.  You're a collection of impressions created by impressions that have collected even before any you appeared.  There's genius in this but the story might just be starting here rather than finishing.
Being yourself is no small matter.  Of all the people you have to live with, yourself comes first because it's there even before you are and last because it is always the next self you experience.  We slither and slide through self because what we invent makes us and that we have been invented is why we seek ourselves.  We call this process of skidding and skating the serpentine self.  

Here are three Rajanaka sutras meant to create some perspective and also demand a little thinking about that serpentine self.  The key terms here are all Sanskrit words for "snake" but each has a different sensibility, as we will see.  What each suggests is that a life of deep engagement---let's call that "yoga"---is created by three serpentine facts: crisis, anxiety, and invited discomfort.  Now before you run away in the other direction as fast as possible, let's make a few things clear.  Such a serpentine self doesn't cast us out of the garden or reduce us to a problem.  Nothing about these facts of life consign us to helplessness, horror, or failure.  Rather, a life of yoga, living in the serpentine self means that these vulnerabilities, these facts about our self, hold within them possibilities, the best being that we might thrive. This is possible not despite our nature but with it, through it, and in deeper relationships of choice and chance.  We are, after all, mortal beings looking to find our way through the world and whatever else we imagine ourselves to be depends on our willingness to create narratives that contend with facts as we tender further possibilities.

Your self is always in crisis when you’re paying attention.

Being yourself can feel easy, natural, and fluent. But there are two very different orders of experience that create such impressions of repose and security. The first involves having ordinary needs met without having to be attentive to all that might otherwise become precipitously catastrophic. If that is your only experience don’t expect the serpentine self to flourish. It may have trouble even surviving and that’s assuredly a problem. The other order of crisis experience is keenly aware that every moment of comfort and contentment is real because it is evanescent, because the impression of safety is necessarily elusory. Whatever you are enjoying now can in another moment become the source of danger or misery.  To cultivate our more evasive and subtle selves we’ll need more sarpa-drishti, that's the “serpent’s sight.” It’s called “serpent sight” because the serpent, the sarpa, uses all of its senses to see, every part of itself to experience change---even while remaining wholly still. When we are vigilantly attentive to change, collecting the dynamics of somatic and emotional life, we aver catastrophe by making every contingency feel conventional. This is not because we have arrested the self in crisis but because we have attended to it. It is not because we have reduced the self to some impervious or invulnerable state but rather have made more selves, more ways of seeing how near the crisis needs to be. We learn to move in the crisis, with the crisis, we begin to see that the self is itself made of crisis that fends off catastrophe and tries to make that look and feel easy even when it is not. We’re not going to evade our crisis because that would be avoiding ourselves, our very nature.  But instead we are going to create the means to engage it, to engage ourselves. With what? How? We going to need to inhabit a greater sense of the power of consciousness to meet itself. You are that sarpa, that serpent in the garden of consciousness. You are not alone there because you live there with all of your selves, including the ones hidden from you, the selves of light and shadow. You live with friends and enemies too, with possibilities and much that has already been decided, like it or not. As Voltaire reminds us, you’re going to need to tend your garden. It’s there in that garden, being those selves that makes everything grow: it is what you plant, what has planted itself, and all that needs tending. There’s a snake in your garden, it’s you. Try not to be too afraid. You’ll need to know when. You'll need the courage to be yourself just to be yourself.

The crisis of being yourself makes you anxious.

Another word for the sarpa, the serpent, is ahi. That’s right: angst, anxiety, and so back to the serpentine self.  More cousin words from Sanskrit to English.  The serpent doesn’t merely possess anxiety, it is anxiety. The difference between being enervated by the anxious self and empowered by it makes all the difference a difference can make. It’s in that space of the in-between that we’ll have to learn to move. We’re made this ahi-way---there’s no point denying it--- and there’s nothing we could do to rid ourselves of it even if we thought that was a good idea. It’s not. We don’t need to repair it, fix it, or replace it. We need to invest, license, commission, and legitimize that anxious self because being yourself means you will feel yourself, your anxiety. That anxiety is yourself.  It's not separate or something else. Don’t run from it, move with it. How did we turn out this way? It’s a vital part of how we have survived and it can become a crucial part of how we learn to flourish. We have to inhabit that seam between the anxiety that threatens us and the kind that we can experience as an asset and develop into a resource.  This seam is also the ahi-self, it is the one that moves and dodges and deliberates before and while it moves and dodges.  It moves with you because it is you.  To make that seam of self we need boundaries and it is the boundaries of the self create the seam. These boundaries are also moving because they too are serpentine. They will contract if you don’t tend to them and expand if you know how. How do we recognize those boundaries? Reach for these two edges of self: you are who you are and who you wish you were. You are a reality and a dream: these are your boundaries. It will be no small matter to recognize either but the seam between them is who you want to be. That too twists and turns, contracts and expands, it moves with and without your consent because there is more than what you decide or choose that creates you. You are the boundaries and the seam, which means that the anxious self moves three ways at once.  It moves as who you are, who you wish you were, and who you want to be.  Keep these features of the serpentine self in conversation and you stand a chance, you might even flourish.

