Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fire and Ice

I woke this morning thinking of the famous nine lines from Robert Frost that most of you will recognize.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Of course I was thinking about a world on fire and far too much melting ice. I was thinking about an America that I can no longer recognize but for the ways hopes and dreams are under siege. And I was taking it all personally because the actuarial tables suggest that under ordinary circumstances I can expect about 7,655 more days as a sentient being.

As a student of yoga I think it's always the best and worst of times. The world is always coming to some or another end, so Frost's Armageddon is nothing unusual, at least not to anyone who spends his days thinking about Nataraja's dance. I think that's pretty much all I think about, one way or another, though that metaphor may not reach as far into your experience. There are any number of ways of talking about this but every end is a beginning, a next and a more.

How we feature ourselves in a world that is always fire and ice is what Rajanaka call "yoga."

We are all obsessive beings because that is the only way to continue living. There is no "moderation" but by the imposition of a narrative that addresses the needs and consequences of our thoughts and actions.

Life is in a contest to sustain a mean that is always in crisis, always under assault, always demanding and answering to the proximate circumstances of the given. We humans are 98.6 degree creatures and the smallest variant puts us in immediate danger. Rather ironically, our homeostasis produces opportunities to act in ways that may not support our future but that too is part of our human story. We aren't really naturally adept at producing "goodness" except for the ways crisis becomes more relevant. Other living creatures seem to have more reliable instincts for survival while we have a greater concern for what is possible.

To address our needs and desires, that is, to meet the mean of sustainability, we don't seek the mean but instead seek the boundaries. In other words, to create sustainability (the mean of homeostasis) we're going to use methods of fire and ice, we're going to need to participate in creating _some_ crisis to address the crisis at hand. We measure out those things giving priority and finding ways to ameliorate what would otherwise overtake us. This is the part of adulthood that reveals how inept and competent we can be: we're inside systems, worlds of information that we don't control and to which we are subject. How we attend and what we can do depends on more than our bodies and wits though it depends on those too.

We act _engaging_ the issues of living, whether those are past, current, or future. Such engagement with ourselves Rajanaka calls "yoga."  By "yoga" we don't mean we will do things effectively or somehow for our "good," but we do suggest we could do everything better if we are able to apply ourselves more attentively. We're not alone in the world and we can't always help ourselves.

What you want becomes our question because there's always something to want. Desire is not merely a problem we continually solve---and desire surely isn't something we can really ever aver---but rather desire being what we are places demands on us to answer to it. We will become a form of our desires, for better and worse. We don't always answer in ways that promote our self-welfare or that of others, but we are capable to the limits of circumstances. Just what constitutes "better" from worse is no small matter, for that is the issue with which any competent yoga must contend. What we eat, how we live, what we do with our bodies, minds, and emotions becomes the definition of a life lived in whatever "yoga" or engagement defines us.

Rajanaka begins with a simple premise: crisis is the ordinary state of affairs constantly being addressed both consciously and unconsciously. We are never beings without needs or wants. We are always beings in search of meeting those needs and wants. We are resourceful beings because we want to survive, nay, to flourish, and so to have needs and wants met, whether or not we are advancing our welfare personall, in the relationships we require, or under the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

We seek relief from crisis in every breath and naturally driven by those stresses, we're looking for methods, intentions, understandings, and actions that we can use. We call all of those things "yoga" too.

We're complex insofar as our desire to flourish is not some addendum to survival as such, it is part of our nature. We want pleasure but there's no necessity to aver pain unless pain defines itself as an aversion. We're more likely to assume patterns that lead us from moment to moment whenever those kinds of behavior suit us---water flows down and so human beings take paths to resist less even if those paths create more problems or fail to address the crisis effectively. But what we want will not only define us, it will invite us to create a life of desires met, filled and unfulfilled. What we do about that will make all the difference.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Right as Rain

Rajanaka, Right as Rain
The Rest is Someone Else's Yoga

You may know all of this but so what. I may not give a hoot about my past or future lives---and even less about "liberation"--- but that doesn't mean I'm past repeating myself. None of us are. That's the point. Here's some simple Rajanaka for a Friday.

Yesterday's post featured a picture of shower cap boxes from Indian hotels---the singular common feature I have discovered. ALL hotels give you a shower cap. The _real_ reason is that you have come back as rain. And that's it, just as rain, less literally, more metaphorically. Let me explain.

