Sunday, February 26, 2017

Commingling in Dark Empathy

Commingling in Dark Empathy
A Short Essay on Chaya and Sammelana in Rajanaka Yoga

Mythology is art because it takes us to places we want to go, we can’t or won’t go without it.  Myth happens in language, image, symbol, allegory, but what happens is more than we bargain for and less than we expect.  We expect things that are true to be true, and myth challenges that experience.  It draws out truth and draws us into places where we experience deeper truths by deliberately telling us lies.  It is more than we bargain for because no matter how deeply we look or assiduously interpret, there is always more.  Like art, a great story comes back to us again and again because we change, times change, because we are able to see or feel more the next time.

Few surviving western fairy tales are sunny but like most of those we find in India too, the darkness is usually explained away.  The story is reduced to good versus evil and, of course, we are told that the arc of goodness will prevail.  More importantly, we’re told that evil or darkness will be vanquished, not merely defeated but eradicated.  Somehow the dark side always makes a comeback but somehow the heroes, heroines, gods, and goddesses will appear to rescue us.  Rajanaka teaching offers a very different view and a very different project for our yoga.

Let’s make this clear about the Shadow ---it warrants a capital letter for the complexity of the greater category, like Dog for all kinds of dogs.  Nothing mystical here ---unless “mystical” means unknown, hidden, sometimes inaccessible, and always under the horizon of what is available or being experienced.  What I don’t mean by “mystical” is some supernal agency, authority, or power that manages, controls, or has a plan.  And I certainly don’t mean some privileged or special kind of human experience.  Mystics traditionally claim some sort of special access and privileged insight.  What we are proposing may involve challenging comprehension and provide personal empowerment but it does not confer any sort of cognitive, moral, or spiritual superiority.  I mean simply that there is more reality to every experience than any experience confers.

The Sanskrit word for “shadow” here is chaya and mythically takes shape in the goddess Chaya and myriad other characters.  The mythologies of chaya are commingled with dharma and māyā and that whole process we call “rajanaka yoga”, that is the “engagement with delimited sovereignty.”

The Shadow is all that is hidden from us, for better and worse.  All of it.   Even if “all” is never fully possible.  Some of the Shadow is just how nature works because understanding anything more is hard won, like the revolution of meaning that came with natural selection or the discovery of DNA.   Some of the Shadow is about our personal experience that pre-exists awareness or memory or exists as just part of our hidden make up.  Myths are about all of the features and kinds of Shadow and there are more of those than we imagine or can ever reach.  Myths invite more and more interpretation and especially more than one meaning.  Facts prefer a more reductive kind of reality, no matter how much they imply. 

The Rg Veda puts it plainly enough (RV 10.90), three-fourths is unseen and hidden.  The implication Rajanaka takes from this is that no level of understanding or investigation that reveals more of the world --- truths of nature, culture, or individual conscience--- changes that proportion of the hidden.  We live on and with surfaces and no matter how deeply we go, the ocean holds more secrets, more truths and facts and lies than we can uncover or experience.  There are words for “vast” in the Sanskrit language that make this point vividly: vyūha, viśāla, bhrhat, even mahā.   But let us not fool ourselves, the vast majority of philosophers claim there is true finality, an endgame of liberation, and are determined to describe, or at the very least make claims about omniscience.  In the end there is nothing hidden that can’t be revealed, nothing important left unrevealed, and no unseen or unwanted consequences to living in a mostly hidden vastness.  Just what these writers forgot about the poet of
Rg Veda 10.90 and his 3/4ths that remains unseen is another story.  So nuance this however you like but there’s little doubt that the majority philosophers mean to tell us that certain people, enlightened beings, either penetrate to and command the All-ness and reach a place where they are exempt from the implications of the hidden that burden the rest of us.  Rajanaka again demurs from such traditionalist views, which is tantamount to rejecting nearly every assumption or claim about liberation.  That may take us off the “Tantric” or “yogic” reservation but it’s hard to be exiled from a place that always includes more than meets the eye.

So much for my familiar prelude.