To be yourself you’re going to have to move deliberately into more crisis, into uncomfortable spaces.

The most familiar term in Sanskrit for snake is naga, and these too are word-cousins, related etymologically over long time and distant place. The serpentine self is triadic. As sarpa it’s the crisis of being born with conditions endemic to existence, your existence. Thus the sarpa-self invites us to embrace the gift of being born with all of its natural trauma and necessary contingencies. Life is never less precarious once we are paying attention to our nature and its potential. The ahi-self makes the crisis of being born an experiment in flourishing in a world that makes no promises you will even survive. When we alchemize our anxiety into attention then the self makes connection and learns when to disconnect, to create space for engagement and disengagement. The naga-self turns crisis and anxiety into the artistry of living in your skin.  The naga-self can grow but that will require nourishment, good luck, and no small amount of effort.  You’ll shed skins when you need to, when you outgrow them or they outgrow you, but there will always be another and another as you grow and shed and reclaim your next self in new skin. All that was there is still there but now it integrates and actualizes as more self. The naga-self invites as many selves as you can imagine and all the ones you can’t or won’t.

Our sarpa-ahi-naga triadic selves live in both light and darkness, they burn and shade, they have venom and constriction and cannot live or thrive without their shadows. From these selves we learn that we are each different but never separate, that what we have been is included in all we will become, that all we might be depends on how deeply we are willing to go into the lairs of the serpentine self that is made of all possible selves. What we long for is connection; what we fear most is loneliness; what we must learn how to do is live with both. The naga finds comfort in uncomfortable places because no comfortable place will stay that way for long, not if you want to thrive. Our discomforts are always an invitation to move, even when that means keeping still for a time. The sarpa says I am myself, the ahi says I am not you, the naga tells us we are all alike one way or another. What remains to be uncovered is another self but that demands something from you, something that will place demands on a demanding world that may not cooperate. That’s okay, in the challenge and conflict one finds a crisis worthy of self attention. And in the end you will find out how to live with all of your serpentine selves. That’s what we call freedom.  Freedom is what we seek so long as we are bound.  But being bound is also not a problem we solve but a paradox we embrace. That bondage that liberates is the crow.  And that's another story.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

In the Name of Humanity

My father was an architect more interested in meeting human needs than building monuments. But I know he cared about beautiful things, things he could build, just like he cared about people. Another sermon here, I'm afraid.
Notre Dame and Louisiana
In the Name of Humanity

From the very beginnings of human civilization architecture has been a testimony of lasting human needs. It has been art and the vessel of artistry. It is the art that “builds,”as the Greeks remind us, tektōn and it is of “chief,” arkhi concern. It can be pre-made like the caves of Chauvet or Altamira but what is contained within them is as much what we mean when we feel the importance of place. What we place within the architecture of human need speaks to our great stories and, perhaps as importantly, tells us a story that we think transcends even humanity.

One needs to think of Notre Dame as a narrative not only of the past but of our deeper need for eternity expressing achievement, the developments we have made, the travails we have endured over the ages. Notre Dame survived the wars and it has survived Christianity, which might be the real miracle. It is about the power of human ingenuity and human hope representing the power of the divine. It doesn’t matter what you think about that “divine” or even if it exists, it matters that there is something more than our brief, individual lives. It matters that we make something that attends to the “more.”

This “more” that we need is a complex matter and it is no zero sum game. We can want the majesty of the monument and not address the needs of human community. We can want a richer sense of human community without the monuments.  We can have both.

When we compare the burning of Notre Dame to the devastation of people whose churches have been burned down by arson we witness the inverse of that testimony to collective greatness. We see too that humans have possibilities for nihilism and hate and that these are powerful, motivating, and disturbing. When we grieve for our nihilism we show our better angels. When we grieve for those who have lost their community’s center, we find in grief the companions of those same angels. There is something about grief that tells us what matters.