I'm working on the Camps right now, particularly East, and other things, like finishing the Gita commentary are on simmer. What I love best about Rajanaka is how it dispatches certain claims or matters that otherwise dominate the conversations of yoga---that is, all traditions Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, even Sikh. So here is a bit of why Rajanaka is not quite like everyone else I can think of but is more like where things came from or, at least, with early Vedic worlds that invented the word "yoga."

To wit, Rajanaka gives no hoots nor pays much attention to two issues that, in some way or another, dominate all of the worlds of all other yogas: (1)recurrent death and (2) its end, its solution, which is better known as "realization," awakening, perfection, liberation, etc. Just how Rajanaka dispatches these is a bit nuanced but, um, not really. The result is an honest assessment: Rajanaka is close to complete heresy within all ordinary yoga contexts because it seizes (and stops) at Vedic goals. "Vedic" does not mean what Vedantins say in this case: Vedic means live, prosper if you can, die, repeat but without _really_ knowing you are repeating, just in the process of live now, do good, and don't fuss for eternity.

First, about this whole samsara thing. Vedic worlds don't use this term and are not concerned as are the later traditions. To wit, everyone that lives dies and everything that is living came from life and so from death. How much _persists_ from death in the process is something most other traditions are keen to discuss---hence they wonder aloud about who you have been and who you will become, where you are going from _this_ birth forward. Rajanaka does not spend much time on those kinds of contemplations.

In the Veda you came from families, you die and go to the ancestors, and if you are lucky the living remember you (because that's a nice thing) and what happens next is that you literally return as rain. Put simply, does the rain know itself? So neither do you, you are the rain returning as rain, isn't that enough? Why do you think you have to be someone? You came from memories, you make memories, you become a memory---but largely it's about what you can do now, with this body and life, and the rest is just recurrence that makes _now_. So while others spend quite a bit of time using the ideas of the past and your post-death prospects to inform this life, Rajanaka spends its time on living now and leaving (most of) the rest to eternity. Indian texts use past births and future births to motivate, cajole, inform, invite, and direct the current birth. Rajanaka is less interested in this process as a source of psychological motivation. Materially this is a more interesting topic than ever given what we know (and do not yet) about the units of recurrence aka DNA.

Second, what happens at deaths past and present into the future is usually informed by claims of extrication, excision from the process, extinguishing the process itself (this is the literal meaning of "nirvana.") Rajanaka ignores this and so upsets the _reasons_ for yoga that others posit. To wit, _why_ are we enjoined to do all this stuff that, say, Patanjali says we should do to ourselves regarding the body, arresting thought, what we should think and think about? Well, it is for his kaivalya (only-ness) of the "experience" of an eternal self (atman) that is a feature of the eternity itself that is the changeless Purusha. Why does Shankara tell us we should study, we should fathom the "true knowledge" of the Veda? It's not to figure out how to grow rice or even get children to behave: it's to tell adults that they are immortal. Why does Kashmir Shaivism want us to see ourselves as Shiva? So that we can be ecstatic in our unconditioned Self that is invulnerable to the changes that are merely material comings and goings. Why do the god-lovers (bhaktas) go on pilgrimage? To obtain liberation and prosperity from the god's grace. In other words, all of these yoga traditions have some or another religious goal---and are explicit about how this goal informs what they tell us we should do everyday with our bodies, minds, thoughts, and relationships. Rajanaka keeps many of the practices---we like to do many of the things these traditions tell us will "liberate" us---for the sake of living a better life here and now. These practices improve living rather than advance us towards or result in liberation.

Thus, the Rajanaka hat. Rajanaka is not directed towards any such religious goals, that is, goals about _solving_ the human condition and arriving at some "real" finality. Rajanaka likes living, thinks it a strange blessing and an interesting chance, and focuses on living well---whatever that means. Rajanaka doesn't use any such ultimate goals---or any goals that are not merely conditional forms of living conditionally, mortally---to provide motivation or prospects.