I have described the Shadow at length in public seminars for at least the past 15 years.  The topic always warrants more attention and more nuanced understanding, but it’s important too to think about what we are going to do with our lives because the Shadow is real.  Our own claim here is that the Shadow is responsible for three-fourths of us and we, in our access to self-understanding, remain only one-fourth aware, one-fourth in access, and ever one-fourth in possibilities.  We are made beings and we don’t have to claim a God for that to be true.  What’s key here is that we must be receptive to this thesis of 1/4th to 3/4th disparity if we are to engage more deeply the power of myth.

As we’ve said, some claim to move from darkness to light, eradicate the darkness, and pronounce fulfillment.  I’ve written about “consolation” lately and I think this helps explain why the majority traditions are looking for their finalities and fulfillments.  Some will claim that one goes to the Shadow and brings back to the light the lessons it confers.  The point befitting this strategy is to use these shadow experiences and understanding without suffering the worst or, worse than that, becoming the darkness that is present in shadows.   Again, Rajanaka offers a different point of view.

Let’s be clear about the three strategies outlined here: (1) From darkness, from shadow into the light leads to perfect illumination and release from darkness and shadow.  This is the majority claim about the possibilities of human spirituality in Indian yoga traditions. (2) Journeying to the darkness and into shadow leads to an awareness that allows us to bring forward an understanding that creates a wisdom that will spares us the worst of what we find in those hidden realms.  This is references the idea that we do our “work” from our waking experience and in our social lives. (3) Rajanaka begins with the second strategy but then invites us to go to the hidden, including all of its darkness, complications and unwanted implications, and learn to experience those realities in every kind of human experience.  This would include meditation, dreaming, and other forms of contemplation.  Just how much toxicity one can endure or is healthy is another aspect of the process, one we don't mean to overlook.  Our proposal, like all mythic spiritualities, suggest these perils of commingled dark empathy require degrees of privilege and power that have never been equal opportunities.  The social and political forces of the world as are much a part of our personal development as are the rest.  Further, Rajanaka never suggests it is the only path, the best way, or superior to others.  Everyone finds their own way to make it through this world, we hope.

Our goal is to bring forward with us all of the truths of our experience, including those we know are deeply problematic, even evil, and so begin a process of further integration into our lives. The key Rajanaka term here is the compound “commingled darkness.”  We use the Sanskrit term sammelana for this concept of “commingling.”  It is the process by which we co-habit, integrate, bond and aver from all the features of our complex identity.  Rather than only bring the shadow into the light, Rajanaka means to find ways to live in those dark places too.  We call that process chāyā sammelana.

So long as we don’t reduce to one self or to any one kind of experience, then there is room for more self and multiple selves that function to secure this ever-more complex identity.  Rather than claim control or complete sovereignty, Rajanaka, as the word “rajanaka” itself suggests, means we have incomplete power and limited authority.  Our task is to keep the complex fragments in some measure of coherent relationship--- not balance, not alignment, but relationship--- notwithstanding the fact there are always more (often fewer) bits than we command or experience.  The crisis that defines us and the conflict that takes root in us are our very nature.  We neither conquer nor realize the whole of that nature.  Yoga is our process of contending rather than merely consoling ourselves with the rich complexity of being.  The problems we solve invariably lead to paradoxes we must embrace.

It’s a mistake to think that all shadows involve regret and horror or that they primarily refer to all that is unsavory and disagreeable.  There’s always more of that than we imagine but shadows are filled with potencies and possibilities and the claim of Rajanaka is that yoga is power to empower all that we experience.  Every shadow has an unknown potential to provide something of value, even when it appears in our experience as fear, hatred, anxiety, or anger.  Every human experience, even those we deem most troublesome or even repugnant, teaches us something of value.  What are we prepared to do about the truths of all of our experience?  What can we do about the Shadow that reminds us there is more than we are experiencing?  The Shadow involves the broken, missing, and extra pieces in every story.  The best myths lead us to those pieces and invite the next myth.

