Sunday, November 26, 2017

Faith in Belief, but Unfaithful to Faith, Baby You Can Drive My Car

I often jest that I was born without the God-gene. I say this because as I have told that story a million times, no one I know has tried to _believe_ in God more than I. I study believers now for a living likely because I'm still working out my own failure to have faith as faith or belief-as-faith. Is this just a deficiency _in me_? That was how one professor explained me to others. I was "tone deaf to religion," he said. I replied that I didn't much like to sing from the Protestant hymnal anymore. All I refused to do was believe his thesis, not the one about me but about faith.

Now, I never discount the importance or the power of belief, including my belief in that power or its importance. The distinction I will focus on here is between belief-as-faith and faith-in-belief. This one will take a minute. Take a seat, you're in for it a bit.

Briefly, belief _as_ faith reduces matters to assertion, opinion, and is at the heart of confirmation bias, which means that evidence, reasoning, and _changing_ one's mind have little efficacy in the processes of creating convictions. This is faith as such, faith in having faith, faith because you have it. I would contend that I just don't, so if it only takes one counter example to upset a monism, a one truth for all claim, then I offer myself as that example. I did this in the first important graduate seminar at Harvard and my rejection of the faith thesis has always left me uninvited to the next faith-fest. What happened was I was the only one who wholly rejected the thesis of the professor, the Chair of the Study of Religion at the Veritas-U, who wrote the book called "Faith and Belief." He happened to be teaching that seminar and he held my future in his faithful little hands. I was not being petulant (only), I was being honest. He almost got me thrown out, in fact, he tried and I refused to leave. He also wore his pants up near his chest. I could not believe anyone who looked like that. But that's another story. I'm probably still working out that wound too, but I would contend that in the spirit of the black swan, I was the exception that defeated his thesis. Allow me more.

Belief-as-faith is really the claim that faith is not belief at all but a kind of quality of feeling. Again, I lack that feeling having spent a lifetime looking for it and trying to believe this argument for faith as some sort of positive we _need_. This same professor told me ---and my doctoral committee--- that it would be better if i just went over to comparative linguistics where clearly I had a future. Religion, not so much, he said. I replied that I loved studying religion not because there is such a thing as faith but because people believe there is. Faith is just belief of another kind, not another kind of thing or feeling. And if it is that special feeling, I ain't got it, so how's dem'apples about it being universal to all humans. I'm not so stupid as to think that I don't get it, I believe not all of us have faith. But all of us have beliefs.

Now, I also knew somehow that I eventually needed a job in academia or I would be playing for short change at the Ramada Lounge on Friday nights forever. I couldn't take the hours. Not that there is anything wrong with that. So I maintain there is still room for faith, so long as it's faith in beliefs. We gots (not really) to have some of that, though I would contend we can almost live without that too. Problem is, it's just too dry to take that more purist path of fact, you end up with only Quine and maybe Putnam as your philosopher friend and everything is nothing but an equation. One and one needs to make three if you're after more poetry, as the Boss reminds us.

Faith in belief, I would argue, is when the evidence leads you to put your heart in a fact, an idea or value, or a person who you have good reason to believe. Since people have a need, likely an evolutionary need to believe, we can expect that they will believe _something_.

Hitchens argued, rightly I think, that the qualify of belief needs to be commensurate to the quality of critical thinking. That is, that what we believe must be alchemized in the crucible of more than personal experience and opinion but also of public learning and standards of verifiability. The problem, such as it is with this kind of distinction, is that a belief valuable enough to earn our public trust requires not only skills in methods of critical thinking, but is by definition subversive of belief itself. I'm not even talking about the innumerable perils and idiocies that follow from monisms ---truths that claimed to be one, and so incontrovertible because there is no second option. I'm merely pointing out that the best quality beliefs ---the ones that warrant our faith--- must leave room for being replaced, undermined, questioned, and subject to eradication when necessary. A belief you can't reject at some point isn't worth having. A faith that commends belief you can't reject just won't do, no matter who tells you.