With the GoFundMe campaign to restore the Louisiana churches we are witness to human goodness and care. When we see billionaires pledging to restore Notre Dame we see an old story of history about power and with President Macron vowing restoration we see that we have a need too for monuments of culture. But these matters are easily mixed up and I think they are not the same nor are they exclusionary.

What we have in Notre Dame is our desire for majesty. What we have seen in Louisiana is a story about caring for each other. Both can be directive from culture about the kinds of culture we want and need. If this were the same story we’d have understood from the outset that accidents are not like intentions and that goodness is not the same as the human need for magisterial awe.

What we write when we create place are complex stories of human desire. Our need for each other and for the story of majesty are not the same need. We may need to make art and to construct the enduring material projects of the imagination. But we surely need each other, even when we seem intent upon destroying the world.

Traditions are not built merely on monuments. They converge on human feelings, as ephemeral as they are and as misdirected as they can be. Whether or not people have the privilege and power to build great stone churches or temples to commerce or other spaces of grandeur, what we want to know is if they must have already learned to care for each other.

Architecture began before writing but as it evolved it has proven capable of telling more stories than were originally intended. Writing meets the human need to connect to one another across time and place. Architecture defines itself in place, contains other kinds of stories, like art, and invites our connection to itself and to those things. Great works of architecture want to place a seal upon tradition, they want to claim their value apart from our mortal coil. But because we are so very human, that is not enough even when it outlasts us. We are going to need each other and, as far as I can tell, that is the story we tell when we help good people rebuild their communities.

Long before architecture wrote its story, humanity has had to ask what more we want from ourselves and from each other. We’ve proven ourselves capable of everything from debased, amoral venality to altruism and love for neighbor we don’t even know. We need not exclude one kind of need from another. What we can do instead is try to feel the breadth and meaning of our needs and admit that their complexity often confuses us. What is clear is that there is always more to the story than what we can express in words, which is why we grieve and applaud and wonder at all of the things that humans create.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Twenty Five Years in April

Another morning’s come in April without you.
It’s that time again
but not how I ever wanted it to be,
There’s no right in being right
without you and me and all that you left here

Gift for gift, love for love, goodbye good day good night
another day another time to come, another year in April
It was once upon a time together
when the people looked because they knew
when I was there for you
and you're here now
but not for me to choose

You know what I would do
if I could do it again
just to be to be with you again
what I would do if I could do it again
on another day in April

Gift for gift, love for love, goodbye good night good day
another day another time to come,
because time has done what time will do
when it’s not for us to choose
before the end that comes again another year in April

Gift for gift, love for love, we're here with you
who love you now

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Spiritual Life Revisited

Ahh, mon cher, as you know, I have long averted the distinction that nowadays tells us we can be spiritual and not religious.  Just what to make of this difference?  If it waddles, quacks, has webbed feet, and a bill it's likely a duck.  What folks often call "spirituality" looks much like a "religion" because it passes the proverbial duck test.  Their spiritual preference often has ritual, mythology, a favored and authorized body of lore that works like a canon---to wit, it has many of the features of a religion, and it usually has a tribe too.  It's hard to have a religion without a tribe.  But I think we may be spiritual even in our aloneness.  Now we may be onto something.

There might be a distinction with a difference that is worth more consideration.  We can surely be religious, I think, and not be spiritual.  We can be spiritual but not religious.  And we can be both at once.  So even as I try to be brief here, it may not be as small a matter to sort out as I thought.  Let's persist, for that's surely the best beginning of a spiritual life.

What is it to be spiritual? 'Tis easy and at once, of course, utterly impossible.  This is because I think we must embrace paradox when we choose a spiritual life.  Must we? Without the whole of the paradox I think our understandings will fall short, even if our feelings make the occasion complete.  Let's take this apart, take it to heart, see what we find.

Pascal is a good beginning.  He puts it plainly enough, Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.  

We know from the unconscious core of our being, from our very cause of existence that the spirit cannot not defend reason when the heart commands.  In truth, it's no contest even when in fact we refuse.  The mind can tell any story, offer any reason but the heart will rule.  We may conceal and dissimulate, we may pretend and rationalize but the heart will rule.  No matter the weight of the evidence, no matter how persuasive or indisputable the case, there is always something more, more at stake, more that must take its place.  The spirit is that something else that we cannot deny no matter what story the mind tells---for what won't we do for love?