Myth is like art because it invites us to Dark Empathy, the ability to draw into the Shadow and into the worst, most unsavory, forsaken and irredeemable aspect of the shadow and feel that too, imagine it, think with it. Dark Empathy refers to the processes that take us to our own other, our worst angels, and the possibilities of humanity we wish were not true.  Art, music, film, fiction ---all mythologies that can taks us to almost-everything that is horrid and real, almost-everything you despise and seek to avoid or from which you dissociate and reject as evil.  For all of the beauty, light, tolerance, and goodness there is within us, there is also everything that we fear and causes us rage, anger, frustration, and the rest. And it is the desire, the need, the power to feel all of those those things entirely that is our yoga.

Somehow we emerge the _better_ for this when we have evolved the skills and kept the good company we need to sustain a viable life of responsibility and generosity. This is what Rajanaka teaches, it's what great artists do far better than most of us. But this is why Rajanaka is artistry: we need to be able to go to the unwanted places and find more there than just the other, just the unwanted or the adversary. When we find ourselves there too, something better can emerge with that as part of us, integrated into us, commingled in our bodies, hearts, and minds.  Because when we engage all that we are and all that is more than what we believe or experience as ourselves, we become more of what is possible and more a part of what is hidden in all of us.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Urgency to Love a Mortal Life

There’s an urgency to love this one mortal life.  For my part when religions claim paths to enlightenment, “unconditional” states, or afterlife heavens I understand these to be consolations.  Let’s think a bit about “consolation," about truth, tolerance, faith, and science too.

Consolations point to mortal human needs.  For some, hopes and faith in what is unlike the daily drudgery provides both comfort and meaningful yearning.  You suffer, you aspire to relieve suffering.  You want meaning, you look to god.  I’ve always been fascinated by how people make their way through the world.   We humans survived for nearly a million years before we had even a clue as to how we got here.

I wish Darwin and the implications of Darwinism had been taught to me more thoroughly and honestly from grade school through college.  That absence of appreciation might be my own fault but I don’t think so.  I think our religious history and its deeply abiding ethos have made learning the truths of evolution far more difficult to learn.  Darwin himself withheld the theory of natural selection for twenty some years because he understood the trauma it would cause himself socially and the ways in which it subverted foundational religious assumptions.  Do we need a creator agency to explain life?  What happens when we learn that nature requires no design, no designer, and life needs no reason to exist?  These questions upset lots of people, how much more so if we conclude with true facts, as true as the speed of light?

Reason tells us that we have only the explanations that imperfect and provisional methods of human learning create.  Science is evidence-based and conclusive because it asks for no more proof than we can summon from the process itself.  Our best understandings retain some sliver of uncertainty, not because much doubt yet resides but rather because it’s a requirement of progress to retain that provisionality.  We know things and the proof is in the puddin’: we’ve gone to the moon, fix broken elbows, and predict the next eclipse.  We’re trying to understand what happens without appealing to forces outside our understanding or over the horizon of our abilities.

This learning is a humbling process, fraught as it is with the necessary recognition of human limitations and the terms of conditionality.  It’s basic quantum physics that gets our cell phones to pass through walls, not the grace of the gods ---unless we decide that the gods’ grace means science.  We need not be averse to the metaphoric when we’re happy to acknowledge a difference with facts.  Facts shorten the distance between what we believe and what we know.  Myths are meant to stretch, break, and intervene into that same space.  Unfortunately, we still use the word “myth” pejoratively as way of taking about misleading untruths.  I mean “myth” to mean ways we penetrate emotionally to reach facts and move from facts, but not without facts, to reveal further suggestive meanings and tap more hidden complexities of our emotional reality.

We indulge feelings over thinking, faith over reason, belief over evidence, make claims for consolation because we just want to feel better.  These are complex human strategies that can become a positive detriment to the alternative project we might call “keeping it real.” Hume once told us that the dullest feeling out strips the most lucid thought for its impact on our human experience.  This means that we’re not only susceptible to our feelings, we must take them seriously too.

