Sunday, December 10, 2017

Other Worlds or Is This the Only One

"The ragged sparks blew down the wind. The prairie about them lay silent. Beyond the fire it was cold and the night was clear and the stars were falling. The old hunter pulled his blanket about him. I wonder if there’s other worlds like this, he said. Or if this is the only one."
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International) (p. 334).

There is a social media field called Rajanaka Storm because I've always contended that my "spirituality" can't be separated from politics. But by that connection I have never meant any particular policies, party, or leadership. I have meant a process of thinking. It is not what we think that makes us “Rajanaka,” Appa said, it is instead how we go about learning and thinking. I am reasonably sure that he would not agree with all of my opinions about life but he would not dispute that I have learned to think and to adjust my actions in the ways that Rajanaka teaches. After all, the field of Dharma _is_ the field of the Family, and this means that all thinking, even the methods of thinking, have political implications. The basis of my bias is that where we do our law, our duty, our principles and values is in the practical world of relationships, both proximate and exotic.

We need a two step here, so think about the image of Dancer.
(1) Step One: We need to learn how to think. This is the most essential of essential Rajanaka teachings. Rajanaka is a method of learning. I will explain more below.
(2) Step Two: We need to know that when differences emerge, both in the ways we think and what we think (and feel and believe, etc.), that these difference are real. They may bring us closer together and they may take us further apart be that in friendship or in other kinds of human relationships. Dealing with those differences is, in truth, as important as pursuing our essential shared humanity. The paradox is real and our advice is to embrace it; the problems that emerge may not be solvable, so do decide what you are going to do if that is true. Some things we “fix,” some things we can’t, so how do we live with that? Rajanaka teaches we must somehow learn to live with ourselves and with others we must learn what we can and cannot do to live with them. We must try to learn what we will and will not tolerate from ourselves and from others. Now repeat Step One.

Relationships all appear on different fields, in fact, multiple fields with multiple selves that are both fractals and fragments of the self. These fields are the place of Dharma, which means that’s where we try to hold it together in the middle of the utterly unrelenting storm that is called life. The fields are complex in form internally but they can be measured in spatial terms as proximate and exotic. A proximate field is what you think of as “home,” whether or not you are comfortable or even safe there. It’s simply what’s more near by, more urgent to your urgent attentions, it’s wherever you are now at “home.” “Home” is not some nice thing you necessarily like, it’s what you know to be familiar, whatever that is. Exotic fields put you out there either physically or mentally outside the familiar. The exotic makes us feel and understand that we are in something unfamiliar, no matter our degrees of awareness.

Whether the field is proximate or exotic, we humans tend to respond in the same two ways that describe most feelings: we move either towards or away. We cannot just stand still, there is no still. There is no neutral. One way or another you are moving towards or away. You are involved in there being more or less space between yourself and your other, even if that other is yourself. You need that space. You don’t want to be unified or one because then you can’t move, you can’t change, you would already be dead. Rajanaka rejects monism and exalts in the beauty of difference because difference is a fact that we mean not to eliminate. To eliminate differences is the definition of monism. What you actually can’t do, you may want to understand you shouldn’t actually try to do. A world without differences is not one you live in or want to live in. Every living thing shares the very same DNA. You can from that sameness, use that sameness as a way of thinking, but the beauty of the world depends on there being something different, even if it is merely the arrangement of the same DNA. Even identical twins are different.

When we move towards we tend to romanticize and attempt some form of empathy. Our understandings get blurry because we do not share the exotic others' experiences. When we romanticize that other our empathies can confuse our more honest assessments--- or we are told not to judge or, worse, that we can't imagine, can't understand, and are reproved into silence. So much for empathy working both ways. Moving towards is never easy. I warmly recommend keeping your hands to yourself, even metaphorically. Caution in difference is a not only natural, it is part of the respect we need to have no matter how much we embrace another’s difference.

When the exotic other is turned into otherness then they become an object, a thing to vilify, some idea or behavior or value from which we dissociate. This can be very poorly informed and formulated without serious evidence and critical thinking (i.e., ignorantly) or it can be, with great wariness and efforts at self-awareness, be based on more critical evaluation. We are _going to judge_, no matter what we say about being "non-judgmental." "Non-judgmental" is more usually how we describe an emotional need than a process of thinking and coming to terms with our actions. All things are really different from ourselves by definition---- including ourselves within--- and so we have complex responses, both emotionally and intellectually. We can be an exotic other to ourselves and this too will create a towards and away response.

