Sunday, August 11, 2019

When the Power is an Uncomfortable Truth And Speaking Truth Might Ask More From Us

Once in awhile a mainstream media writer has the nerve to speak truth to power when that power is also a sad, ironic truth. Words have power, feelings have power. When we take more seriously everything about being human, it won't necessarily make life easier or happier. But it might make life a more honest journey into the heart and towards the soul. Not some metaphysical "soul." How about just a closer connection to everything you feel deep, deep down?

As Frank Bruni points out this morning another powerful truth is that hate is real, potent, and will not be eradicated anytime soon, as in ever. Hate is an easy sell and so are the soporific denials. Our better alternatives will ask more from us and we'll need to be lucky too, 'cause it's a lot better when we were taught young, early, and often. When more is asked from us, we will need help. We'll need teaching, practice, and support. We'll need examples and leadership and those folks will understand their own vulnerabilities, mistakes, and intractable imperfections. Nevertheless, we've got to persist.

Sadly, this also means is that there will always be bigotry, injustice, and oppression too, the true bedfellows of hate. We can add others, like fear, ignorance, and anger. Even more complicated is the fact that all of these "negative" feelings and expressed emotions can be put to important positive use. We can become better not only living with them but bringing them deeply into conversation. Applying them requires even more assiduity, humility, and grace. Who among you does not hate injustice? Please do. Then what? What more does this invite us to feel and do? No experience stands alone. When our emotions become isolated we're in trouble: isolation creates delusion, fantasy, denial.

We are more likely to insist that our ideals and other feelings are somehow more real. We want the better angels to be _more_ real and the demons just delusions or _just_ demons. When uncomfortable truths become more complex truths they prefer to remain unspoken. If we dare to speak then we will be held accountable.

That kind of power in words is important but easy to deflect. We don't want to hear about how negative things are part of us and certainly not that these feelings serve important roles and purposes. This means also much will remain unexamined, suppressed, and ignored until the next time the real world comes to hurt us.

No politician could make Bruni's argument in America and be elected dog catcher in a town without dogs. Much less can one proclaim one's self a no-God-er---in fact the second largest American "religious" denomination---and become president. Religion must never be anything but "respected" and somehow endorsed. Don't ever suggest that the 1st Amendment had a more complex notion in mind.

How about that religion could be a positive detriment to being a better person, fraught with hypocrisy and false consolation that manipulates and coerces. Or that your personal beliefs must withstand public scrutiny in a world in which we struggle to understand truth and facts and this mixed up world? Tell uncomfortable truths or, at the very least, suggest an unpopular "truth" and expect to be shouted down, ignored, or exiled.

What Frank Bruni writes today in The New York Times will make you cry. He writes about hate email, a college professor who tells him that she prays for his mother because he is gay. He tells us how his mother long passed now from cancer loved him for who he is and how so many seem incapable even of accepting him.

Love does not conquer all, much less hate. We'd prefer it otherwise but the stakes are too high for soporific balms, the wounds cut deeply, the facts on the ground will tell us otherwise. No one likes to hear this, especially those doused in religions that claim otherwise. We can love, we can learn to love, we can try to understand why we possess hate as a feeling, as a viable possibility, even when it might be helpful. Who wants to hear that? Who wants to consider how our angels and demons must converse, not merely contend?

When we are in denial we put ourselves at a disadvantage to do what we must to survive, flourish, and create a better world. Of course, we can use love to counter hate but you _know_ there is far more to it than we like to admit or even consider. Humans learn to hate, we know that too. Hate is not mental illness. We're all gonna feel it. All of us.

Hate is also a world view, something about which we can exercise choice, explore feelings, apply our reason. We're not helpless. We can shape our world view even when it has been shaped for us, even if we must accept uncomfortable truths about human nature. We can make and remake ourselves no matter how we've been made. That is what Rajanaka teaches is the power of yoga.

Rajanaka taught me that we're better off if we can accept the _all_ of our human condition And then we can consider more who we want to be, what could be if we applied ourselves to the complex truths of human life. This often means accepting deeply discomforting truths, things that can't be fixed, stuff that will never go away, even hate. We are never immune from these darker realities, not even the best of us. So? Good news ahead...

We can learn how to look more deeply into our souls, alchemize the darkness with light, and become more astute, more vigilant, better prepared for being wholly human. But we have to learn how to do this. Life doesn't come with a manual but humans can learn. Even better, we can be educated. Bees, even planaria can learn. But we humans have an uncanny ability to question, to follow the evidence where it leads, to keep ourselves asking. That requires courage---but we have to learn how to turn to our hearts because it's just as easy to want answers instead of questions, certainty instead of doubt, and it's easier still just not to bother.

