Thursday, December 19, 2019

Looking into Soul and the Soulless

"I urge my colleagues in the House and in the Senate: Look into your soul." ----Rep. Steny Hoyer

First a few paragraphs of sermon. Apologies in advance. This is the morning after the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. America hasn't been this divided since the brink of civil war in 1859. So let's ask about soul and what that means. We're gonna need some.

Soul? Truth is, you won't see what isn't there. Soul isn't a cosmic entity; it's not something we possess much less save or have saved. Soul is where we go in the depths of character to experiment with truth. Soul is the place where feeling and knowing converge. It is the decidedly human feat of reaching into conscience, into one's heart, into the differences that make all the difference and deciding for the truth.

When we make that kind of decision we can't mistake what it does to us. It asks something _from_ us. As the Upanishad put it, soul asks us to choose the real over what is merely preferred. We're going to have to start with the idea that the harder truths are not easy to accept even when they are plain as day.

Contemporary soul seekers tell us that this process begins with "radical acceptance." When we enter into radical acceptance to recognize the hard facts then what we feel takes hold in ways that cannot be denied in the conscious world, and _that_ is the soul, emergent from beneath it all.

Soul makes you joyful because it revels in such truth, even what that hurts. Soul leads you to the truest sorrow because it is the grief that must accompany love as its shadow. Forget the metaphysics. Soul is when your humanity wins out over all of the other possibilities. Your humanity doesn't always win. It can even choose not to feel itself at all.

Not everyone evolves their soul because we have to want to, we have to learn how, we can always ignore it. And it's easy to lose it because even the best of us do, sometimes. The longing to find and re-find our soul is the process of feeling more human and so more humane. Soul is when your humankind-ness becomes human-kindness.

But it's also possible to lose your soul. Entirely, even forever. You can want to do that because you have your reasons, your goals. Goals are a way of postponing the longer look into your soul. Goals substitute for meaning because goals can be achieved but meaning has to be made. The hard way. That's breaking into the soul and sometimes breaks the soul.

Not to worry. A broken soul hurts but if you know its broken then you can take up the broken pieces and make more. Sometimes other people will help too with their broken pieces and together you can make a soul that feels its worth. But when you decide to lose your soul or give up on it? There are consequences. It's decidedly human to want what you want more than anything that is true. You can be soulless. That is human too.

So back to the point of Representative Hoyer's plea. America's soullessness doesn't end with these elected Republicans. It extends into Fox Culture (I know, I know, an oxymoron). The soulless now include a significant number of rural whites who form the Fox Base. Why am I so hard on them? Because they don't want to look for anything more, anything else that moves them to look again, more deeply. They would rather have their souls saved by something other than their own efforts to look into self.  They want to be forgiven rather than learn from their mistakes. They would rather revel in their grievance culture and claims of victimhood than take up their soul work. Most don't even know that the soul needs work and that that work will be the hardest thing they ever do.

But the story gets worse because there are educated suburbanites and exurbanites who you'd think_could_ know better but they've chosen soullessness. Why? Because they have "goals" and that gets simpler still: it's really only about the money. Meaning is for losers, only goals matter. There are no moral considerations, no matters of character that they will prioritize over their "kitchen table issues"---their ethics are purely transactional and amenable to Trumpism's soullessness because they care more about money than anything else. They have personal goals, goals for their families, and nothing else has priority. This is why the Republican Party is a pathology and, more dangerously, a political force in an America that has lost its way.

All is not lost. We can look for America's soul when we look into our own and ask what more we want from life that makes ourselves a gift to others and to those deeper feelings of truth. It's the long way home.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

So? "Hwaet" or Wait, what? He Said That?

"Hwaet" or Wait, what? He Said That? So?

Say "hwaet" as if you were saying "wait," only a little breathy to start. Hwaet is the first word of Beowulf. The whole line reads in the original like this:

Hwaet wē Gār-Dena in geā-dagum, p(th)ēod-cyininga p(th)yrm gefrūnon, hū dā-aep(th)lingas ellen fremedon. 

You can figure out a slim bit of what it means, just sort of sound it out, that's the first trick to reading Old English. There's an even better way. Take three long shots of any Irish or Scots-Gaelic whisky, let the feeling go directly from the warm rush in your brain to your tongue, and you will be realizing that "whisky" is really the older word "uisce" from which we get, yes, you guessed it "water." Thus drinking whisky is drinking water. My father thought that.

If you take a few more shots sitting beside, say, the River Usk in Britain and you might as well be anywhere because you'll be teetering happily beside the River Uisce, which is in the modern tongue is the River Whisky. I was sitting not beside that river but in it about half way down a bottle of Jameson while reading three books. But all of this is to say that reading Old English begins to happen when you say the sounds on the page as if you've had a few too many. Or just have a few too many and read Beowulf, which is what I was doing late last night or really very early this morning. Either way. You may need a few other tricks to work out the intricacies of phonology and syntax, but I assure you it's easier than Vedic or Tocharian B.