We sometimes need to feel what we want to be true because the facts--- because keeping it real--- provides too little hope, too much hopelessness.  We embrace our fictions willfully, no matter what sort of truth we imagine them to possess.  Some folks really need them.  And why should we deny people what they believe they need if those beliefs don’t deny us what we need?

Tolerance doesn’t demand that we agree.  Tolerance demands we indulge, that we put aside our preferences to permit others’ theirs.  Tolerance reminds us to take account of the stakes.  When an idea, a belief, or a person’s values are deemed intrusive, injurious, or downright evil, then we will not tolerant them.  Just what we are prepared to do about such offense is another matter.  But no one in their right mind maintains the view that every opinion is as good or as sound as another, even if we admit that people have them.  We might say that any belief is valid even if it is unsound in order to confer the dignity of being human.  How seriously then do we take such beliefs?

We don’t need to contend with unsound beliefs if they don’t violate our agreements about tolerance.  People can believe any sort of thing without committing an offense against tolerance.  This means that we can easily indulge an offense against truth so long as it’s not an offense that breaches the boundaries of our tolerance.  What breaks us?

Feelings, beliefs, consolations don’t need to withstand every test of truth we use to inform our collective actions.  But we do need to consider how tolerating them will lead us to act.  What happens when a religious belief restricts women’s rights to control their bodies?  Or when a feeling about vaccines sends children to school unvaccinated and liable to spread disease?  What are we willing to tolerate because we all need to be consoled? That last question is as important as our commitment to uncover, as best we can, what we now know to be true.  A consolation answers to an emotional need no matter what status it possesses in world in which there are true and false facts.  There are no alternative facts.  Those are lies.  But there are alternative ways to live that demand we consider the boundaries of tolerance.

So a second implication of “consolation” might be worth a thought.

I've written much lately about "false consolations," especially in religions (call them "spirituality" if the word "religion" makes you too nervous).  When we see the damage religious ideologies can do ---say, the way climate change demands from us less faith and more serious consideration of science---then I lean into more stridency.  Modern day Atheism is strident for many of the same reasons, that is, it views certain religious views as positive detriments to the course of progress.  Dawkins, Hitchens, even Sam Harris have all written about how religion gets in the way of progress.  It’s difficult to take exception to those instances in which these criticisms are true: progress is often impeded by beliefs.  Once again, we must ask how much and what we will tolerate, as well as what we are prepared to do about it.

But what the strident Atheists mock too stridently are the emotional needs that fuel untrue beliefs (i.e., beliefs that fail the tests of argument and experiment).  They sometimes trip over tolerance, which is a necessary arbiter in the process of welcoming others unlike oneself into civil society.  It’s vitally imperative to avoid the distasteful, unnecessary, and morally suspect outcomes of Otherness.  Just because others don’t share beliefs or appreciate sound argument, evidence, and truth doesn’t somehow disqualify them morally or from the processes that invite us to create civil society.  We can be quite wrong in a factual sense and be quite morally fit for conversation.  This very argument I’m making about facts, true and false, could be wrong but might well pass tests of tolerance.  What consolations do we tolerate?

In this way it’s possible to talk about false consolations to mean “such a belief is not what we know the world is actually offering.”  And still we can respect people who harbor such beliefs.  Your emotional needs are not necessarily mine.  We can decide what actions we will tolerate because we’re left with having to live together.  Good fences often make good neighbors.

When we come out of our inner fortresses of the heart to meet others, we necessarily contend with ourselves.  What we each need to make our way through the world can intrude on others --- and sometimes must intervene if we deem the other to be morally beyond the pale of our tolerance.  That is no simple decision and it seems human to err on the side of tolerance if we are to live and let live.

For my part, I prefer a more hard-bitten version of reality that eschews as far as possible beliefs that wander too far from tests of human verifiability.  It’s a lot easier to tolerate others when you understand better your own emotional needs.  But no consolation is “false” if it meets your needs.  I’ve come to understand that I need to live in a world in which there is less belief and less hope for what has not yet been achieved.  