Not everyone _can_ do this, for all sorts of reasons. It takes more than free will or effort. We need to give people the chance, when we can: that too is the yoga, the engagement and conversation we can have.

Some people will always want to see the world burn. Some will never get a chance to help themselves. We can try, with heart and soul engaged, and we can do the yoga for ourselves. We're not stuck in our human nature because we can learn, we can grow more. Not without each other. May we teach our children well.

Reference: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/opinion/hate.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Note about the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part Two

A Note about the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part 2

Connecting to our feelings is no small task. It’s going to take more than a deep desire to want to do the work that explores our feelings. We’re going to have to push through, use and become more aware of the processes that make us human as individuals formed by nature, family, society, and our own conscience. The tools of yoga have often been used to attenuate or dissociate from feeling but just as well may be used to connect in ways that bring those deeper sources of experience into thought and language. We’ve explored that ever so briefly in our Part 1 of this note.

The thesis is this: we can learn how to parse our feelings into more feelings, we can work to identify the complexities that originate in the primal stuff of living as embodied beings. Here we will consider again briefly how thought and ideas brings us to feelings, directs feelings, informs and creates feelings. The thesis is that the process we described from feeling to thought likewise takes us from thoughts to feelings.

Words matter. Humans have language, complex speech helps define us as a species, we are talkers and thinkers. Can we think at all without words? Are words our thoughts? If thoughts are types of feelings what is the connection between the ideas we have and learn and what we feel?

Indian tradition has about as many answers to these questions as we have in western philosophy and modern cognitive science. It’s well-worked and complex territory but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make a few remarks of our own. Academics always begin everythieng they write by saying it’s provisional, that there is more research, by doing extensive Cover Your Ass so that they feel safe from themselves and their critics. Let’s just care a bit less about that for now.

If I just persuaded you to try on this idea and to care a little more about working on the thought-to-feeling matter then I’ve already made my point. What we say to ourselves and what we hear, read, and learn gets inside us. It may be a long and winding road to the soul but words and sounds and images and ideas matter so much that they can go directly there before we know it. In other words, we have the word-sound-image experience even before we register the experience, much less interpret it, understand it, or even know what is happening inside. Words and thoughts, like sounds and images, cut to our core and it is only after that happens we begin any process of understanding, interpretation, and meaning. The soul gets it before the Self recognizes it.

The processes and tools by which we then create meaning need to be learned. This is one of the meanings of yoga itself: that the engagement is not just natural or intuitive, learning isn’t just going to happen because we breath or live another day. It’s going to take work, the proper tools, and connection not only with one’s self but in relationships involving conversation that compels us to reach further into our critical capacities and meaning-making abilities. In short, you can’t do this alone no matter how much of the work only you can do on yourself. That is at the heart of yoga.

No amount of asocial, misanthropic introspection will give you all that you need and nothing about learning in the conversation is going to be particularly easy: it will take useful sources, good teachers, and more time than you ever budget. It’s not going to end either, so give up on that past-participle nominal enlightenment that tells you that you are awakened or perfected.

It’s impossible to ignore the trauma of this age too. We are experiencing leadership that has used words to incite violence, to dog whistle and connect with genuinely evil and malicious persons. We are in a test of character that takes us from words, sounds, and images into actions based on feelings and, dare I say it, indoctrinations. We humans are as vulnerable to words as we are to feelings because language is not something added on or extra to our nature, it is a part of what makes us human. We are also individuals and by definition isolated as experiencers of our own bodies and minds. But these experiences are never really apart from the contexts of our being human, that is, from family and upbringing, from circumstance and history, from the fact that to be an individual is to be social and made by forces greater than our individuality.

Life is not just the choices we make but the complex seen and unseen processes that create our choices. Americans don’t like to be told we are made but that we make ourselves—and yogins have said much the same. But the truth is that we use (and sometimes need) this delusion to remind us that we are responsible for ourselves and stewards of our soul whether or not we understand how we have been made and how choices are structured for us and not always by us.

Thus, words, sounds, thoughts, images not only matter but they can determine more about our feelings and emotions than we are ever aware. This is because the connection between thought and feeling like mind and body is indivisible while the process by which we comprehend, investigate, understand, and interpret those connections is learned and requires hard work, soul work.