Put another way, unless the equation of belief is allowed to be provisional, in some important way _incomplete_, and so subject to reevaluation, it is reduced to belief as faith. You can believe because you want to, need to, are told to, because the consequence of being different is painful or disorienting. All of these emotional components of belief are soundly rejected in the Gita, which is a book about having belief. It's not like you need good reasons to believe, that is not Krishna's point (or usually). Rather it is about the way the credibility of a belief, faith -in- belief is a helpful feature of learning because it fosters the necessary experimentation with belief _and_ gives you something you can say honestly you believe is _true_.

Part of Trumpism is that it is prays upon the emotional manipulation that clouds belief and so turns almost entirely to belief as faith when it believes at all. This makes all news "fake" that does not meet with approval or affirmation in the moment, suited entirely to whatever is being projected as satisfying. Krishna again has some sound advice about not allowing your beliefs to be a matter of meeting your immediate desires but this is impenetrable to those who _need_ to believe more than they are willing to _work for_ a belief. Never underestimate how folks would prefer things to be easy, how little they will work for their beliefs. Belief is hard-won content and that's not the same as feeling good. Krishna really hammers you on this one.

The truth of a belief doesn't depend on your believing it. I could believe, for example, that the nominative and accusative neuter singular in Sanskrit takes the same endings in both cases. This is true whether or not I know that fact, or _even understand that sentence_. Others know it and I could know it too, so I could believe it only if I knew what that sentence meant. But when I can believe that to be true it is because I worked for that knowledge, one way or another. _How_ you believe is matter not only of what you know but of what you are willing to work to achieve. Everyone hates work. Believe me. That's why we need to think about this distinction between belief-as-faith and the harder work of faith-in-belief.

So lemme repeat to see if the point is clear enough. Faith in belief is work, it's the opposite, if you will, of just believing, Some things you don't want to work too hard for. I'm okay with that. I didn't need to go to St John's College to do the "Is the earth really round?" experiment because I believed Mrs Robinson, my second grade teacher. She was belief worthy but not only because she was a sweetheart. I was convinced that _she'd_ done the work and I was blessed merely to believe. Faith in belief is belief earned through an honest, complex effort of examination and cool-minded assessment. We assess the facts for ourselves, but in fact we also assess _people_. We think, "I believe her and I don't believe him." Those assessments, as we have also recently learned quite explicitly, are tests of one's own character. People like the current Governor of Alabama are failing those tests right before our eyes. Now how does that affect your faith in people?

The more cool-minded a belief becomes, the more passionately one believes it because you think you have reason, that you _know_. THIS is the key to "bhakti", at least in the Rajanaka use of the term. A cool mind --- like beliveving the redoubtable second grade teacher that the world is round---brings a passion for the belief and for the person, the group, the institution, the fact you are believing.

Bhakti is feeling the truth of a belief not because you believe it but because you have faith that your belief is worthy of belief. It needs to be worthy of _you_, of the tests of your own heart and the candor that can only come from a cool mind hot on the trail of that belief. That belief could be wrong, so figuring out how you would know _that_ is more important than believing itself

Throw all of that worth and "worthy of" away and you have Trump and by that I mean one has to forsake every intellectual skill along with the content of belief for the sake merely of believing. Put another way, more scary indeed, you want to believe someone who wants to _use_ your belief rather than ask you to_ test his_. This can feel satisfying only if you never learned the difference between belief +as+ faith and the kind of belief that _makes you_ have faith. We test not our faith but our beliefs. This means we have to _learn_ to test beliefs and be invited to do that, no matter how heartfelt the conviction or who we are being asked to believe. People may certainly disappoint, even shock you because they do things that rattle your faith in them, and that's because you had reasons for that faith, you _believed_ stuff that you thought you had assessed correctly, or you now have new information or are willing to face the information.

So I guess I don't really jest, I mean it when I say I don't have the God-gene. I cannot manage any degree of belief-as-faith, much less have faith without belief that is not hard work. My faith is never hard work because that's work I did when I was asked to believe. I am relieved to discover that my belief that every argument I have ever heard for believing in God is far less believable than those that reject those claims. Not believing is faith in belief because faith as belief only tells you that you have faith, _and nothing else_. Faith as faith is then another monism, another utterly useless oneness that bears only on how it makes you feel because thinking becomes secondary. I am faithful to the beliefs that I have _worked hard_ to arrive at, not because those beliefs _must_ be true, but because truth is more than what we want to believe or are told to believe. Truth is earned the hard way: by learning, testing, revising, sometimes rejecting, repeat.