The disparity between the way the world really is and what we wish it were is at the heart of all religions, perhaps all politics and morality.  Keeping it real is neither pessimistic nor optimistic.  In fact, I think it’s another kind of spirituality, if by that we mean the feelings, opinions, and arguments we make that get us through life, that speak to our emotional and intellectual needs.  For me the spiritual conversation centers on a mortal fact: the way people are, the way the world is includes real differences that address the complexity of a shared humanity.  We don’t all want the same things, for better and for worse.  But no matter what, we will take what we believe we need.  YMMV.  And that urban acronym invites us to more facts and always to myths of our own making. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Freedom and the Goddess Speech

“What can be done about the rise of hate speech and its affect on marginalized populations? It is my feeling that simply being a member of a group that models "better behavior" is wholly insufficient. So what can be done while still protecting the freedom of speech, which is granted more freely for some than others?”

There is no human right more precious, more powerful or important than speech. With speech we proffer ideas and opinions, values and arguments, and, most importantly, we learn to listen and dissent. Yogins assign our distinctive human capacity to use complex language to one of the most ancient goddesses of the Rg Veda. Her name is Vāc, Speech. She stands for the relationship between power and authority, the inherent potencies of speech and all its uses.

How might we embody and dignify Vāc and turn this process into deeper engagement, especially when we know we are at a disadvantage or that some are and others are not?

Speech did not promise us equity or accessibility. She does not insure our safety but rather puts us in greater risk. Why is that? It is because everything worthwhile puts us in peril. Speech is yet another form of love and nothing puts us at greater risk than love. Love always implies an opposition and even its contrary. Love is not free from risk because it is the freedom to risk. The power of Speech is to pursue yet another the meaning to love, which is nothing less than to confront ourselves and find a way into the heart.

We must bring all of ourselves along on this pilgrimage to the place where Speech makes Her home, from which She emerged, and into which She resolves. We will need yoga to make these connections because “yoga” is power to connect, to cooperate, and to seek concord with our individual conscience, relationships, and culture. It may not be possible to arrive at harmony without conflict, coalition without compromise, or application with any guarantees of success. But these too are the risks we take when we understand that Speech is freedom and freedom can be experienced only at our greatest peril.

Goddess Vāc is dynamic, an interminable process of our experiences. What we mean when we petition Her is an appeal to resilient empowerment, to live our lives with greater steadfastness and malleability. We ask for more stability and more aplomb, more resolve and more receptivity. We are proposing a yoga of embracing paradox as much as problem-solving, one that is responsive but neither docile nor unyielding. We’re going to need as much passion and fury as reason and restraint. We are going to again put ourselves at risk, including the risks of failure and success. Speech does not exist alone since like freedom and love, She keeps company and works within larger structures. These structures include history and society, individual conscience and intelligence, and the complex assessments that involve human feeling and action. So what then of Free Speech in a world always at risk?

Structural Inequality is real, but often unrecognized or rejected.
Americans idealize equality and opportunity as keystones of our social experiment. We proclaim in propositions, sometimes advanced in law and asserted in public that assert that we stand for freedom and with freedom. Like religion, which is to be neither established nor restricted, speech is to be protected individually and publicly in the press. Acknowledging the incongruity between these ideals and instantiations in law and the facts of oppression, marginalization, and injustice are required features of citizenship. The structure of American life sits upon this imbalance. Free speech puts us at risk because we claim to love freedom.

In our current divisive political situation we can’t seem to agree that such structural flaws are original to our history and that they must continue to be addressed through measures that protect and affirm more inclusive rights. There are aggrieved people who see any redress or expansion of rights as a threat to privileges, prerogatives, or other rights. “Identity politics” is the current catchword that the Right uses to mean being intruded upon, divested of rights, and then required to extend to others what is denied them. For those who by race, gender, class, or some other measure have been historically denied, silenced, bullied, rejected, and unseen, such human rights cannot be refused or declined. The “culture wars” have never been more real because there was progress during the Obama Presidency and there is clearly an overt and shamelessly vindictive effort underway to regress and regain every form of privileged power. How shall we respond?

Let’s return to the questions raised at the outset and think in practical terms that speak to values and ideas. Yoga is best found in its applications.