Yoga is soul work. Yoga is the connection to meaning and meaning is hard-won, it is on-going, and it is always incomplete, unfinished, provisional, and in pursuit of more. Soul work means that we understand prima facie that the things we experience through our mind and cognitive processes go right to the body, to the core of feeling, through emotions, there and back again. When we haven’t done any soul work, when we aren’t learning how to connect the world to our inner selves, then we are especially vulnerable to indoctrination, to propaganda, to ways in which we accept “truths” without knowing how to consider what is true.

The key here, if I may conclude, is this: the connections we experience between feeling and thought (let’s just call it that) as it is between thought and feeling are organic and direct. Feelings become thoughts and language. Language and thought go directly into our feelings. But which feelings? And what happens then? When we don’t care for each other then we are easily manipulated and moved to take the easy paths. Hate is an easy path because it connects desire to fear and anger. But the difficult path leads us through and with all of our emotions, the feelings that we experience in the complex matrix of thought-experience.

We can learn and explore how we have all been made, “indoctrinated” as such by history, society, family, and personal experience. We can use language and thought and images with greater care to impress upon our feelings, to make the samskaras as we might term them that take us to empathy, compassion, and care. We will need thought, we will need imagination because my experiences are not yours and we must somehow connect. When we do this poorly there is no limit to the horror or the venality that can appear: humans are capable of evil and that is because we have not cared or nurtured the connections across the great matrix of experiences, we have not learned how to connect to our feelings, honor the power of language, understand and interpret their relationships. What we think will be what we become and what we feel will take shape in what we say and what we do because saying is doing too.

Perhaps this is enough for now. There’s always more, of that I feel quite assured. In the meantime care for your feelings and care for your words because they will converge in your soul and that is the place where meaning is made and becomes life’s choices.

A Note About the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part One

Too often, I think, we see feeling and thinking as if they are antagonists or, worse, incommensurate. That we can't be one when we are being the other. How do our feelings connect to thought? Do they? Should they? Let's ferret that out a bit more because the matter is far more complex than a simple yes or no.

How do we make a deeper connection between what it means to become a more empathetic and caring person and our critical abilities?

The Gita begins with just such a problem. Arjuna comes rather quickly to feelings that Krishna calls a "weakness of heart." The precise term is durmanasah, which ably translates as well to be "poor thinking." The word "manas" means heart and mind or more properly heart-mind and mind-heart. The prefix dur- is the opposite of su-, thus good/bad, unsanitary/salutary. It's likely a deliberate effort to create an equivalence and push the emotional description into cognitive realms. That is, how we feel is not different from what we are thinking.

Wittgenstein made a similar claim at one point: we cannot separate how we put words to feelings from the feelings we express in words. The idea is not that they are identical as adequate expressions but that they _are_ in effect expressions of feelings-and-thought. Let's return to the Gita for some further consideration.

Important to Krishna is that Arjuna cultivate discrimination (viveka) based on the emotional charge called vairagya or "disinterest." These terms have been combed over with Advaita Vedanta meanings and it's hard to work with them without those implications. Advaitins are committed to a cessation of all emotion as such precisely because emotions by definition change while "knowledge" does not.
In short, there is a metaphysics of emotion that does not permit the Advaitin to allow more feeling than is necessary to intervene in any cognitive possibility.

Thus, "vairagya" becomes much like it is in Patanjali YS: not a parsing out or measure of desire but a dissociation from desire or emotion itself. Etymologically the meaning is not as absolute as the Advaitin would have it. (This begs the question how and if etymology factors in meaning if meaning is usage. Another topic, particularly eccentric in Sanskrit terms.)

In Rajanaka terms "vairāgya" means our ability to take feeling, emotion, and desire itself and bring it into some kind of parsing, into finer bits, into a process that looks for elements, units, more refined forms. Note that the word "rāga" usually means passion, deep desire and feeling. Here the implication is that all deep emotions are at stake and what makes them deep is that they originate in the core of consciousness and the body.

But raga is a problematic word in most of yoga literature, not something we want to identify with because it threatens to carry us away, mislead our morals, detract from our reason. None of the Patanjali commentators will have a good word to say about raga and thus vairagya is used a counter, an antidote.

We Rajanaka might instead view vairagya as our ability to take our feelings, deep in source and origin, and begin to bring some further reflection, clarification, then refinement and distinction. We can go from feeling as such to feelings that then we can identify through emotions and other modalities of experience. In other words, we don’t attenuate, control, quell, or extinguish the feeling as the traditionalist yogins propose but rather bring to it a richer sense of its identity.