We are onto the matter now, for a spiritual life is committed and tested and founded in love.  By that I mean we have feelings so primal, so real and deep that the soul forms itself around them.  What we care about, what we put before other things, what we must do because we are called to do it---that is the spirit's command, the heart's direction, its vector and compass.  Just what are you willing to do for that?  That is spiritual adjuration and to that you must answer, no matter the time or circumstance if it is a spiritual life you want.  What moves you? You know, you always know even when you doubt or deny.  

The spiritual life is when life is what we cannot avoid or postpone, even when we neglect, procrastinate, or deny it---still the heart will feel and it will insist.  No heart can ever be forced to love but the spirit learns and teaches what we know is true.  This is why the spiritual life can also be your vocation, your work, your everyday commitment, the thing you do.  It is not only the what you do that is you but it is the you within that must do it.  In the spiritual life you live in your skin, it is how you come to know yourself, it is the form you take when what you do is who you are, and the other way around too.

The spiritual is living, for the heart, like love true and deep, will not wilt or diminish no matter how many springs and summers pass.  Look to the Bard to savor this immortal's mortal form, for he tells us what we all know to be true, "To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eyed, Such seems your beauty still." (Sonnet 104)

So it is: all that is spirit lives and will not die a mortal death no matter the fact that death will take every mortal life.  And this is more still...

The spirit is never trivial. It all that is compelling and necessary just to be. It is clamorous, exigent, importunate, and principal. In the deepest feelings of what you know to be urgent and momentous, the spiritual presses us and leads us to the imperative center, to the heart's source.

Yeats tells us,
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity..."

And then? Then, what is left is the spirit and from there the spiritual life begins again.  It comes first and second, and in the last it is what will endure, resist, and lay down its marker.  Not everyone I think wants this, not everyone seeks it.  It may be too that some are denied it for reasons they do not control or command.  A spiritual life is not easy to come by and less easy to live.  We all have some of it because we love---and let us hope everyone gets that chance.

To be spiritual is to love deeply.  And all who do must agree without consent, even without understanding, that to love is to grieve.  To love we must also admit to fear and accept its shadow too, to stand in the terror of all that can happen because what we love, who we love and that we love can fail us, it may disappoint, betray, or die---and we are not in command, we do not control all that can happen because we love. And still we love. A spiritual life brings all those possibilities and accepts, withstands, and will choose to live with every peril that love harbors.

There is a difference worthy of note, though I will not dwell too much on this distinction: religion is not the same in all of these ways; for religion is foremost how we manage, it is how we console and cope, we use it to form ourselves in tribe and stand in its good (and bad) graces.  When our religion tells the heart's story, love's clamant and inescapable truth, then it is also our spirituality.  But religion need not be that when all we might need is its armature to support our needs and feelings---be that in ritual or for sake of the clan and its needs.  Religion may place demands upon us but it is not the same as  the heart's truth, for that is a matter far more private and cuts more deeply.  And yes, it will cut.

The spiritual calls us, cajoles, inspires, intimidates, demands, invites, and resolves to be there in our hearts---to wail, to weep, to howl and bleed---for there are the things worth living and dying for.  And there are indeed things we must do because we must.  The spiritual may be your art, your work, your calling, but it is always vital and acute, often dangerous and sometimes disturbing because we cannot but feel it.

While religion attends well to the anodyne, to things we must do when we must do them, religion serves matters that may feel compulsory---but this is not the same as the spirit's imperious identity.  The spirit is self, the sort that withstands religion's tyrannies and cannot be defeated by mere threats or worse.  Religion may serve us when we need it but the spiritual life never ceases, never pauses, never goes on vacation or merely appears for the occasion.  A spiritual life is about always, ever, now.

So, no matter what reason might claim or what religion might demand, spirit calls us to live from its imperative and no other. We may not succeed, we may not rise to the spirit's calling.  We can fail in our spiritual lives because, well, because we can.  But when we want a spiritual life more than all, we will risk it all to stand in the midst of our mortal storm---in a world that may not for one moment care what happens to us.

We will break and are sure to be broken but in the life of the spirit we live, we carry on and we live for its calling.  Dumas reminds us to shake our fist, give it our worst.  We will raise our voice, hold and be held, we will give our all for better and for worst because the heart accepts no less. The spirit does not wait for the storm to come. The spiritual life's storm is always here and now, it knows it is always the time to love and to care, to burn and to cry.  Make yourself the person that the Fates that know you to be, as we do, as you are.