After all, how do we learn about what we are not when all we have is what we are? How do we get to anything unfamiliar if every thought and feeling is proximate? Our only resource is the familiar and the things nearest to us may not seem to help. This means that we have to go further out from our most familiar categories, from the circles of proximate understanding. Ironically, it is when we look for more shared categories that are further away from our proximate self that we learn about our humanity. (Irony is always a good sign that you are onto the Rajanaka’s yoga.) The basic Rajanaka principle at work here is that if it is human, then it is possible to have some kind of understanding, however incomplete and provisional. Sometimes we have to reach deeply into ourselves and, at the same time, away from the familiar to see what is not-us. The further we reach away from our familiar, the more likely we can find what is shared. See the irony? This is, as Appa would put it, a great yoga.

Dealing with the exotic other is threatening because it is perfectly natural to feel that that which is not-you is going to eat you, or at the very least change you. It’s perfectly ordinary to resist the unfamiliar; think about the first time your parents gave you beets if you never had them before (or can’t remember, or just don’t feel like). It takes time to learn for oneself what it is about the unfamiliar that we like.

Part of the virtue of the romantic self is to give things a chance. That is part of the peril too. Part of the unhappy fact of otherness is that when you do your homework you might have to say, oh, no, not that. Think about finding out that some people eat their enemies. Are you prepared to accept cannibalism just because it is someone else’s long cherished custom and belief? I thought not. How we learn about exotic otherness is indeed a great yoga that takes time, critical skills, and evidence-based understanding.

There’s another Rajanaka principle too here worth our moment regarding exotic otherness. It’s more or less: when in doubt pause--- create more field--- and err if you must accept the peril of error, then error on the side of an acceptance and non-intervention. As the deeply flawed Jefferson once said that if you are not picking my pocket or break my leg, I may need to leave you to your preferences and choices. Yup, live and let live. Seems trite until you have to do it. In fact, the more the other’s view is not yours, the more one consider the good neighbors, good fences approach. I said “consider,” not take. Rajanaka is about weighing considerations, not about having fixed or certain approaches.

Appa was keen on having a lot less to say about things he didn’t study or understand until he’d really applied himself. Then his instinct was first to err on the side of indulgence, generosity, and disinterest. Had he not done that, how would I have come to live in his ultra-orthodox Brahmin household? There were things about my American life that were disinteresting to him. Had he known about everything I’d done by the age of 20 he might not have let me anywhere near his family! I jest, but not really. So by “disinterest” I mean that when he didn’t need to have an opinion, he let things well enough alone. This is because we live in many fields at once. I had what he called my “American life” too. He insisted we all have many fields and on those fields we have many selves.

Let me offer another example. So having studied Levitical Law-based Judaism, I can have some understanding of belief and behavior and I can simply not view those beliefs and behaviors as having any bearing on my own life but insofar as I share a civic relationship with such people. That civic relationship may have enormous consequences on my life, such as war in the middle east. But how we tolerate our differences may mean that we have to be less interested in any thing but our civic field. We can have a political field that we share that is not personal field of belief. But how? At what point do we need civic laws, not religious ones to govern us? Think: baking wedding cakes in the town where everyone pays taxes for every public service. Think about the people of Alabama deciding who represents them. I’m actually okay with seating Roy Moore in the Senate. I’m just as okay with calling him a bigot and fighting every last view he takes with every fiber of my being. The alternative is expulsion. When do we resort to that? Last resort.

But let us not lose the point: people can be exotic and unless we have need to invest in them we are not obliged. You are free to be curious or incurious. Rajanaka merely says that it’s best to have as well informed an opinion as possible to decide how you may then want to respond. I can walk away from the advice given in the Sermon on the Mount and think to myself (as I do), “this is terrible advice” (for a host of reasons) and still manage to not make myself a burden to others in proximate relationships. That is, I can live with my Christian neighbors and have entirely different values so long as we abide by the same rules of civic behavior. We have methods for deciding those civic relationships and they require leadership and participation. Don’t expect any of this to be fair or reasonable. No one gives up one inch of their field when they believe it is only theirs to have, not yours to share. So my offer is classic pluralism, to give it a name, though I am sure it will fail in the realpolitick of otherness. There will be strife even on the most peaceful field of co-existence.  This is unavoidable and part of being human. Yudhisthira knows this too even as he wishes it were otherwise. If you need your own personal Rama, I think you can have that but be prepared for that savior to fail you in one way or another. Before we move on to more proximate otherness examples we need to make another important point.