We are looking for the metaphoric DNA helix, the units that take us further into the more particular forms of feeling that wrap themselves into whirlwinds that appear as if they were merely whole but in fact are made up of more and more elementals. The idea is not to manage or control feelings, much less stop them, so much as it is to delve more deeply into the ways they form, how they form, and what component elements make up their forms.

Thus feelings become emotions that become thoughts and the whole of experience is something we want to consider. Vairagya is the tool we use to bring feelings into finer forms of feeling even as we begin to assign identities and meanings to those experiences, particularly with thought and language. Krishna proposes that we need to deal with the comprehensive ways in which we fail to distinguish and refine the process by which feeling is thought and vice-versa. What makes for “bad” thinking or “weakness” of heart (durmanasah) is that we fail to become more adept, to engage and enjoin the process.

To wit, we don’t take up the yoga that would give us a far more capable experience to address a given situation. In sum, we fail at letting our feelings become thought in ways that further the connection and refine the nuanced relationship that occurs as the somatic assumes cognitive forms.

All cognitive forms are somatic, that is, all thought originates in the body and assumes a place the path of feelings. But if we separate the path from body to mind we fail to make the serpent’s connection from tail to head, we cut the head off and what is left is mere feeling. This is why it goes “bad” or becomes “weak” (dur-). It’s not that we are feeling too much but rather not feeling enough to make the connection between the core of feeling and the eventual outcome of thoughtful (dare we say rational) choices.

The next piece of this argument describes how we can corrupt thought and so engage feelings in ways that are nihilistic. The connection is not only between feeling becoming thought and language but how language, ideology, indoctrination and the rest take hold of feelings. And when that happens tragedy will soon follow. More about this another time.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Land of Broken Dreams

The Land of Broken Dreams, But In A Good Way...

As you know I've been working on "second generation" devata issues and the binaryplus that they create. That is the god, goddess, both, neither, more, plus, less that follows from the fact that the second generation is made, it cannot initiate itself without the previous generation.

This second generation's previous generation inhabits the Shiva/Shakti mythologies, and begins the processes that reconfigures their identities into more complex comminglings of feeling and form. Thus we come to Nataraja and Ardhanaresvara, Durga mingling into Sivakami, etc.  The process by which these characters arrive at any realization of their own brokenness is incomplete.  We suffer with them because they often don't know, can't know, deny the process of self-interrogation because they too find it difficult and painful to admit.

But the next generation---Pillaiyar, Muruga, Ayyappa---must take this to an entirely new level, or should we say depth. Because they have to go down first, into the realms that made them in order to make more of themselves. They all live in the land of broken dreams. Even lands of broken dreams. This is something we all do.

The Land of Broken Dreams is the realization that your parents were human, frail and flawed no matter what they were. That they had dreams that went unfulfilled, shadows that went unexamined,. Their hearts felt deeply but didn't always know what they felt or were self-denied or unaccepted.

To accept being accepted for who you are is part of how we reconcile with having coming from that broken land and the consequences of being the broken, extra, and missing piece of _their_ dreams even before we become our own.

We don't begin that process of self-acceptance until we go _there_, to that land---and that is a sojourn, not a destination. We are looking for the unfinished and incomplete that never finishes or completes. To receive ourselves is to offer ourselves without the guarantee that we will be accepted by others, even those we love.

It's not a "bad" thing that our dreams are broken though it can be painful and hurtful---so it can be bad. But it is destabilizing, often confusing, always complicated. And either way, whether we like it or not, the break is the way in, it's the serpent's path to the deeper seas that lie within the ocean of the unconscious. We're not going to avoid or transcend being broken or breaking more in the process of looking more deeply.

We're going to have to look back at how we were made---with and without our consent, in some place and time in history, in all the facets of life we don't control or invent. We're going to have to take the sum of matters into the present and notice how the present will not allow us to reduce it to the moment, to one thing.

The present is not the moment. The present is moments, for we are plural selves, complex entities who live in one body at a time but in many realms of experience and forms of consciousness. Don't get all mystical on me because I just said that. (And I haven't suddenly redirected to some kinda' unicorn yoga.) I meant that we have rich capacities of imagination and untold stories that are hidden in our unconscious. That's all I got or want.

The point here is that the past is not fluid because it is shattered bits, some lost, some found. The present is complex because we want to reduce it but find out it's moving, dynamic, and unstable for better and worse. The future, now that's what's fluid, that can move like the sarpa but only if we recognize that love is yet another form of the ahi, the angst, the anxiety who is the serpent within. (Ahi=angst=anxiety=snake=naga to make the English to Sanskrit cognates clearer, right?) So it is in these matters we come back to sammelana, the processes by which we mingle, cook, alchemize, and otherwise describe how to become more by engaging the Land of Broken Dreams.