The spiritual life must come from the very core of our being, from the place of paradox, and its calling is simple enough: to live deeply and truly is to love.  We may die unfinished and incomplete in this calling, perhaps a thousand deaths and more even before we die, but when you choose the spiritual life you never, ever relent.  Perhaps that is enough.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

#NotJustTeamHuman, "As we forgive those who trample on our lawns..." Your Sacred Mileage May Vary

"As we forgive those who trample on our lawns..."
Your Sacred Mileage May Vary

Religion provides cover, dissimulation, a way of revealing and concealing things about how you feel and what you think: that its what "the sacred" does. It tells the world that this thing you regard---an idea, a person, a behavior, something about the world---is special, valid, sound, and so important that you too should take it as seriously. At the very least you too should "respect" someone else's sacred. Umm, sure.

America has a special kind of stupid set aside for people's "sacred" because we are a land of immigrant cultures and tribes, and there are a lot of teams. Team Religion isn't just beliefs, it's whatever religions do or say that tells you if are on the team. So perfectly sane 21st century people will continue to make claims that are, in effect, ways of saying, "I'm on Team Jesus" or "Team Jewish" or "Team Allah". The rest of it is a narrowing down, so that one can be on Team My Team, which isn't anything like Their Team Jesus. The sociological and psychological benefits of teaming up should make you want to re-read the great Emil Durkheim very, very carefully. Americans like to think that these "sacred" are really their individual choices because we really think we are just making up our own minds.

Of course humans have way more power when they identify with teams because that's one way we gain legitimacy. One person's religion is called neurosis, fifty is a cult, but 50 million is a religion. Your call. Once you get to a religion it's hard to remember that a "cult" is someone else's smaller version of your own obsession and that another's madness is just their own personal version of the prayer, "Our pasta, who art in a colander, draining be your noodles. Thy noodle come, Thy sauce be yum, on top some grated Parmesan. Give us this day our garlic bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trample on our lawns."

People get offended when you tell them that their version of Get Off My Lawn isn't really all that special but to them and most will take the But Ours view, which is a lot like thinking that YOUR lawyer isn't there to bill you hours because that's what other lawyers do. Everyone else is less special is part of the sacred too. And that gets as dangerous as the mob. A language is a dialect with a mob the way a religion is a cult or a personal neurosis with a mob. Is there any saving grace?

You can take the "it's spiritual, not religious" exit but you will simply end up on the county road version of the religion interstate. This bit of nomenclature legerdemain is another way to make you feel special about yourself and an another attempt to dissociate from some perceived larger group delusions. I'm not opposed so long as you know that your own personal Wittengenstein language game is what you are playing in order to find a way to live with yourself. After all, we humans make religions not only to control, manipulate, exploit, and dehumanize our fellow humans. We make them to accomplish what only teams can do---try building your own barn _entirely_ by yourself, see?---and because we have to tell ourselves some story that allows us to live with ourselves.

For my own frame of reference, for example, I like mostly Hindu stories that I interpret as humanist Jungian insights into our unconscious becoming our conscious selves, like it or not. YMMV but this creates a model for creating some mighty worthwhile meaning in a perfectly meaningless world. Of course this is not how the vast (any?) majority of HIndus understand their stories and behaviors so that reduces the team size in the Hindu league maybe to one guy and maybe a few of his friends. Like I said, choosing teams is hard when you think that other people on the larger team are involved in nothing less than abject superstition and a boatload of social emotional identity that doesn't speak to yours.

You want to believe that your team in the bigger league---say, Rajanaka somewhere in the larger reference of Team Hindu---relatively harmless inasmuch as it does some little good and really tries not to be too obnoxious about its own claims or too terribly demeaning of others. Rajanaka has the added advantage of being powerless in any socio-political or economic way, say, much unlike being Catholic or Mormon. Team Rajanaka doesn't really ask anything from you. It's a voluntary conversation and then the one you have with yourself. It's how _you_ re-write the Giant Spaghetti Monster Prayer to suit yourself. Rajanaka doesn't pray at all, of course, if you don't.

Not all religions, cults, and neurotic personal "spiritualities" are as innocent, at least not as I see it. Now, you don't like to pick on them just 'cause they are ridiculous but because so much of what they teach is just plain vile, such as LBGQT people are "apostates." (I'd call that lucky. You mean you get to be thrown out and don't have to do that again, with those people? Thank the Latter Day God...)

But it's now official Mormons really really don't want to be called "Mormons" any more. They find their pejorative historical nickname insulting. And, more importantly, they have been told by no one less than the Latter Day God to make this clear to everyone. I say, all the more reason to keep calling them Mormons. Insulting someone else's claim to Absolute Truth isn't insulting. It's an attempt to intervene in their application of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and to spare the world more misuse of capitalization.