Bhakti traditions are complex because it's natural and easy to reduce belief to faith. But there is such a thing as Rajanaka bhakti, and that is faith in beliefs that, however they may be revised or even disappoint, you have to work some to believe at all.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Our American Thanksgiving with A Side of Yoga

Happy Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is perhaps our most American of holidays, even more so than the 4th of July. This is because it is as much an invention of mythologies that we use to conceal our more complex and painful truths as it is an expression of simple and genuine human possibilities. We gather not to claim freedom but in undissembling acknowledgment that life shared is itself a grateful wonder.

If Franklin had had his way and the turkey had become our national symbol I somehow doubt this naturally patrician creature would have become our national food. Would we really eat the symbol that means to capture our lofty collective imagination? Instead we have the President “pardon” one in a ritual that reminds us that that could be any of us, or at least most of us but those powerful enough to pardon themselves.

Among the first generation immigrant American families that I know, Thanksgiving is nearly always their favorite holiday, no matter what other religious or birthplace remembrance warrants sentiment or honor. Whatever you eat, this holiday is about sharing food, and that might be so human an endeavor that we couldn’t even be without it. Freud was wrong, you know. Sex is not the first category that defines us. It is food.

The Veda proclaims in both celebration and guileless reflection, “The eater of food and food indeed are everything here.” (Shatapata Brahmana,, for those in graduate school.) This is no mere culinary metaphor, I submit to you. This is a description of life organizing itself around our most primal terms dehi me dadami te, “give to me, I give to you,” (Taittiriya Samhita,, or as Ovid put it, “dō ut dēs,” “I give so that you give.” We summon the deities for favor. We eat and unlike the fishes, we are not meant to each other.

The contrast in Sanskrit could not be clearer, “give to me, I give to you” is decidedly not the matsya-nyaya, the law of fish-eat-fish. We are called to something better in order to be human. In the beginning when the creator god Prajapati was fatigued from his battles with death and the demonic, he asked for food. As the Brahmana further declares, “Therefore even now when one who is afflicted gets better he asks for food. Then they are hopeful for him [thinking], 'He asks for food; he will live' " (SB (Gratitude for B.K. Smith for the reference here.) Food is more than mere necessity, it is life itself. But it can be more than that too.

I think this is because to eat together, perhaps with friends or strangers, requires a moment of truce, a momentary détente that places long-standing grievance and simmering discord on hold in favor of more liminal understanding. We can’t really turn these situations into more than a moratorium on our wounds because food doesn’t mean reconciliation. Everything that nourishes also wounds. Even if food also needs to be a form of care and more than an intermission within a life of work and toil, food rarely solves problems as much as it raises issues.

If you are, in truth, not at peace today but holding an armistice party with at least some of the day’s participants, I wish you all the dissembling decency you can muster as a way of making your way to the place of raging calm within. Keep your issues simmering, at least for today. If you are fortunate enough to share company in which there is only the usual human tumult and jangle, then we might consider more about our thanksgiving.

So just two more matters of the mind here to offer a little food for the soul.

First, food is wealth and a successful meal is not only the hero and heorine’s reward, it may be the very evidence of their extraordinary effort and victory. Gratitude to those who cook and clean. The ones who live, eat. The rest may receive their pardon but to go hungry is suffer. Personally, I doubt we will see the Trumps serving it up at a food pantry today as we did the Obamas and Bushes. We live in more troubled times and we should expect that from the way food is a spoil of victory when it could be instead an expression of collective values. I hope we come together today understanding more deeply how much we need to create these values. Let us make the wealth of food something we never hoard but instead offer as gratitude in a world in which too few share life’s bounty.