Breaking into our broken dreams is no small matter. It's called yoga. It's the long way home to the Land of Broken Dreams. So how's dem'apples?

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Dreaming of the Moon, A Saturday Sermon

It is 50 years ago today that Neil Armstrong took that one small step. Where are we America? Where are you?

We rage inside for the outrage that surrounds us, how can we feel otherwise? An imperative of character has been summoned in an age in which darkness has found its true champion. Once noble ideals are not less noble but for those whose abuse and misuse occlude the light. It's important to recognize evil when we see it. It's important too to have a reply, an intention, and something to _do_. 

We are still called to do "the work." By that I mean to continue to learn how to be more human, how to make every breath another chance to uncover who we are, who we want to be. For each of us that means our own task, our own circumstance and opportunity. It means making the most of what we have before us.

Sure that's all more than a bit soporific, I admit. But it's 50 years ago today that human beings touched the moon. That took some dreaming, hard work, imagination. It took the resources of a nation's worth of people who were struggling at the very same time with their ideals of justice and decency and human rights. Are we still dreaming of becoming something better? Let's think for a minute of all the things it took to accomplish such a human adventure. 

Now, what will it take to push through the anger and fear that might consume us before we reach the place where there is yet more light? The light we seek is a present, it's available and real, it's inside us. The truest light casts the deeper and longer shadow because it reveals what is yet to be accomplished.

We never find more light without going through those shadows. When we face shadows will find more determination and courage because we're closer to the heart, to the core. In light and dark is theeffort that reveals our humanity. Our anger will not magically disappear but fear will no longer cripple us. Instead, we'll find more to imagine, more to dream, and we'll insist on decency, integrity, and compassion. 

We will do the work, not just keep busy. Whatever it is that you love that lifts your heart and at once causes you to wonder, to doubt, to be challenged so that you come to unknowing, go there. Don't wait. Do it everyday. Make the time. And then make yourself a gift to others. 

I'll let young Seneca finish this maudlin sermon. But maybe, in the moon light tonight, you'll remember something of what he says about a life well-lived. And we'll think about something good we can do that reminds us that being human is enough good. Choose your path and do that. "Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a person busied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing a busy person is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn. Of the other arts there are many teachers everywhere; some of them we have seen that mere boys have mastered so thoroughly that they could even play the master. It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die." (from Chapter 7, De Brevitate Vitae)

Friday, July 19, 2019

Affirmation Begins the Alchemy to Betterment Be Present, Look Forward, Don't Relent

It is the summer of our discontent. Let's be honest. There is more to come.  The picture you see here is a summer sunrise in North Carolina.  Let's not forget the beauty in the midst of all this ugliness.

Words matter. Intentions reveal themselves in actions. And we must neither relent in our criticism nor allow ourselves to be dispirited or overwhelmed. There is real toxicity in our world. America is truly at a turning point and we must engage. Yoga is the word we use for the deep engagement that invites us to alchemize that toxicity into something far better, more empowering and inclusive.

We who are not that crowd are not only outraged but rightly frightened, disgusted, and afraid that this is a growing pathology, that we are not going to defeat it, that the world is burning in every way. We must not tire in trying to articulate our aspirations and ideals along with our genuine fears and trepidations.

That is the war I want to fight. That is the demon we must defeat. It will not die. It will rise again. But we will be there each and every time it appears and become that Kali Durga who knows what must be done. She knows too that Her own vulnerability is at the core of Her self-recognition, that even She, the great Goddess contends with every possibility. This makes Her not those demons.

We too need light and an awareness of human shadow, including our own. This is never once and for all. It is a process that demands vigilance, persistence, and humility. We don't want to be that horror and ugliness but anyone _could_ be that. Courage alone will not protect us. Courage is what we will need to create decency, honesty, and the virtue that can protect everyone.

It's frightening when you realize that many of these people in the Trump mob don't believe their intentions, feelings, understandings, and behaviors are sick and sickening. They don't even know that they don't know what is stirring inside them. Toxicity has no limits and those without meaningful boundaries will only create more.

If we can hold fast to the idea that there is a lot inside that we _don't_ know and that we must be vigilant to our emotional intelligence to stand a chance to survive and respond appropriately. We must resist from a position of humility _and_ strength of character, not too confident but not the least bit timid.