According to the CNN report, the current old white guy that Mormons call simply The Prophet is, "A former heart surgeon who conducted Utah's first open-heart operation, the Mormon president said he has prayed for the Holy Ghost's help while wielding a scalpel over a patient's body."
Dr. Nelson, that's this guy's name, has had other interesting stuff happen because, you know, God talks directly to him and these folks think that God, yup, THE God, the TRUE God talks _through_ him to THEM TOO.

Thus, "Revelations have seeded Nelson's love life as well. After his first wife died in 2005, Nelson proposed to the former Wendy Watson. "To strengthen my proposal to Wendy, I said to her, 'I know about revelation and how to receive it,'" the Mormon president has said. Wendy Nelson said she, too, had received a revelation about their relationship." Well, I'm jealous. The closest I've come to my relationship is based on revelation involved a warm smile and other stuff that got me really excited. YMMVagain.

So there you have it, some sacred with your morning joe. I have to go teach today. We're gonna talk about heroines and myths and stuff and hopefully feel a whole lot better about just trying to be decent human beings. If any revelations happen, we'll let you know.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Complexity and Fidelity, What it's Going to Take Just to Keep Going

Is it fair to say that everyone loves simple? Or maybe prefers it? We prefer to choose to be puzzled rather than puzzled by what we must choose. Simple means fewer variables, complex more, and old Occam was right about keeping out matters that have no place in the equations of understanding or choice. Well, except by choice.

One of the things we've learned is that complexity is required to do difficult things. It isn't only matters complex that make this computer operate or function in cyber world. It is also that there are certain persons who appreciate complexity, who like the processes, who love the wonder of the details. For most of us the complex is merely confusing: what we don't understand may be dismissed or denigrated because we aren't familiar with the languages required to do the job.

But as much as we may _want_ things complex to _be_ simple, it may be as much the case that we want complex matters to _appear_ simple, particularly for those of us less skilled in the particular expertise and skills we would need. Apple design has prided itself on just such a vision: make the _use_, ,the interface so easy that nearly anyone can learn. But, lest we forget, the insides are mightily complex, a lesson we are reminded of especially when things don't work the way we want them to.

Cell phones employ quantum theory, without which they are mere fantasy. But using the computer, cell phone, or your more more reliable today than 1975 automobile requires only a bare minimum proficiency in interface, not quantum physics, neither electrical nor mechanical engineering. What we didn't have then, we can't fix now. Sure any decent could fix your AMC Hornet but nowadays nothing happens without a computer hook up that is prerequisite to the work.

Complexity efficaciously hidden from us is often what we need and crave. Virtuosity is making difficult things look easy but it is also the ability of virtuoso to turn genius into beauty. By beauty I mean to invoke a sense of elegance, gracefulness, and felicity rather than that which is merely pleasing. But if things ain't pleasing, we're usually low on attention span and short of patience. More importantly, given the pressures of modern life, when things take up time our frustrations and stress require more complexity, like what it takes to book a vacation.

Having more choice is, by definition, admitting to more complexity. After all, fewer is simpler, more is complex. So we are selective and particular about the _kinds_ of complexity we like and what it takes to master _enough_ of "the argument" to experience beauty.

Complexity is dangerous too because ignorance---not the willful kind but the sort that involves difficult expertise--- and choices make people more vulnerable. When we require more experts, we must commit to greater trust. This being an "informed consumer" is no small beans, whether those involve counting what's left in your pockets or your faith in humanity. When individuals invoke chaos, we seek a false simplicity when what we need is faith in those who empower us to manage a complex world.

Now we've arrived at the crux of the matter. The greater our relationship and dependency on complexity, the more necessary and vulnerable we become, the more our trust and commitment is put on the line. Our emotional, often physical peril longs for whatever protection and attenuations we can achieve. We ache, we have algos ("pain" in Greek) for a homecoming (nostros) and literally "nostalgia" kicks in: we not only want things we can understand and do, we want to _trust_ that things will be okay. Whether they once were may be another illusion with which we contend but life isn't going to get simpler anytime soon---or so you should hope.

