Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Gratitude of Understanding a Spiritual Life: A Thanksgiving Sermon for the Choir

Happy Thanksgiving, dear pals! 
What a strange and curious holiday this is as we Americans give thanks for our blessings havingcome here as illegal immigrants greeted warmly by the native folk. It's fascinating what we have done since. The ironies can go further unnoticed, of course, but who could resist? Most of the people going to work today either perform truly important services for the public good or work in commerce for wages that they cannot afford to pass by. We have in America a "right to work" (read: can't make a living by taking a holiday) and apparently a right to shop. I preach to the choir here, which means you've already read too far for me to apologize.
Let me make a point about something that goes to the heart of yoga traditions and to our conversations that extend beyond the usual how-do-you-do-sricakra puja whatever yo. From the outset Indian philosophers and commentators on the ritual life have privileged efforts of understanding and explanation. These are understood as empowerments, not mere exercises in thinking.  When you understand and can explain, more can happen: more meaning, more progress, richer life. These are contrasted and often rejected (vilified is not too strong a word) by those who maintain there that a direct, intuitive experience that defies and does not mandate an explanation or rational portrayal of events. Yes, India has plenty of mystical anti-intellectualism, the favored position of far too many, if only because it's uninterested by definition, or to put it more bluntly, a cop out and an excuse not to think because...religion. Not that I have an opinion about such matters.
The only thing less interesting than claims of ineffability and beyond-understanding are claims to Oneness, which are really just another way of saying you don't want to talk about the world that you experience on a daily basis but prefer instead to assert an experience of exceptionalism. Checking into Oneness is, by definition, checking out of the complexities and sufferings of the conditional world. Oneness never means that we share a common humanity, which is what we might want it to mean (please oh please), rather it means we don't have to: that's precisely the gist of arguments made by the Oneness-philosophers. References abundant upon request. Please feel free however to check into the mystic Oneness that checks you out, if that's what suits you. Diversity is a good thing, unless you think it's all One. I have expressed a dim view of that but who knows, from the mystic's point of view I'm the one who is dim. My point is that we might just as well prefer the world we experience with all its glorious limitations and boundaries imposed upon our provisional knowledge, which is the one we can talk about.
Understanding experiences is not the same thing as declaring that experience is rational. Hardly. Note our efforts here and elsewhere to understand events in Ferguson, Missouri and the genuinely tragic, tortured American history of slavery and race relations. We mean to understand and even try to explain why people are acting as they are, not to endorse or condone, not to reason or explain away but rather to comprehend and to feel more. Thinking has always been a form of feeling in Indian thought, this is why the "subtle body" (manas, ahamkara, buddhi) belong to the material (prakrti) part of the equation. We feel-and-think: this is an important way to understand the word "manas," which means something like mind-and-heart. Now in Indian thought to explain and to understand is not to justify behavior. It is to fathom, to comprehend in ways that draw thought into feelings and our feelings more deeply into our thoughts. It is in fact to do yoga, to engage deeply and to integrate however it is possible the expanse of comprehensive Self that is embodied physicality into the mental autobiographical experiences of consciousness.
This task is not considered optional by the more interesting philosophers unless you are happy to buy into mystical bypassing. Yeah, I said that. Mystical bypassing is the refusal to admit that our limited process of understanding is our ultimacy.  Or to put this differently, it's the claim that we must admit more than our human limitation to find the "true" spiritual life.  It favors instead a "please pass go" and "collect on the 'pure' experience" of [fill in the blank with your favorite "spiritual" claim of beyondyness.] Don't mistake me we all loves some mystical bypassing and some folks simply need it to get through the horrors and ordinary indiginities of being human. There is also the implication that we as individuals are solely responsible for our behaviors just as we are capable of changing hearts but one at a time. But there is an alternative: creating explanations is another way you can arrive at a spiritual life---ask Krsna about this when you open the Gita and find that Arjuna is bypassing his duty, asks for renunciation, looks to abjure the world in favor of some alternative mystical plot, and can't fathom wtf he is doing. Krsna then _explains_ that he has to do far better than that. But importantly it is the explanation along with the instructions for practices that are the keys to a greater yoga, a deeper engagement. 
When you can explain something you don't reduce it to reason, rather you make it available to understanding. Could our current situation in the news provide better examples? When you can put it into a context of understanding then you can act, discern what is knowledge (and what is not), and so commit (translate that: karma, jnana, and bhakti). Without the explanation you end up in a puddle in the chariot with the bow slipping from your hand, having a meltdown. In America the effective response is to make everything we humans do an individual choice, an individual responsibility, and individual incidents, thus preventing any understanding that there are deep, ancient feelings, there are realities of society and history, there are rich fields of explanation that help us understand that we are created by worlds greater than ourselves. Without trying to understand can become the mystic (there is no need, it's all beyond) or simply one who fails to appreciate that a good explanation, however unsatisfying or even unsatisfactory, is the beginning rather than the end of a spiritual life. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When Violence is Not Beyond Explanation, Ferguson Again