This leads us to our second point. Food is power, and there are winners and losers here too. The Sanskrit tells us that “everything here lives on food.” (SB, and the Taiitiriya Upanisad (2.2) puts the matter beautifully, starkly, clearly: “They who live on earth, live by food alone, and in the end they return to it.” One way or another, no matter how carefully you tread or how principled your choices, something died today so that you could eat. Few celebrations of life demand that we celebrate with death, but food leaves us no choice. Those with power can share it or, eventually, have it taken from them, which leads us back for one last look at our American Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving deescalates our feuds around a meal and a day and asks of the company we share to be good company on this day. We will be lulled to sleep from shared abundance and hopefully warm pie. We will need endurance and generosity, sometimes just to make it through the event and, under the very best of circumstances, because we hope it does not end.

But, of course, we know it must, not so that we can go consume the next thing in our law of the fishes society but so that we can perhaps remember that what we need, what we demand ---give to me--- comes with a far richer calling, one befitting a holiday of gratitude. It comes with “I give to you.” Make rage a giving heart and suddenly the world becomes a better place. I am grateful for how you have made that clearer still to me over this past year. May we gather again and again to offer and to receive all that is needed, valued, and powerfully life-affirming in a world that shares its bounty.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Money, Sex, and Power Revisited

The Rajanaka Mission
Living From the Core, or Saturday's Sermon

We live in a time when moral diversities challenge every notion we have of ourselves. These situations are as real as our need to find the inner field, the place where we engage the battle for our soul and search for our moral core. By "moral diversities" I mean that our global acculturation requires degrees in history, sympathies and empathies we didn't know we needed or could possess, and serious considerations of power, authority, and leadership that raise every issue of identity and value.

People have different beliefs and behaviors and no matter where we stand as persons, it is no simple matter to claim the moral high ground, insist on intervention, or engage the moral war of choice that claims someone's cause. How we invite ourselves into other peoples' lives has never been more complex ---and I believe that "never been" because we are less than a nanosecond from nearly every corner of the globe. And, of course, the globe is burning, flooding, and being devastated by human beings. How do we recognize anything like universal humanity but from how we are able to see each other in a context, a culture, and a circumstance?

We need more, not less, education to consider our values and choices. No one is exempt from the poignant and painful shadows that hide and command us from deep within our terms of life. No soul is left unscathed, all of us warrant the Buddha's compassion and the Christ's merciful acceptance of the pain that we will all feel. And because we must be better than perpetrators of pain we need to learn how to search deeply for _all_ that lies within the soul, all of our better and all of our worse. We need tools and resources for living in relationship with ourselves, nature, culture, each other.

Yoga traditions have far too often focused ---and, it is not too exaggerated to say, only focused on creating quietist resources for introspection and inner serenity. Modern postural yoga has, in my opinion, gone further than any previous tradition to extending the soul project into the body. But let us be honest, only so much can be accomplished from feeling. We need to be able to _work_ with feelings to understand and address with thinking our experiences.

Yoga has given us plenty of good advice about this, especially from those sources that _refuse the retreat_ into meditation or quietism. No one is ever surprised that I think we can cull more from the Mahabharata and Iliad than we will ever receive from Patanajli, Visuddhimagga, or Abhinavagupta. None of these sources are particularly interested in how we live _in_ the world, much less the battle for a moral core that will contend with living. They all promise some or another supernal state that exempts rather than engages the irresolvable problematics of mortal, conditioned life.

What we learn from the great resources of mythology and particularly the epics is that we must take seriously how people will choose from the menu that reads money, sex, and power. This was as true in 8th century BCE Greece as it was in 400 BCE India and no one needs examples from our current world to consider how depraved and venal we humans can be. Not to be reductive, but the core of the matter can be summarized in this triad: money (being everything that costs us in labor, effort, and living), sex (everything everyone wants from desires that is sensual), and power (everything else that is its own aphrodisiac and its own form of delusion because life always ends in death, no matter what you think comes next.) No one is immune from these needs and requirements of a 21st century life, no matter your personal situations with money, sex, and power. You gotta' have some.

The majority of yoga traditions create their own juxtaposition as antidote. For money, it is renunciation or principled indifference; for sex it is abstinence or divine internalizations; for power it is command _over_ the world by having absolute interior control and mastery (think: YS third book as typical). This prescription works if you are willing to accept that quietism is paramount, social justice is not the truest shadow of cultural achievement, and power leads to goodness because the quietistic life demands as much.  I wish you luck with this prescription because, for me, it's just another way to check out rather than stay checked all the way in.