What is required is that we gain a greater feeling of confidence, become closer to the heart, with those on whom we depend and from whom we require complexity. It is this deeper fidelity we seek first and last: the rest is just stuff. Winning minds is still, above all things, winning hearts.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

“Know it, and do not lose your sense”, Listening for the Gods in the Age of the Demons

There’s a compelling, disturbing passage in the first book of the Mahabharata that comes long before any of the familiar story commences--- the story of family, of succession to kingship, or the tribulations that lead to the inevitable fratricidal war.   It’s very Mahabharata and by that I mean it states as matters of fact truths we do not like to know but must know first before we can know any more. It appears in the voice of the sage Ugraśravas, whose name literally means something like, Ferocious Acclaim. There’s something in that too we should take to heart. But let’s get to his point.

He says,

“All this is rooted in Time, to be or not to be, to be happy or not to be happy. Time ripens the creatures. Time rots them. And Time again puts out the Time that burns down the creatures. Time unfolds all beings in the world, holy and unholy. Time shrinks them and expands them again. Time walks in all creatures, unaverted, impartial. Whatever beings were in the past will be in the future, whatever are busy now, they are all creatures of Time---know it, and do not lose your sense.” (1.1.88ff., see van Buitenen)

We can easily understand this to be another description of fate and of karma, of the processes of death, rebirth, and re-death. We can see it as a familiar table setting along with the metaphysical etiquette that must precede the story. But there’s more here once we take the poet’s last admonition to heart. Know it, and do not lose your sense.

Know what? What sense?

First a little table setting.
It's a dominant trope of the classical Hindu worldview---and shared by Buddhists, Jainas, and virtually all others---that time has been unkind to truth, to betterment, to ethical standards, and to everything we experience that is somehow failing us. It's fundamental to the theory of the Ages or yugas that we are not only in the time of degeneration---the Kali Yuga and please do not mistake the word “kali” here for “Kālī.” (These are entirely different words, with different roots, and we’ll not digress to further explanation.) The theory of the Ages describes a wholistic process of entropy: things were once better and will become only worse for the foreseeable future. Kali’s Age being the fourth of four, and only just having recently started, means that matters are now so depreciated that the worst will only become worse still. Cheery, eh?

There are a few bright sides to this vision but let us not ever miss the premise: once there were golden ages and the future’s only gonna get worse for as far as the eye can see. In fact it’s going to have to end in a complete cataclysmic dissolution before it can return to a more pristine state and begin the whole process over again. But let’s get back to the matter of the bright side. For one, a little good goes a long way. Thus virtue, rare and getting rarer still, can change things by application of even a tincture of decency. Furthermore, those who apply themselves to truth and to goodness will advance quickly through the malaise though prospects for enlightenment are still, by the sheer din of the natural processes of debasement, not much in the way of probable.

Some, like the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta, will argue that their own superior birthright is the only plausible explanation for their own advancement. Abhinava makes quite the case for his own prospects because his parents conceived him in a Tantric ritual that bypasses much of the karmic detritus that clutters the rest of us. I somehow doubt you believe that you too were conceived in a Tantric ritual in which your parent’s superior states of awareness and sublime consciousness brought you into the world. Be that as it may, some people, at least according to Abhinavagupta, have all the luck. (See his Tantrasara introduction for this bit of self-aggrandizing legerdemain.)

You don't have to make this up: the Indian world seems sure that things were once far better, things are pretty terrible now and getting worse, and that you're going to need some real help---be that a Tantric conception, a divine intervention, a guru's grace, _something_ to help you find your way through the devolving debauch that makes up a world that never fails to offer seemingly only more human folly. Good luck with that. Karma is a bitch. And you're likely really in for it. That's how it usually plays. And then: well, maybe Krishna's on your side, Siva appears as your guru, there's a magic wand touch, or some such intervention comes to the rescue. I repeat, good luck with _that_ too.

So it's not all hopelessness and just getting worse though that's actually mostlytrue. There's such a thing as yoga, which Krishna in the Gita tells us can do wonders, God might step in, and there are innumerable examples from the past that can inspire us. After all, things were simpler in that Age before Yudhisthira came to realize that no manner of goodness can persuade the nihilist to be less devoted to burning down the world for nothing more than his own narcissism. Virtue is not impossible nor is it merely futile even when it fails. And that virtue is possible in the face of the menacing facts of life, well, that only makes it more valuable. It's hard to argue with these tough lessons. We can't stop the onslaughts that time will bring but we can put up worthy alternatives to the certain horror even if those forms of goodness remain vulnerable and less than perfect.