Rioting is not beyond explanation, even if it's counterproductive. A friend of mine asks, why destroy property? What sense is there to these riots?  To explain violence and destruction proffers no remedy.  First we need to understand.
When society preferences property values over people and profits over the value of labor and there is a crisis of trust where a significant segment of the population feels fundamentally disenfranchised in that system, then those persons feel like prey. It is a predatory capitalism, our current model rooted in inequities. The system preys upon them and the law comes to represent the enforcement of a system that is betraying them rather than serving and protecting them. That system confers profits on others while it preys on those disenfranchised. There are consequences, emotional and often counterproductive but not unexplanable. The social contract has been contrived to exclude a group that believes it has lost rational recourse.
Sure, we can deem it irrational, counterproductive, and foolish to destroy another's property or hurt others (and oneself) to express this point, but it is not a wholly irrational reaction. It's an ill-conceived reaction because it is so counterproductive. What is rational about such an action is that when those preyed upon have _in fact_ been preyed upon _by the system_ (it's crucial to see this as structural, endemic, and institutional, not individual incidents which are triggers and examples), such persons respond by becoming self-predators and have no compunction in destroying the system.
Why care about a system that excludes you and means to oppress you? Why care about a system that is designed to exclude you or imprison you in situations where property is always before people and profits are more important than your labor? Like working for forty hours a week for a minimum wage that does not pay you enough to live? Why _not_ just burn it down? And then some are also sociopathic criminals but so too are the structures and authorities who hide behind the guise of their "justice for all" and "fair trial" claims when any serious look at history tells you that is another form of power claiming its own prerogatives and prejudices over others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On Our Original American Corruption, A Note on Justice, Racism, and the Dream

I have until tonight reserved these pages for notes about Tantric spirituality and scholarship, and my life in the traditions of yoga and philosophy.  Then a Grand Jury in Missouri decided there was "no probable cause" for the indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.  The President called upon us to respect the Grand Jury's decision, reminding us that we are "a nation of laws."  He is, of course, beholden to say as much but much more, I think, needs to be said about these events.  I will not refrain. There are causes far deeper than the circumstances of Michael Brown's death that brought about these events and, as I fear, the more that will unfold.

There is a rot in the American soul that has yet to be addressed and requires still far more definition.  It began with the founding of this country, with labor and commerce built on the backs of slaves and the exploitation of the powerless.  And just how far have we come?  I remember heady days of progress as a child of the Great Society, I was a kid in school.  And I also remember the murder of Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and realities of waging war in southeast Asia while trying to effect change at home.  It's not only a story of despair, of course, but tonight warrants a contemplation of that Original American Corruption that begins in slavery and the reason for its possibility: the rejection of a shared humanity on the basis of racism.
Growing up in the first school system in America committed to desegregation by busing, the change that enveloped my young life was profound and palpable. We learned and played together, loved, lost, fought and made our peace together. But could we understand the depths of endemic racism and the systemic power committed to unraveling the progress we wished for America?
I want to say we struggled mightily then to try to effect change and yet now, some fifty years later, America’s inequality of power, wealth, and income is greater than in the past ninety years. At the heart of the matter is our continuing legacy of racism, a divide that only those served by its denial will fail to admit. It was indeed not Officer Wilson before the Grand Jury in Missouri but rather the victim, Michael Brown, and his chances were seemingly no better in the halls of “justice” than on the streets of Ferguson. 
Could this decision not to indict _for any crime_ better illustrate a system that _means_ to serve and perpetuate privilege and power over the disenfranchised? Charles Blow today in The New York Times, speaking to the President’s detractors on immigration reform, also pointed to issues that inform Michael Brown’s death and explain Wilson’s flight from culpability: once again we are directed to an original corruption in our American history. Mr. Blow writes, “This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.”
Make no mistake about it: change is coming and there are no means beyond those who fear most its advent. Still long before such change takes honest root, more young black men may die in the streets by the hands of “justice,” more politicians bought to serve the powerful, voter rights repressed to prevent “fraud” while plutocrats continue to debase every last shard of decency from an American dream save their own dystopic revelries. Tonight what is left of other childhood dreams seems a bit further away than it was years ago waiting for the bus at school.