The best feature of the ascetical yoga traditions ---and this includes all of those neo-Vedantin Advaita traditions that preach some or another moralism and everything we'd think of as "Tantric", like Kashmir Shaivism---is that they do indeed understand that the world _is_ power and that power is the underlying feature of _all_ else: dharma, artha (wealth), and desire (kama). Their offers of liberation are invariably liberation _from_ those human conditions or at best liberation from the worst of those human conditions leaving only the good stuff. Thus they promise us light without darkness and so Dharma without corruption, and all the rest of the idealism that we will never in truth realize.

Christians understood these same issues and the more honest Christians offer some or another version of poverty, chastity and obedience as their money, sex, power alternative. We need not quibble over different Christianities here and while we might take notice of hypocrisies today that defy even the meanest credulities, there's no joy to be found in pointing out how depraved people can be for the holy trinity of money, sex, or power.  Can we learn to act differently given our needs?

Rajanaka's primary mission is to provide a resource of education to anyone who wants it or more of it, just as it is to help young people in India get an education. I'm happy to let others tell of the virtues of quietism or make promises of unconditionality. I want to help people learn to think, teach them _how_ to think not _what_ to think, and create _resources_ that empower us to live lives of value, intimacy, and creativity.

This is the Rajanaka alternative to money, sex, and power. Value is the price of success and failure, and it's focus is a dynamic viability and the precarious challenge of dynamic equilibrium. At different times in our lives we need different resources. How much is enough? How do we manage these acquisitions and needs? Intimacy is defined by the complex relationships we need to make connection with the world and inside ourselves. Don't just fight off your demons, invite them to lunch and feed them so that you can learn to live with them, both you and them will leave less hungry. And creativity---we could call this "artistry" if we think about this as what you want to be and who you know yourself to be---this is the very core of power. You become powerful in your creativity and by your creativity. Go there, all the time, reach towards, draw from it as an inexhaustible resource.

The goal of a Rajanaka life is to learn how to love _all_ of your life, from light to shadow, from success to failure, from achievement to regret--- somehow life's blessing is never to be diminished or underestimated. Bringing other people the blessings, privilege, or opportunity we have had for ourselves is our outreach, our "mission." Our hope is a good conversation, which requires intelligence, endurance, serious doses of tolerance, and honest standards of candor.

Appa respected privacy _deeply_ and never demanded confession, contrition, nor did he offer any absolutions. But we must learn to live deeply with ourselves because that is the only hope we have for living with others. How we learn to live in world that promises pain, irresolvable human conflict, and inexplicable wonder and joy becomes all the richer when we have _learning_ in art and science, in literature and language, in mythologies, creativities, _artistries_ of the heart and mind, in the _great human endeavors_.

We invent the worthy impossible, we aspire to the auspicious boundaries, we make life fun, beautiful, gracious, and honest because we know how hard it really is. And to learn from the humanities is a crucial part of those aims just as it is _as important_ to learn from and about the sciences.

Leadership is not the same as mere power and authority though it is difficult to accomplish without both. So lead with the heart and from the soul's core. We almost always know right from wrong, so be that person that leads with what's right and you will learn to live with your wrongs. But never leave your good sense, your _learning_, or the conversation behind. We need each to act from that moral center and however flawed and regretful we may be, we can excavate that core so that there is no rot or malignancy, and from that place of decency we may carry on. Carry on. Rage calmly.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Everybody Loves Rudra But No One Wants to Admit It

Everybody Loves Rudra
But No One Wants to Admit It

What I am about to write is not good for business.  I tell myself that almost every time I come to this page where I know I have sympathetic listeners.  But I know it's true.  We human beings do not like our truth drenched in acidic facts and you can't tell me that you don't like the puppy story that ends _every_ broadcast of the nightly news.  What we _want_ to be true and what we sorta'kinda' have to admit to ourselves is true is a fundamental breach, an incongruity that makes us really not like incongruity.  Oh for the world to be more like a south Indian coffee: hot, sweet, satisfying, and accessible so long as their is milk available.