1. Nevertheless Persist.
We must not allow the authoritarian bullies and their minions to control the discourse. We must speak up, speak out, and become even more vigilant and persistent. If you feel scared or fatigued, find safe harbor and give yourself time to recover, let others take up the fight so that you can enter the fray when you’re ready.

2. Appeal to representation, become active.
To protect speak we must speak and act together. Individuals under the current circumstances are far more vulnerable than assemblies. Remember that free assembly is mentioned with free speech for good reasons. You’re not alone, don’t act like you are alone, and keep good company. Appeal to representation at all levels, make yourself heard and seen, and hold them accountable for your right to free speech.

3. The Mob’s Real Danger.
Hate speech can be addressed effectively when it’s limited in scope. In this media age, individuals (think: talk radio, TV, etc.) can reach millions, and institutions are well organized to foment hate. Hate garners attention not only because it warrants our care but also because it revels in itself. What we must do to counter the rise of hate speech is speak. It is an unhappy truth that censorship is the greater crime. For hate to be effective there must be an audience. We must not become another mob that rejects free speech, even if this means we must “tolerate” hate speech. Tolerance is not acceptance, tolerance is not endorsement, tolerance is often painful and downright odious to endure. But tolerance is the opposite of censorship and tolerance requires the courage not to acquiesce or comply with censorship. The mob wins when we are silenced or when all we do is shout like them.

4. Those With Power Must Use It: Stick together, Stand up to bullies.
Those with power must do more than model better behavior. Rather they must use their power, their pulpits, their money, their real resources to come to the aid of those less powerful. The powerful must stand for the powerless when they must and stand with the powerless to listen, learn, and participate in change. We must demand more from the powerful, from individuals and corporations, appeal to their decency to come forward and demand that they put something more at risk. If money or boycotts or activism moves them, then we must exercise speech to protect speech.

5. Appeal to the public sentiment and use the media.
Whatever we accomplish as individuals is always because of the company we keep and the support of relationships. Oppressors may have little conscience and we must not underestimate the appetite for vengeance or venality. But America may yet have enough conscience in the majority to create the necessary counter force. Gandhi, King, and others have appealed to the better angels of our human nature and we must continue to do as much. We must do our best to make hate something far less appealing and the consequences of hate more palpable, more real for the haters too. Free speech comes with costs and that must be made to our benefit. Hate speech may not be vulnerable to love but it is vulnerable from those for whom love is at the heart of freedom and speech.

6. Find allies among the opponents and listen.
Not everyone in the mob, not every hater wants to hate. Nearly all view themselves as justly aggrieved. Reason may not suffice to engage them, nor evidence or arguments. But sympathy for our shared human condition, appeals to empathy, acknowledgments of a common hope and standards of decency. We must treat our oppressors with humanity, sometimes more humanity and tolerance than they will to offer to us. We must go high to lift them even when they go low to oppress further.

7. The law stands between civilization and its collapse.
The hero Achilles withstands the disfavor of the gods, society, and all else to assert his will, to “speak” his mind. Alas, the resource he does not have between himself and the world he opposes is the law and a culture of law. Here the Indian hero Yudhisthira stands in contrast. India put Law, Dharma, in every seam of relationship and used the law to pivot to freedom, responsibility, collective rights, and our emotional needs. The law is an intervention that challenges authority and provides a cultural resource of power. And without it any effort to contain or control authority is reduced to force. We must take recourse to the law and do everything possible to demand that it not become another instrument of the powerful to assert their will over those more vulnerable.

8. Focus criticism on the powerful, restrain your criticism of those less powerful than you, and retain sympathy towards everyone.
If we are to tolerate free speech and refrain from censorship we must appeal to strategies that protect decency and instantiate virtue. In short, we have to be good and do good by understanding the hierarchies of power and directing our speech towards those who warrant our attentions and sympathies.

9. Tell the truth. Stand up to falsity with facts.
There is no greater ally to free speech than truth. Speak truth and you may not be rewarded. Speak truth and you may suffer. But unless you speak truth you become the opponent of freedom and in collusion with oppression.