To wit, Rajanaka is only about living a mortal life with wellness and prosperity in affirmation of all of its conditions. Rather than solve those conditions (i.e., end suffering, claim immunity, etc.), Rajanaka embraces our conditions---and without claiming there is anything more or further to gain. Live long, prosper, and it's really up to you to decide what "prosper" means. This is why Rajanaka is not so much a "Hindu" yoga as it is a kind of throw back to the Vedic life, which only hinted at death and rebirth (who can resist?) and had no notion of an unconditional goal or immortal relief. Live, love, die, rise as smoke, come back as rain. That's it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

America's Delusion about Religion

"Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g. persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, grandiose).[…] Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences. […] The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea is sometimes difficult to make and depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity." --DSM V.

It appears that most people _really need_ degrees of delusion just to make it through the day. Life presents far too threatening a story.  So we calm ourselves with whatever we need.  We tell stories about the supernatural because naturally the facts are just too hard.  To start with the facts---at least as far as we know them---and move forward is too stressful. Best to ignore and then just deal later? Well, that's a default to being religious all the time: put it on when you need it? We cope, that's what humans do. So what's "bizarre" isn't that a given delusion "is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence."  What's bizarre is that we all seem to agree that if we call that delusion someone's "religion" that it gets a pass, that we're not allowed to call it bizarre or delusional.

Nowhere else in the civilized world does religion occupy the same privileged political place as it does in America. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." How does this confer power to religious beliefs that others do not share? The real danger of Kavanaugh and our "conservative" justices is how they will allow religion to inform the law, that is, what we are supposed to share, not merely keep as our private delusion.

Let's be clear.
Wrap up your favorite superstition or claim to ethical superiority, impose it on others, call it "religion" and it's demanded that we "respect" it. But that's not quite right, as Flying Spaghetti Monsters demonstrate. Your particular superstition has to be validated by a mass delusion, not merely your own and if millions cower in obedience then it can change the course of society. Religion is merely cult with a mob, much like dialect is to language---if you only have a few dozen agreeing with your mass delusion then you're a cult. Otherwise, put on the magic underwear and expect others to take you seriously.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Fact and Metaphors, When Your Religion Is Your Metaphor and When it is Not

As I work through again---for the 330 millionth time---the Gita and a host of traditional commentaries I am reminded how history and culture determines meaning and the complexities of conversation. When you have a lifetime of study, particularly the languages, you're always asking that very human question: What do they mean? If this is what it says, _how_ do they mean it?
I was also reading about certain Christianities  yesterday and their particular needs and claims. Later in the day I engaged a very Catholic friend of mine, educated, serious, and still very Catholic. By that I mean she said to me, "What if I told you I take these beliefs seriously? That He _really did_ rise from the dead? And the rest of it." I did my level best to keep that Spock eyebrow from rising to the point of "...fascinating," which was Spock's way of saying, "you gotta be kiddin' me." So what _is_ literalism? What is metaphor when claims are treated as facts? Fascinating.

Yesterday I wrote a piece, not wholly well-received, in which I argued that everyone---whether they admit to it or not, and however they try to deny it---has a "religion." I wasn't arguing for any traditional religious identity but only that religion is the duck in the duck test: it's whatever makes you waddle, quack, wear feathers (think it could be golf: your yoga lifestyle, and even Cuban heeled boots---and I'm not even kidding. Well mostly not.) If you have deep feelings tied to values and convictions, likely too you have community, then I'm ready to call _that_ your religion. But it still raises the question, how does your religion _work_ for you, that is, how does it tell its truths. We call claim the feeling and the experience of _truth_ but what we think truths are depends on how we think they operate, how they _work_.

Let make this point in a simple, contestable binary: we _treat_ truths as if they are facts OR as if they are metaphors. Facts don't need to stay true, they can be revised by better facts, but so long as we feel, operate with them as if they are facts, then we measure them by the results we want, we experiment with them to test them against other facts. Think of "facts" as the shortest distance between you and what others should agree to. For example, it takes the principles and facts of quantum physics to make your cell phone work because its signal _really does_ go through walls. We may also deliberately resort to metaphor---we could also call that indirect thinking or what my teacher used to call "the long way around" in contrast to facts. In this case the thing in question (person, place, thing, the noun) is symbolic and functions to tell a story. A myth then is at its best when we know that it is a lie told in the service of a deeper truth, that is, when we know it's not functioning like a fact. I've lectured on this obsessively for the past 20+ years of Rajanaka in public and since ever as a religion professor in the quiet confines of the classroom, so I think you got the point.