Translating from English to English, Our Poem begins: "Wait. The Spear-Danes in bygone days, and their ruling kings of courage and greatness, We've heard of those princes' heroic campaigns."

There are a lot of interesting words here but let's just look at how the text begins. Usually "hwaet" is translated something like "behold" or "lo". I hate it when translators regress into Anglican Book of Common Prayer speech to try to capture the dignified tones of Downtown Abbey. Really, we can do better than that.

'Hwaet' can mean 'listen up', 'attend here', or even lookie here, yo. It's not quite 'hey, numb nut!" If we compare it then, hwaet, it's functioning not unlike the way the word "atha" often behaves in Sanskrit. Words can behave and misbehave but that is another essay entirely. In fact, 'hwaet' is doing two different things at the same time, which is why it does indeed function more like Sanskrit's "atha" and less like other exclamations like "bho". (You often find 'bho bho' in Sanskrit as an exclamation that both means to cheer something and as a way of getting someone's attention, the way we might use "yo!" on the streets of Jersey.)

Hwaet functions in these multiple ways too, that is, it means to cheer, to call you to attention, and to invite you to something worthy of your being excited, interested, usually for better not for worse. Hwaet, like atha, portends something that is asking something _from_ you and _of_ you, not just taking up space. But there is also tad more going on here.

My daughter Charlotte was the first in our family to do the, "Wait. What?" as manner of pausing to think, to be stunned, offer a deer in the headlights look, express being confounded or a bit confused about what just happened or was said. Thus, "wait." means I need to stop for a second and rethink, revise, express incredulity, doubt, wonder, wtf-ness. The "what" gets in both the content of what and the wtf-ness of what _I think you just said_. All of this might be my imaginings of some millennial affectation but it's now all standard faire in our house.

Wait. What? Someone says something that causes the need for delay and punctuation, as if something happened, we are not quite sure what, and need to express both doubt and our own introverted shock. We wonder if we are on the spectrum or if the world could possibly be what we just thought we heard. The wonder of all is directed outwardly towards the wtf-just-happened part and inwardly to the I-think-I-didn't-get-that-but-if-I-did-then-wtf part. 

Where this comes back atcha' in Beowulf's "hweat" it is dialectically like a streets of Jersey argot I would hear in my youth. When someone would say something that was supposed to have been important or meaningful we would stop them in their tracks and stop ourselves too. We'd say in reply, "So?" Not as a declaration of pause only, which is how Heaney wants us to take 'hwaet' to arrest and thereby obliterate all previous narrative before going forward but also with something like the need for more. "So?" includes a bit of confrontation, which may not be in Beowulf except as an underbelly of danger, but danger is always in the game, anywhere. Thus---this being another kind of 'hwaet' where we are being both stopped and being told urgently to keep going. Listen and Go, at the same time.  We are being confronted but, you know, in a good way.

So? Someone would say something like, "You know, it's gonna be cold on Sunday..." And taking the "you know" to be yet another version of 'hwaet', you'd say in reply, "So?" Meaning, that's important because? I should stop and think about that coldness for a reason? Why are you telling me this? I think all of this is also included in Beowulf's "Hwaet." Now it's not nearly as elegant to put the question mark after the "So." So?

I think Heaney is right when he says that the word means to stop us in our tracks. But I think it's also working like an ellipsis or even a question, that is it is literally waiting for the next sentence, it's got anticipation too, so not just a stop sign. It's a then, an atha. Heaney puts down the period and thus: "So. The Spear-Danes..." But like Sanskrit's "atha" (think: atha yoganuśāsanam), we actually not supposed to stop the previous narratives (i.e, the things we are supposed to know beforehand), but rather include them. Meaning "take all of what came before up to this point and NOW go forward" is closer to the sense.

But Heaney isn't wrong that sumthin'big is about to be said  (invoke Tom Petty's voice here to get the proper effect) and we are being called to attention and asked if we know about that. It's the ask that is coming with the 'hwaet'. There's more coming, we're not being halted only. Read it: "So? You know those Spear-Dane Kings, well, I got something here for you..." You would have to already know something about spears and their bit with Danes and their Kings, and off we go. Just like "atha" means "now" both in the sense of 'you _are_ ready for this even though it makes you wait..." and 'are you ready for this? 'cause incoming!'