10. No false consolations.
We all need support and often a gentle hand up. We need hope and faith in each other and perhaps even more in our appeals to a greater humanity. We even need to hope that we can reach into the hearts and minds of those intellectually impenetrable, hateful, or emotionally inept. We need to use speech to influence their speech. But we must not tell ourselves stories just to feel better. We must not confuse what we want or hope for or dream about with what is happening and likely to happen. When we indulge in false consolations, our speech becomes just like the oppressor’s tool, it becomes another manipulation and form of propaganda. As hard as it is to keep it real, keep it so real that you will not succumb to the temptation to tell yourself a soothing canard merely because it feels good. Freedom never promised you comfort, gratification, or the redolence of solace.

11. Hope is the art of the possible.
And not the make-believe, the supernatural, or the fanciful. We must hope and we must dream, for life without them is only tasks and jobs, assignments and feats. Without hope we reduce greatness to success without asking what is worth the possibility of failure. Without hope we occupy a self that imagines no more and cares less. Without hope we die that living death that no longer breathes in the fragrance of gratitude or welcomes the refreshment of another breath. Hope is far more than the medicine of the miserable, as the Bard once put it, because it is also a sustenance we share when there is nothing more to give. Hope beats the heart of freedom because freedom can live only in the company of courage and in the urgency of our most cherished aspirations.

There is only more peril ahead for those who treasure Speech in Her truest form: in love with freedom and always worth the risk.

A Short Essay on Milo, Trump, and Misogynist Yogins

There have been lots of messages and emails in the past few days. As I see it, there is little in the _content_ of the alt-right alt-yogin asininity that warrants much response. What's been expressed are not ideas or values but actions that constitute hatred and reference a pathetic need for attention that I am not eager to dignify by granting. Masked in claims of alternative world views stated with "honesty" purporting to be "freedom" are dangerous, arrested emotional testaments to individuals and culture. What we witness all too vividly are personal and collective failures of character and decency.

In the case of the President* his dysfunctionality is a public menace that demands citizen response. Never before have Americans in the modern age wondered if the President is mentally competent. Ideology aside for a moment--- and I don't mean merely that obtuse doltishness that was PrezW at the lectern. With Trump we have reason to fear his mental _disqualification_ for this deadly serious office and its responsibilities. Republicans like Ryan and McConnell are actually counting on Trump's incomprehension, boredom, and short attention to pass their agenda. Party before country, ideology before all, venality, boorishness, and ineptitude are not sufficient criteria of ineligibility. I fear there is no chance for a 25th Amendment solution to the problem.

But what links these recent appearances of latent sordidness and branded baseness are two claims. First that these are expressions of a true American value: freedom, especially freedom of speech.
No where in the world is free speech so protected as in America. Slander is among the most difficult of cases to make and Europeans are deliberately more aware of their legal restrictions. America is, after all, the land of the free. Point two is that these ideas and values represent a constituency that claims them their own or, at least, condones or endorses them. This is more than a little disturbing because some of us truly want to be better than that, in moral character and effective social engagement.

Being in academia I am keenly aware of the power, the privilege, and the responsibility of free speech. My own position protects me in ways most people cannot imagine in their own lives because I am free to speak with the power of academic tenure. But it is that last point that warrants our consideration. Speech is precious, it warrants our deep respect and demands serious responsibility. Speech is power and using it is no small matter. How one reveals or conceals oneself in speech, at the heart of the matter is the character of one's heart. We peer into hearts even with words because that is part of what it means to be human too.

No one could be more ardent a proponent of free speech than I. Censorship is the first tyranny and its true ally is falsehood. In America there is still too much policing of indelicate and injurious language. But there is also far too little recognition that the price of debate may include ugly words and genuinely hurt feelings. These liabilities are not merely secondary costs because they effect the quality of the conversation. We lose something when we lose civility. But what are we to do when the "debate" is not civil, when the content is itself abhorrent and deconstructive of our shared humanity?