The fear, anger, and, yes, the hatred we feel is real, it's honest because we _feel_ it in our bodies and minds and hearts. But when we accept and look to affirm the reality of these feelings then we can alchemize them with courage, compassion, and decency.  Don't dismiss or by pass these negativities.  We will not transcend them.  We not be forgiven them.  We must learn instead what we can and must do about them.  We also have the goodness and the good company we need to grow and evolve.

It's only when we deny the negativities that they can grow. The light does not dispel the darkness but reveals the shadow. And when we see both light and shadow then we can evolve and become who we want to be. When we insist that the shadow and the darkness keep the company of goodness, we can look more deeply into the soul, we can become our better angels. This is no easy task. We can learn together because that is how we will learn. With each other.

We must stand for goodness and know when to dodge fire. It's a dance to try to be good and do good but it _can be done_. That is what we learn from Mandela, from Dr. King, and others, all of whom were deeply flawed persons but who held up the possibilities of human decency.

When Appa invited me to live in his home and be a part of his family, he wasn't trying to show me perfection or represent some fantastical spiritual claim, like guru or siddha or sage. He was inviting me to take up the difficult tasks that urge us to love, to be good, to tolerate and understand that everyone has gifts and that the best among us will fail even when we try not to. We've all known such persons who call us to our better angels. But truth to tell, that is what we are all being called to be right now.

These are troubled times and the world needs _you_ to be that goodness you are. I feel confident you will try, that you will be better than all of the fear and hate and anger. And that's what keeps me going.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"But who are the gods?", The Company You Long to Keep

I've been paging through notebooks today, remembering conversations with Appa. It's one of those days in the year where I like to remember the sound of his voice. Of course, that'd be everyday but today's a little different. I made a point of trying not to miss the Gurupurnima. I would drop everything to go to India for this day. I read from this diary once at summer camp when my old friend Primo asked to come into my office at home and have a look. This is some of that.

Appa would talk about the conversations he had that made him think and feel and reflect again. He never tired to telling me how life is fragile but that our soul is not. Our soul is made of courage, which is itself no virtue but a gift of life to life. How is that? Because our soul emerges from the deepest desire _to live_, to carry forward, to dream, to gather something of value from the gift of embodiment.

I have very few recordings of him because he preferred that I take notes. But I have dozens of notebooks. You had to coax him sometimes to explain a bit more---he was keen on you figuring it out yourself. But sometimes sutras would open up into ideas that could just change everything. These comments come from a long conversation about steadiness, uncertainty, fear, and how we know when we have met the gods.

"It is not what I say that will have its effect on you. It is what you have heard. You may write some of my words but it will be in your memories, and that will go far more deeply. You should take notes but not because you need to be afraid that you will forget. What is true will reach more deeply than all of our abilities to remember in words, no matter how we record them. What matters most goes inside and that is where the next conversation happens, the one you will need to have with yourself. So, try to remember that when you take notes or when you return to your notes later."

"How do we hold steady in the presence of uncertainty? Doesn't uncertainty undermine our steadiness?"

"Uncertainty is no adversary but it has some dangerous companions. When uncertainty makes fear a partner then the two of them can't be seen as two. Their oneness will cause them to haunt the soul rather than enter into the conversation. Fear's dominance leaves us feeling alone because it is fear's job, it's purpose is to enter into these conversations. But then we allow the heart to hide behind these important human experiences, like uncertainty. Uncertainty that acknowledges fear's presence means that fear can no longer hide, that it can no longer act like some monster coming from out of the dark. But you have to call upon your friend uncertainty to invite fear into the room, into the light of awareness. Fear prefers the shadows where it can stalk you. But fear is not the enemy. Fear becomes the enemy when we refuse it, when we fail to admit that it is part of these other experiences too. Fear will try to contend for being first with you, it will come out from those hidden places because you did not consider it a guest. The soul is the sovereign who must invite fear to be a guest at the table, not its lord. It's rather easy to treat fear as an adversary. That is because you gave it no seat at the table for the greater conversation. You don't believe it belongs there. But uncertainty knows better when it is in the company of the soul, in the presence of the gods."

"Fear tells you to fear who you are. It tells you to distrust your soul. But the soul knows fear because when courage is present then fear will not be left alone to do its mischief. When fear is alone we will become fear. But when the soul speaks out, and invites all of its guests, there is no such aloneness, isolation cannot take hold, there is instead a larger conversation with all of the aspects of the self. That is what soul is, it is that conversation you have inside with the gods..."

But who are the gods?