Who am I to argue with the great Seamus Heaney and his "big voiced Scullions" whose every utterance was closer to a pronouncement from Scripture quoting the Lord Almighty than it was a mere sentence. But I think he might take up the idea that being stopped in your tracks is not only meant to arrest all as you begin something of Great Import. It is also to be confounded, be-wondered, lost a bit in what just happened and asking for more, asking itself, being asked to bring the past forward, being asked to see how the future will change the present if you create an opening, how what comes next is just as important as being halted to pay attention to the moment. Wait. What? What did he just say? Right. Like that.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Learning to Dream Yourself into Being

A student asked me a question today that drifted into personal matters, the sort that I usually try to deflect, at least at the University. I try not to let on too much about myself or my personal reasons for study---they should learn the history of religions and take what they want for themselves without my personal bias known to them. This way they don't feel any compulsion to approve of my opinions or deal with my overt bias, they should be able to think and express themselves without fear of offending my bias. I'm not saying that I don't have bias. I'm saying that they should not fear not to share my bias.

The question was how did I choose the study of India at such a young age (I was 18 and think now how late I was to the dream...)  But a life of language and literature, art and philosophy, and especially India's religions--- and what possessed me to go to India and accept the invitation to take up a life of cultural immersion, stay so long away from home, live like that?  And then on to what seems to be nothing less than obsession with literacy and studies in language, literature, philosophy in the west, without much reference to my academic speciality.  She put all of this out there and seemed determined to wait for an answer.

What prompted the question?  Well, I had been talking about how much of the mythological material we have been learning is not in printed sources, that comes from oral traditions. How did I gain access to that material, to the world that created those stories? This led to some explanation of how I came to learn from Appa and the further connections that arose came from those experiences. I had also mentioned in passing that I am going to teach the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings in my course next semester on comparative mythologies---eyes lifted, smiles all 'round.

My answer will not likely surprise but I thought you might find it, maybe, amusing.

We're all dreamers, sooner or later. What we dream isn't pure self-invention and that's where we must start. We come into the world in fact made by other people's dreams and hopes and aspirations and decisions and choices, successes and failures. We are made well before we begin to make ourselves because history and circumstance, context and culture, happenstance and structural facts invent us before we begin any process of breaking into those facts to shape ourselves to our own dreams. We're not helpless to create ourselves but we have to begin with all that had to have happened just to be here at all. We didn't choose our birth and we don't merely invent ourselves through the powers of individuality without myriad forces and circumstances in place, doing the shaping for us. Prelude done.

There's a pretty simple thing that happens once you are privileged enough to be able to dream. Of course it's hard to dream if you are just trying to survive or if you are being abused or hurt in ways that stifle or demean or cripple your dreaming. So you need some of The Lucky to be a dreamer at all. Maybe a lot of it since it goes back to that way you are invented by the world first. Anyways, I can think of at least a few things that went down like this:

(1) Wait. What is _that_? What just happened?

(2) _That_ is cool, I think I really love _that_.

(3) Wait. You mean you could _do_ that? Because here it is, being done.

(4) I really really _want_ to do _that_. If they did that, could I do that?

(5) I'm going to do _that_ and nothing is going to stop me.

If you can figure out what makes this happen for you then you are beginning to learn how to dream and how to dream yourself into a life of living dreams. It's not the same as making a career or a living. It's about deciding who you want to be because your dreams decide that at least as much as all the rest you have to do to live.

Let me give you a few of my own personal benchmarks for the Dreamer's Dream.

---I was seven years old when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. That night I said to myself: THAT is what I want to be able to do.

---At 12 I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Everything changed. There were worlds of language and learning, power and conflict, goodness, friendship, love, loss, evil, pain, imagination, myth. And they weren't literal Christian nonsense. Myth became as meaningful and as profound as music. I wanted not only to be Gandalf, I wanted to be Tolkien: learned enough to invent Middle Earth and their languages and endless histories.

---At 14 or so, Hesse, Siddhartha, then I met the Buddha, then came my first real taste of the Hindus in art and images and little bits of teachings of an ancient India filled with its own gods and demons, dreams and artistry, languages and cultures, all of which went right to the core, to the same place, the same feeling that was like seeing The Beatles or reading Tolkien. What is THAT? You could learn to do that? You could understand that? You could want that? I want that. Oh, you mean it's hard and going to take every breathing minute of your life to even get close to that at all? Okay, sign me up.

---At 18 India was going to happen and within those next few years meeting a handful human beings who had dreamt lives and done the real work to achieve despite all the travail, no matter what the world demanded. I was lucky again. I had examples, guides, and a helping hand because they had dared to live their dreams.