When I say "metaphor," I might as well be saying "myth," but not in the usual pejorative sense that we nowadays use the word "myth," because I mean it is a gateway to an experience of truth, deeper truth, which means that ideas, images, and relationships have consequences. What we think and feel _matters_ to us and it will guide how we act towards nature, society, each others, and how we treat ourselves. Facts matter. Where are those separated children? Myths matter. Justice is blind. Again, I think we're not confused about the difference this difference makes but we are not clear about what's fact and what's myth.

Yesterday I also wrote a piece about how I have more than one religion. At last count, at least three. I would regard myself a Hindu but that's in light of the fact that on February 9th 1964 at 8:12pm the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, opening their set with All My Loving, and I found my true religion. It is rock n' roll. And I'm not kidding. I said I had a third religion but I'm conflicted. (That was a joke.) I wrote that rambling paragraph about the religion of rock n' roll to make a point, and it wasn't about my tastes in music or lifestyle passions. I wanted to look like, talk like, think like, write music like, _be_ all FOUR Beatles, but that too isn't my point.

My point is that here in the 21st century it's hard to impossible to take much about religion as fact. (Fact as defined above.) Jesus rose from the dead. Krishna manifested his cosmic form. Moses talked to the bush. God spoke through the Prophet. You get the idea. Science is real because facts do their job. That truth may be incomplete, unfinished, even _untrue_ because it is found out to be incorrect or just wrong or we were lied to, but that is not the same as metaphor---and you know it. So are these claims _both_ fact and metaphor? My Spock eyebrow raises and if you say "yes," then I must say "fascinating," because I must take you at your word.

People _really do_ believe things that you, in your own heart and mind, think are _not facts_ but rather myths that guide their lives (somehow, to some degree). So we must take, say, evangelical Christians at their word _and_ we don't have to condemn any beliefs that don't impact by imposing on others. Putatively, there is room in the world for not-facts, or to put it bluntly, falsities, things that are not factually true but aren't necessarily a menace. Metaphors can menace too but only if people turn them into behaviors that become delusional fantasies in the world. Dressing up as Spock isn't a problem for me unless you think you're really mind melding with me. Then I think you've gone a step too far.

When I wrote that Rock n' Roll is my religion I was putting myself in good company. No less than Stevie Van Zandt makes the same claim, and I think for many of the same reasons. But I have a few other points.

In the 21st century your religion is about metaphors and symbols because otherwise it's factual nonsense, or most of it. You can live _by_ factual nonsense and it can guide you morally and practically to live a worthwhile life, one that doesn't even hurt others. Go for it, if that's what you want. The rules of 21st century facts _still apply_ no matter one's literal religious fantasies or what they do for you.

Hitchens, Dawkins, and others always maintain that people who believe factual nonsense are always dangerous and prone to sticking others with the consequences of their beliefs, especially politically.  But is this always true?  I would largely agree with them because beliefs do have consequences. Think about the current battle for the open Supreme Court seat. But it's still possible to have religious beliefs taken to be fact that aren't so imposing or interventionist in others' lives. If you can keep your fantasies---literal or metaphorical--- less intrusive, I'd be grateful.

My religion not only contains metaphors and uses facts (like February 9th 1964) it _is_ metaphor. When religion _is_ not about metaphors but is metaphor that's a whole'nother story. Rock n' roll is metaphor--- it is filled with stories, myths, rituals, and players about freedom, rebellion, love, peace, fury, beauty, loss, death, cars, sex, you got it. My religion needs to be metaphor because I have facts, and particularly science, for other things I need. Religion you need too for a life lived as you love it. Science is not its enemy unless your religion claims facts. Science and religion work find together so long as you try keep a naga's worth of space (that's as much room as a snake needs to move) between them and then work that seam, keep that naga moving. Ha! Metaphor never ceases because we're going to need it to explain facts. And vice-versa. Hold that paradox. Carry on.

Love your life and all of your metaphors will be keys to your "salvation" even if there is, well, factually speaking, no salvation. So while you are loving life on this mortal road to death, find the way you like to really live. That will involve making what you do---say, yoga, rock n' roll, political activism, golf, going to sci fi conventions, really anything you really really care about---your religion. And you can have as many religions as you like because metaphors, unlike facts, don't demand that others take you as seriously as you take your metaphors.