Rajanaka has been shaped by a relationship that is by definition an exotic otherness What I learned from my teacher and his traditions came from his experience as an Indian of a certain time in history, a Tamil, a Brahmin, a yogin, a Tantric--- albeit for him as a true revolutionary and dissident within his own world of proximate otherness. Appa’s near-world, his proximate otherness is an important key to understanding him. More importantly, it is the key to understanding that Rajanaka is a method of learning and a method of thinking, not a body of doctrines as such. Our method is our doctrine, if you will.

Appa looked at all of those things I listed above about himself, along with a thousand other variables in his life and self-creativity, and offered criticism and dissociation as a means of working through his self-formulated persona. He was a ­critic, not a follower or believer. He was contrarian, not conforming, advocating, or inculcating. He looked at familiar and exotic ideas to create a field. On that field he created by the method of contrariety the space of identity and difference. You need both to see yourself. You need both at the same time. In practice, he didn’t merely react and respond to his culture and up-bringing, he formulated himself in nearness with it and put critical space between what he understood to have inherited and himself.

He brought me ---an exotic other--- into his home on little more than his own instincts to trust me to behave appropriately in a completely strange situation for everyone involved. We flourished because we adapted to one another and because we found room for our differences, though I confess they were indeed very few. He knew I would adapt and adopt faster than others around me would learn but I think they learned from me as I did from them. He just made a field where we could do our work and live together.

What I learned was that being contrarian ---a critic and a self-critic--- is how I might cope with being a human in which differences make all the difference. Such a strategy, which is about how to think rather than what to think, makes me more tolerant, more indulgent ---remember to err on the side of generosities. I am sometimes stronger for the powers of tolerance and sometimes weaker for the admission that I am not prepared to invest further or I am all too prepared to push back. Contrariety teaches us not to disdain the other except as a last resort but no matter what to take the other as seriously as we take ourselves. You will know people for what they do, for how they act, for their generosities especially but not solely.

Let me land this plane on some recent politics to make a case that Rajanaka is far more than my opinions or any one person’s opinion.

Rajanaka means how we decide using our contrarian skills of evaluation can tell us what we want and who we believe ourselves to be. I fancy myself a liberal and rarely the kind of progressive that insists that others follow my lead or move according to my views or values. I am far less interested in telling others what to do than I am in letting them, as far as possible, do what they want. This strategy has serious drawbacks and you might not be able to enlist me in your cause if I think it is more important to be liberal than to be progressive. I had to do this everyday living in India. In a situation in which I was an “other” (and always will be), I err on the side of it not being my business to tell folks what they can and cannot do with their lives. I am eager to help when asked. But I am deeply wary of imposing myself and always looking for that line I do not want to cross into someone else’s worldview or on their field. I fancy my view like the old hunter in that McCarthy quotation.

I have carried that same boundary-making with me home to America. If I am disinvited, for example, into a Hindu temple in India I may be deeply offended ---happy to explain why I am---but I think I can understand their needs. It’s just not that important to me to be excluded no matter how I may dislike their ideas and choices. I can be there or I can go to another field. Hopefully there is another field where someone can go, just to live. The situation of exclusion may hurt my feelings, it may offend me, but I need to know what the rules are to know how I will respond to those rules. I need to know how to stand on the field or I need to find another. Refuse me a wedding cake because I am having my version of a Hindu wedding when you are profiting on my taxes too, umm, no, for that I will go to court because we have to share this field. Leave me out of your church or club and I may not care. We are always deciding what is okay and what is not.

America is not a culture, it is not a language, it is not any ethnicity or religion, even though it is all of those things compounded and in complexities. To be “American” is to be here under the law and behind those laws are our propositions and behind those propositions is our dedication to them. Lincoln nailed it really at Gettysburg. Can we for a moment leave (for just a moment) how deeply flawed he was too? Or maybe not. Maybe that is the point too. Maybe the point is that all things, all ideals, all hopes and wishes and dreams are flawed and the people who have them are flawed too. Maybe we just decide what we can stand or where we can stand.

Let me put this again in Rajanaka terms. We are not Americans for any reason but that we share fields of Dharma. The American Dharma is supposed to be those value propositions about life, liberty, and the happiness pursuit. We are bound to disagree about what those mean and we are not even going to agree about how deeply we have failed to meet those ideals, either in theory or practice. The whole set of propositions from the Rajanaka contrarian point of view is contradictory, likely impossible, in truth wrought from impossibility and contradiction itself, and let us not even consider too much further here how historically complicated and confused. We are not going to live up to these values or ideals because our historical shadow has created structures that can only change when we are serious about having even more uncomfortable conversations. No one likes those and, more pointedly, few are even capable of having them.