"The gods are who you are, who you want to be, what you can be, what you could be. They reside in the questions you want to ask even though you might be too afraid to ask the most helpful questions or don't know those questions. So the gods appear as courage, as the heart's true questions. Fear will create a false boundary while the gods provide a true support, the steadiness you need to stand in uncertainty. When you can stand there, then you can take the next step and the next---from that place where you hold steady in the presence of uncertainty. This is how you get to soul questions."

"Fear loves uncertainty because that is how fear becomes certainty. But the soul reaches out to you when you step towards those voices inside, where the gods are. Those are your voices, and they aren't what I want you to be or your parents or what society says you should be. Those are the gods' voices that not more or less than you asking for more from a world that promises little but may give you the chance to ask for what you want from life."

The Guru is Not the Answer A Note on Gurupurnima, Celebrating the Fullness of the Teacher

I had known Appa quite some time when we came upon our first Gurupurnima, the full moon day of the Sanskrit lunar month of Ashada, usually July. We had met about half a year before this first occasion for celebration of the Guru's moon, the full moon, the symbol of fullness itself.

What could that possibly mean when there is always more? There's no doubt that I went to India looking for something better. Different ways to think about life and more examples of how people have lived, loved, lost, and found their greatness. I wanted answers.

I was, of course, looking for a guru, not only someone who could teach me the material---the languages, the content, the subjects---but someone who could give me those answers. I had only the vaguest notion that the guru stood for greatness. But what is that?

By the time of our first celebration of the teacher's fullness (literally, purnima in Sanskrit), I had been turned inside out.  I had come to see "fullness" not as perfection or finality but as a willingness to test, to experiment, and to learn by spreading out in all directions, with every difficult question.

I had been shown in the humility and decency and seriousness of my teacher that there is such a thing as truth, good character, integrity and gravity. Gravity is another cognate word to guru. The guru is the heavy in the room. And of these things I never needed persuasion or dissuasion---because he _tried_ to live this way all the time. That means, as far as he could. Humanity is no impediment when admitting success is admitting limitations. It wasn't perfection. It wasn't success in every instance. It was character building an edifice with provenance and progress as its guide posts.

Appa taught me from our very first days together that the best among us will insist on admitting their moral failures and ask how they can learn from them. That we are never, ever finished learning and that learning to learn is among the most difficult things to learn in life. Other matters come naturally, like love. But those too will invite the companions of learning. We don't learn to love or grieve because we will. Both will come. We learn that to love is to grieve and that when we learn to grieve we can learn how to love more deeply.

The test of truth is always a test of character. Words matter. Intentions matter. Actions matter. How do we decide what matters? How do we trust? When should we? The guru is not the answer. The guru resides in the questions, the best kinds of questions we ask. And those questions lead us to still better questions. That is the guru, Appa said, who "fills" (purnima) life by inviting us to mean what we feel in our hearts to be true. That is no small task, it is not only instinctive.

It means teaching us how to take the questions that live inside us as human beings all the way to heart, how to bring them with us as we journey home to the depths of soul---Who are we? How are we made? Who do we want to be? How can we make ourselves? Who can we be? What could we be? The guru is the word we use to tell us that this is a serious and daunting task, bringing these life questions into every breath, every instance of life. That's why the word meaning "weighty." We're going to need stories, myths, rituals, celebrations, trials, experiments that succeed and fail, conversations and arguments, and it's all going to take time.

We will surely grieve our failures and losses but will we learn to love more deeply for it all? We will accept too that life tests our character, invites us to questions that invite us to celebrate such a fullness? A fullness that is never finished? Such fullness is made of light and shadow, of success and failure, and of the values that insist we create value for more than selfish interests. Today we celebrate those efforts, rededicate to those inquiries, make the experiment to love a standard of goodness. That is why we celebrate this weighty task, this fullness of heart that we never stop seeking.

By that time of our first Gurupurnima Appa had made it clear the heart of his teaching about teachers. We need to learn when it is wise to defer to a teacher but only when that teacher insists we refuse submission. We are not sheep, the guru is no shepherd. Defer but never submit. Never abdicate your own responsibilities to question, to doubt, and to hold to all to fair and honest accounts. Learning how to learn is the principle task of the teacher. Ask every question, not just ones that are "acceptable". Follow the evidence wherever it takes you, even if that upsets your every "truth." The guru is not the answer. It is in the nobility of the honest question and the gifts we must accept to learn.