Within this theory that implores us to strive and to do good despite the odds and the near certainty of failure there is also a kind of demon's game. While the gods advance the idea that we must work both with and against the terms of the Age, the demons have another take. For the demonic the process is simple enough, their agenda being one of manipulation and exploitation of those eager for another kind of world than the one in which we must actually make our way. The demons know that we humans not only want what we want but that we are also willing to fool ourselves. We can be so be fooled that we can use hope to pretend to get what we want. We'll go so far as to even deny the evidence, refute our own experience, and reject the possibility of our own error just to have a story that tells us what we prefer to believe.

One of the problems that the gods point out is that truth is often discomforting, that some problems are intractable (at least for now), and that we humans will go to nearly any lengths to deny what is true if it meets some immediate desire. When our deeper desires come into play---and when are they ever not?---then our vulnerabilities open even more graciously to the demons' seductions. We should never underestimate their appeal precisely because we should never sell short our human desire for a story that feels good even if that's just for _now_. Being firmly rooted “only in the present" is a surefire way to deceive one's self about what being is about all the rest of the time.

So what's the demons' play? It's got a few simple steps.
First, take an event or situation, something that happens that could cause us anxiety or raise questions about our ability to manage or control outcomes. 
Then complain about how things have become worse, take note about how progress has failed us whether or not this is true, ignore the facts, and confuse the situation with oversimplification and dissimulation. 
Invoking this confusion with an air of authority, the next move is also an easy two-step. First, appeal to some nostalgic past where things were purportedly better. It doesn’t matter if this past actually ever existed but Indian worldviews will help because they insist it has. And this is not uncommon in other cultures because who among us cannot imagine a better world and then project that back with greater ease than what we can envision as a future? And to finish it off ---this being the second step of that last two-step---the demon will then claim only he can bring things back to that imaginary better world. You buy the lie because it looks true and feels like hope and then the demon’s your man, and the next thing you know you are defrauding yourself as if it were the next smart thing to do.
This is, by the way, how Trump became president but let’s not digress; he’s just an example of what Barnum told us about suckers being born every day.

We all want to feel like someone else has the answers. It’s never very comforting to find out that the harder questions are the better path. But saying yes to the flimflam is something the demon can count on because it’s as easy as water flowing down. The hoodwinked believes that the matter has been seemingly demystified; they are in the know nowand everyone else is being fooled. It’s a Dunning-Kruger thing too: the less they know, the more they believe they know. That it’s only more hornswoggle matters not as much as that it feels good to feel it, it feels affirming such that the demon’s gambit is now one’s own personal self-satisfying delusion.

Once this cycle has taken hold, it’s mightily difficult to get through any other message. We love certainty too much to let something as valuable and important as doubt get in its way. So how do we not get taken?

It’s not really possible, you know, to “think for yourself” if by that you mean that you are not already conditioned by time itself. You are never not a someone who has not already been determined by assumptions, values, and circumstances not of your own making. Well, much of it may be of your making but you don’t remember and aren’t going to.  And the rest is collective, intertwined, and inextricable to some greater whole of which you are merely a part.

To put this simpler, you inherit the self, so start there, and if you do then you stand a chance at creating more selves than just the one that makes you believe you can wholly self-determine. We can’t, we don’t, and it doesn’t matter that those facts are facts, they don’t limit us so much as tell us that limitations are not the problem.

The gods proffer a less appealing but more worthwhile alternative--- it’s not nearly as satisfying as the demon’s gambit. It requires us to go back to our premise.

It is not just that time rots us---the catch-all for the ways in which we are held in time, by time, through time as mortal beings. Rather it is that time invites us to break into ourselves so that we can break the strangleholds of time. Then we can instead experience those conditions as our time, the brief, warm, lovely gift of this life. We will have to decide not to wish for some other time, some other life. But we will also have to not give up the feeling that we can live in any time, past or future, through the sheer power of our will and imagination.

We can still ache for a past and dream of a future but we will have to be content to accept that living happens in the space between every moment as it is and how we wish it were. What more it can be is up to us only when we are willing to stay in that seam, when we can go into that place where time cannot rot us because we are no longer in just one time or the other. When we are no longer “just now” wishing it were “just then” there’s room to move inside time, into a place where the false past no longer appeals and the wishful future is no longer remote. It’s not a twilight zone though it contains our shadows. It’s not stable or singular but neither is it unreal. We’ll have to embrace paradox without solving every problem but if we do then we can become more, not bound by time’s one-thing-or-the-other-ness. We can become a third, another, something that is no longer defined by what Time alone declares will rot us. We can enter a place that doesn’t demand we know or control or command so much as it allows us to live in our own skin. We’ll have to talk about this a lot more, but this is a start.