One of the lessons of the Mahabharata ----there is no source more Rajanaka in the sense of offering principles and insights regarding human nature--- is that the villains, who happen to be proximate others (they are cousins in the story!) are nihilists. They will burn down the entire kingdom with themselves in it just to stop their cousins from having any place in the same kingdom. Their villainy is in fact a pathology, it cannot be cured, it cannot be reasoned with, it is impervious to argument and even to compassion or indulgence. They just want their cousins morto, as Frankie Five Angels Pantangeli said emphatically to Michael about their sworn enemies. They are coming for us and we while we argue amongst ourselves, they are picking our pockets and breaking our legs or worse. What are we willing to do to ourselves to deal with them before we are morto.

Let me translate into Rajanaka-political-speak: they are going to kill us, and we may want to think about that seriously. Are we at this point with the current Republican Party? Do they want to destroy everything “we” value, and especially us? I think they do. I think they are doing a great job doing that. I think they are winning at that bigly. I think we are doing bullshit to stop them and are burning down our own house instead of listening a bit more closely to Five Angels. I think that we are also mostly powerless to stop them until we have more political power. Our efforts to gain political power seem to me deeply flawed and under current Democratic leadership and values, will fail. Call me grim. It’s just how I see it. Honest is hard.

But is this really “my” house that is being burnt down? Well that would mean I am also a part of the viable opposition, the resistance that is the Democratic Party. To believe there is another viable opposition fails to understand the structure of the political field, how it works right now in America. Two parties. Choose your evil, please. Democratic leadership is now nothing I find myself in agreement with, either ideologically or practically. I am now an other in what has been a lifetime of self-perceived self. I feel the same way about the word “Hindu.” I am a Hindu but one so unlike others that I don't much associate or identify and I won’t play in their sandbox anymore but in ways I can tolerate about myself. I expect there to be proximate otherness, I expect discord, dissent, and anger inside every family. I don’t expect we need to agree. I do think we share some notion that the other ---in this case the Republicans--- are a nihilist cult. Maybe we agree. I’m not sure.

So I conclude with two points.

First, as I have said so many times that my face is as blue as Krishna, there is no purity, there is no moral high ground. There is only the confrontation with self and other. That was the reason to write this piece, to make that clearer. What are you willing to tolerate?

Second, I find myself in disagreement about more than tactics but also this self and other problem. I am willing to see a difference between Franken and Moore such that I would not exile Franken from leadership but I would exclude Moore. Is that morally compromised? Of course it is. There is no one among us who is not, that is essential to the thesis. But you may differ in opinion deeply with me. I can live with that, no matter what you may think now about me.

Rajanaka hones your self-critical criticism so that you can live with yourself, cope with yourself, hold the strife of self in some kind of asymmetrical possibility of just carrying on, trying to do what you think is plausible in a difficult world of light and shadow.

YOUR contrarian self ---the one that contends and compares and makes calls and judgments based on your best self-assessment--- may deeply disagree with me. Please, go right ahead. In fact, the leadership of the Democratic Party has already made that choice for me. I see their choice falling right into the hands of the villains. I think they fail to appreciate the nihilism of those villains. I actually think the Republican Party are really villains. Working with them is some kind of necessity of the civic discourse unless and until there is revolution in the streets and that never works out well. I am as committed to non-violence as ever. I also think I don’t belong in that Democratic Party kula. Why? I am not going to be lead by these Democrats no matter how much I share in certain values and policies. I will likely vote with them because they are unfortunately in my opinion the last bulwark against Republican nihilism. My own sense of contrarian self cannot find room in what is clearly their room. I don’t share the field because that means going to battle with their leadership. Not any more. Emotionally, all I want to do is scream at them and tell them they are being had, fools for what they do and how they are doing it.

So that’s enough to leave myself out of what is now their conversation, no matter how they may welcome me into the room. I prefer not to support their leadership. I do hope they win, they are the closest proximate other that I can tolerate and the villains, well, they are going to kill us and the planet sooner than later.

When we like one another, actually when we love each other, we are really just tolerating each other’s otherness. Sometimes we really like that otherness, other times not so much. That’s another way to look at love that isn’t much like the “love everyone” idea. Rajanaka doesn’t require that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Rather it requires that we love enough to find out what we can live with and what we come to understand we cannot or will not live with. Rajanaka is about figuring out how to live on your field knowing that you are never alone on any field, including the one inside yourself. Do you share the field? Do you find more room so you can live with some space? To know yourself in that kind of contrariety, that kind of strife that won’t dissolve into just love is what I learned keeps me alive. I love living, and I hope you love your life too. It’s not easy to do, no matter how grateful you are for the grace of having been born human. Step onto the field that lets you live and love your life, that was Appa’s hope for us.