Remember always, he would say, that truth is unfinished, provisional, incomplete but that it is no less worthy of our deference when it serves to explain natural efficacies and leads us to greater social justice. Be keen to look for the seam, evolve the serpent's vision (sarpadrsti) he called it, because that is the opening, the sliver of in-between, the fullness of possibilities, the moonlight of awareness peering into value, it looks for the exception, admits the possibility of movement, change, and growth. We'll need some luck. We'll need more courage and persistence that we have yet imagined. We'll need our wits, our imagination, and our heart creating more, together.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Some Hard Truths About "Hope" Or Why Demons are Demons

Some Hard Truths About "Hope", Or Why Demons are Demons


I went to school with journalist Chris Hedges. He was principled, serious, dedicated, and ambitious. I was plowed into three Sanskrit, Tibetan, and linguistics classes a semester and leaving for India every five minutes, he was being an activist. We were schooled in different worlds. Here is what Chris writes, "Hope posits that people are drawn to the good by the good. This is the secret of hope's power. Hope demands for others what we demand for ourselves. Hope does not separate us from them. Hope sees in our enemy our own face." So, obviously I disagree. Here's why.

I have long admired Hedges' commitments and largely agreed with his politics, though I would consider myself more likely to compromise with the bad guys because that's what we learn in Hindu mythologies. The likelihood of defeating the demons depends on one's understanding that you cannot count on them, that they will cut a deal and betray you, that they are unreliable partners. You can't get rid of them. You can't really defeat them. They are part of the story of reality. Some people just want to see the world burn. Nihilism and narcissism are pathologies as real as any goodness.

The gods, like the demons, are vulnerable to pathologies and the unfed shadows that haunt our inner houses. No one is invulnerable or immune. Anyone can fall. It takes determination, character, seriousness, and real desire to do the work just to stay the course of goodness. Complacencies will destroy you. It's a long path home and getting there is going to take far more than hope and a lot less wishful thinking. It's gonna be hard and it's never going to stop.

You _have_ to cut a deal with the demons so that you can marginalize their power, hang them out to dry as far as possible. Put them on the margins, take away their power, treat them better than they would ever treat you, but know that they are incorrigible. They are an illness that cannot be cured; they are pathological. I hope that Trump has at last made this case plainly enough: there is no hope for this kind of evil.  As Trump himself has said of his supporters, "“Nobody gave them hope. I gave them hope.” Yup. This is precisely the problem.  Hope is as much an instrument of deception, manipulation, and mendacity as it is anything else.  None of us hopes for this or wishes it were true, unless of course you are a demon bent upon your own narcissist pathology.  Some people will do anything for power, even work for Trump.

The outcome is that it's folly to hope they will take your offers, trust them, or believe that you really have them convinced. You want to believe that you have them by the shorts but they always (always) come back. The illness not only cuts deeply, it is part of nature itself. Some things are inimical. Sickness is as real as health. Hope is a kind of self-satisfying story, a delusion that we sometimes claim to survive the horror. We _like_ hope and it can work to inspire us and keep us together---but it is a maya, a kind of useful fiction when it comes to demons. The horror is real and it doesn't always win but hope for demons is, well, a mistake. So that's the thesis, you are not obliged (ever) to agree.

Now back to Hedges. And here's the line by line in reply to the quotation. Sorry, truth hurts like love: it comes with grief as its companion.

Hope has no secret power that changes the demons and good does not draw others to good if they are pathologically evil. Hope's secret power is not to draw beings to goodness. Some will not accept the offer because they cannot accept being accepted. Hope's secret power is that it is a tool of survival to make us feel better about the pathologies that we cannot change though we would hope to change. Hope has no principled effect on the demons because it is but another consolation, albeit sometimes a useful one. Hope's demands are not met when the demons are demons because they cannot hear nor care to hear its "demands." We may need this maya for our purposes but its got little impact on the demon because the demon _likes_ its pathology. The demon _is_ that pathology and embodiment is part of the factual world. Evil is sickness, sickness is yet another fact we must endure and understand and deal with. The difference between the gods and demons is real and hope closes no gap. Rather it allows us to live with the difference so that we know what to do: give ourselves some sense of the positive and make sure we don't attribute it to the pathological.

When hope sees in our enemy our own face we step over that threshold from hope to self-delusion because we are seeing what we want rather than what is. The threshold of difference between the way the world is and how we wish it were is not filled with magical hope: it is filled with a more honest interpretation of human beings. Who we are, who we can be, and what we could be: a dose of hope to keep us sane but a clear stance in the world in which the gods and the demons stake out their contrary interests.

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

become.


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

facts.


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

purpose.


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

responsibility.


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,

NY

>>

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.