In each of the references above free speech is used to extol and aggrandize cruel behaviors and vile testimonials. Their purpose is _not conversation_. Instead it is to create headlines, garner attention, and then to grift. I have no appetite for those craving attention to dignify their own narcissism, line their own pockets, or manipulate others who share similar hatreds. I also insist that they not be silenced. But we dignify ourselves by carrying on instead other kinds of conversations in which there is ample room for dissent and disagreement. America's character is at stake and we need to decide what that is by how we respond to the worst among us. Let us be better to each other so that we honor Speech. She is among our most powerful and precious forms of the Great Goddess.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Courage and the Coward, A Short Essay on the Difference

My teacher once said that courage is not virtue. Rather, courage is what we need to become virtuous. Without courage, we stand little chance at goodness. But even with it, there’s going to be work to do. 
What is courage and how do you find it? Ask first, what engages your heart. That's close to the literal definition, le coeur, the heart. Now what do you place in your heart? Śraddhā in Sanskrit uses the same root and literally means, "putting in your heart." This is why we translate śraddhā as "faith." Your faith is what you take to heart, what you really care about, it's your fidelity to yourself; it goes to the root of your feelings and emerges to tell you what you are prepared to do. When do we know we are acting with faith, from the place of courage rather than cowardice?
Courage, like faith, insists we pause to touch the heart of the matter and then pause again to think, to reflect, to fathom and feel more. When someone’s courage appears instantaneously, it’s not because they haven’t paused. Rather it’s because they have opened their hearts to create a place where courage can be sown and take root. It may seem counter-intuitive since acts of courage arise, seemingly out of nowhere, with a no-mind, no hesitation quality about them. But that’s because we’ve already done the work, whether we know it or not. The seeds of courage were planted before we acted and so the moment it blossoms, well, we don’t think much about the seeds or even the time they took to grow. Courage appears as a result, an outcome but it begins long before it is seen. There is no impetuous or rash courage, we have to learn about courage, even train ourselves to be courageous, because it can’t exist without seeds and roots and a process of growth. And if you will forgive my extending this laborious metaphor, as courage flowers, virtue becomes its fruit.
Most of us, I think, weren’t expecting this election’s outcome. We didn’t anticipate what we would need or what we would have to do. Now we’re seeing real actions and their dangerous implications and outcomes. We’re also seeing two different things. We’re seeing people rise up with real courage to act. Like Sally Yates. And that’s because she, like others, have sewn those seeds of courage throughout life. You value your convictions, have paused to reflect on them, and recognize when others have done as much. You have evolved feelings that have deepened and changed you because you have committed to a process of education, engagement, and contemplation. Your courage is serving you because you have taken the time to invest in yourself, which is why you invest and care about others. And your virtue, your decency and moral outrage are emergent because they come from this process that has sown courage in your heart.
Now to take this one step further, you can understand too why our situation is becoming so grave. Our President* is a coward. And unfortunately, and it is unpleasant to say as much, so are his followers. How dare we sound so arrogant, to say as much? I ask you, from everything you know about Mr. Trump and all that he has said and revealed about himself: Has he taken the time, paused to go to those deeper places in heart and mind where the seeds of courage are sown? What evidence do we have that he has committed to any process of self-learning? Courage rises up when it does because courage involves the patience, forbearance, and tolerance that nourish every other virtue.
The coward emerges as the one without empathy, without sympathy, and so lacks the prudence, the care, the compassion that informs goodness. We are in deep trouble. I think we know this from the bottom of our hearts. But I feel assured that the courageous will not relent or shrink in fear because fear is the coward’s way of telling himself he is courageous. Anger unchecked and vindictive, directed at the innocent, is the coward’s way of feeling better about himself. 
What I see in this resistance to Trump is courage determined to withstand the coward’s path to failure and people showing that their virtue, hard-earned and not always easy, is their inexhaustible resource. You may feel tired, but your courage is as inexhaustible as your heart. You will not run out of courage and all the goodness you need has long been sewn. To fight the terror and tyranny we are witness to in this global campaign to instill fear in our hearts and minds--- our truest resource is our courage.