What I mean too is that we like to think of ourselves more like the Buddha: the world suffers and we must be compassionate.  We don't like to think about how rage, anger, and seige motivate us to our better angels or to our exigent needs.  We're not sure about Rudra.  How could we be?  He's not sure about you either.  I'm telling you, you love Rudra.  It's just hard to admit it.  He loves you but only if you take out the wrecking ball.

I come by this kinda' naturally because I got beat up on the streets of Jersey and then got beat up again at Harvard.  I am sure you have your story too.  But don't we all wish it were more like, "I left home because I needed to find a deeper truth, suffered some of my own accord, sat under a tree and got enlightened, then spent the rest of my life helping people." (Apologies to the Buddha for being so hard on him here, but you know, it's heuristic, skillful means and all that)  So you mean, you too aren't the historical Buddha?  Shazam, Goober.  Neither am I.  It goes more like this,

"I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago
Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers, I've seen champions come and go
So if you got the guts mister, yeah if you've got the balls
If you think it's your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball..."  (N.B., Boss time break here, my favorite kind.)

It's Rudra time.  Get out your howlin' wolf, let it bleed, there _are_ tears in heaven.  Start there.

We prefer to to flourish but fail to admit that we feel this comfort because there is some safety net beneath us, we want to be comfortable enough because we need that comfort to believe we can flourish.  This is a mistake we all make.  We don't like discomfort, strife, or crisis not only because the are all too real but also because we want to reject their being _the ordinary state of affairs_.  I sort of never tire of reminding that the best part of the Gita's argument is that we are need to _notice_ what is going on _first_ and when we do, well, it's a call to arms.  That makes me sound like I am celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (which it so happens to be) but it's not the same.  There's no violence being advocated, only vigilance and determination to take the world to be as threatening, precarious, and downright predatory as it is to we fragile (but oh so resilient) human beings.

The call to arms is called in Mahabharata the "call to the yoke," and there you have it.  If you live in a house of lac (see the Mbh story about arsonist murder attempts), you had better make sure that the Kidde Corporation's fire extinguisher that was just recalled is not the one sitting ready for _that day_ when in fact it _is_ just that one that was just recalled.  (Nothing like a true story early in the morning about fire extinguishers, eh?)  So it's surely sure that the call to the yoke ---that old fashioned warrior's summons to get the kids in the car, make sure there's gas, and head out with the dog on the roof (thanks, Mitt), is just moments away.  Do _you_ know where your car keys are?

Here's the take away, and it's important.  Hate does not win.  Violence is always the very last resort.  But anger and rage, however they bring their own consequences, are valuable, important facts of human nature.  By wide margins in last night's election results Democratic voters said that their vote was _against_ Trump and motivated by anger, dismay, and determination prompted by rage.  Victory is sweet, is it not?

Knowing what you are for is a luxury position and the sort of thing that gives you pause and makes you debate yourself and those you like (and don't).  Knowing more clearly what upsets you, what turns on the rage, that is of course easier but also _much more problematic_ because it's a short step to thinking less and feeling more.  That feel, don't think is going to cause real problems you don't want.  If you doubt me on that reference Arjuna at the Gita's opening and just exactly what Krsna says to him when he is all a puddle and starts making up his own reasons for things. If you find yourself doing that thing, then that thing you're doing, don't do that.

So what we need is rage with serenity.  Rage on, calmly.  Put your intelligence is that space of peace and remember that the binaries of emotion ---like this, hate that--- they "come and go" and are _just part of the story_.  Deal. Cope. Endure.  MAKE DO.  That is the first thing put first.  "This is the teaching according to the Reckoning (Samkhya)..." and that comes _before_ you can hear "the teaching that yokes to your intelligence," also known as yoga.  When you get there, to yoga, you find that in the center of peace is rage but that that rage doesn't debilitate you and that it brings with it _all of your intelligence_ (buddhi is the word) and discernment (more buddhi).

Rage with intelligence and you will rise to the occasion.  Otherwise you can just go sit beneath the tree and when you get up pretend that being nice will solve everything.  Good luck with that.  Rage can do you wonders.  So long as you don't screw it up.  That's the key.