The last thing I said to this student was that it's not that important what I saw or liked or wanted or dreamt about. It's only important to have your curiosity, to like what you like, to imagine its value, to create your own dream and go live that. Now. Do that now. Keep doing that.  That you are.  Perhaps that's another take on tat tvam asi.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Faith, Complexity, and Choice: Making Yoga to Address Ordinary Chaos

In the first years of my Harvard doctoral program W. C. Smith spent a good deal of time talking about his book entitled Faith and Belief. We had more than one very difficult conversation about this book's thesis and it wasn't easy being the only implacable dissenter in a sea of the...umm, faithful. I've always been accused of not understanding his point. I merely read out of the book and replied. (Here's a bit of advice to anyone in a very competitive and merciless graduate program: think twice before arguing with the Chairman of the program because it will put you at real risk. Smith at least twice tried to have me removed.)

Smith argues that there is a human quality called "faith" that is not to be confused with belief. "Faith," he argues, must be distinguished from belief because the latter is subject to methods of verification, can and should be revised whereas faith is something that puts us in a religious frame of reference since it is a feeling that one has. Smith maintained that not only was this the key to religious being as such but that all people had this feeling. I objected on at least two grounds.

First, what if someone didn't have this feeling or claimed they didn't. . One would be in the position of having to tell someone that they weren't somehow human or human enough. The result is that the faith-thesis becomes a declaration imposed: you see, you have it but you don't know you do. The patriarchal imposition was far more than I would tolerate.  Once again The Man is telling us what we feel, what we must want, why we do things because he orders as much.  Order is the problem, as we shall see.  And it is not one we can solve.

Second, how could one claim to know another's feelings as such, much less something ethereal? When Rudolf Otto argued for "the holy" he said _on the first page_ of the text that if you didn't share his feeling that you need not read on. I would have taken his advice had it not been a requirement to read the book. It wasn't faith that moved me to do my duty; duty can be coercive or rooted in other feelings like anger or fear and prove to be just as motivating. It may matter what motivates you but it is not necessarily one's faith or feeling in an abiding value of something sublime. Why must it be?

Further, and this may be a third reason depending on how you think about it: we have any number of compelling . religious-minded behaviors or religions that demand we _not_ use either belief nor some inner feeling of earnestness and positivity to procure its promises (or results). Vedic ritual is as perfectly faithless as anything I can imagine insofar as it is, as Staal argued, acts of material transaction, which I called then "information exchange." This was disputed by another graduate student who was studying Veda and I still maintain that Vaidikas don't need faith to carry out their commitments to the ceaseless ritual life of information exchange but merely a context of social compulsions: it is what they _do_ to be human in their world. In other words, how people feel about what they are doing may not matter whatsoever if they somehow understand that what they are doing must be done. I don't stop at Stop signs because I have faith. I stop for, umm, other reasons. Professor Smith never agreed.

I never relented. I repeat: when you argue with the boss, the boss can fire you. Unless you have an ace. I try not to enter an argument with these kinds of consequences without an ace. You can still lose for any number of reasons but, as Krishna reminds Arjuna, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do---and when you do, don't be fool enough to set yourself up to lose because that's just plain dumb. No sheep to the slaughter; follow no such shepherd. When I tried to make my impudent metaphor stick, reminding all that it was not _my_ metaphor but theirs, Professor Smith was displeased at my seemingly anti-Christian sentiments. I merely reminded him that a homegrown metaphor tells us a great deal more about feelings than claims about feelings, like faith. Good thing that the Sanskrit Professor was willing to offer me a parachute---and bless his ace, offered not because he had faith in me but because in the cruel world of can you do it or can't you, I could do it. To wit, further evidence that there is information more determinative than "he liked me" and the other guy didn't. Definitely, the other guy didn't and with the Sanskrit Professor, well, you just never knew about likes or dislikes
I'm drawn to these recollections today because the people of faith are once again proving that it is not faith that moves them but rather that different bits of information that are working on them to create a complexity. Complex things are not merely complicated or confusing. Following a recipe for Thanskgiving chutney can be both complicated and confusing because you can make any number of mistakes along the way. But it could also be complex if several things have to happen _at the same time_, which makes their execution harder by matrices. 

Think of having two things, let's call them A and B. If you put them in a row you have two choices, just two. If you add C then you have six choices. If you get to J, that's 10 things, well that's 3,628,800 ways you can put them in a one row. That's complexity because all of these little things add more choices just by adding them to the mix. The world we live in is complex simply because there are lots of things and we see or need or make or don't arrangements. That's order, that's Dharma.

When things fall apart putting them back to their original order is darn near impossible. Let's say you have all 10 things lined up just so, in a way you somehow want them to be. Now they fall off your desk. Putting them back in exactly the same order might take a long time---there are over 3 million ways. If there were only 2 or even 3 things? It's a lot easier.

Life never really gets easier because there are never really fewer things and, for that matter, arrangements rarely go as planned. Complexity is a real thing, not to be trifled with if you are looking for arrangements or, as we might put it, Dharma. Back to the faithful and their seeming bad faith that some say misaligns with "true" Christian values---I mean, of course, the intransigent support of the Trump Cult. Do note that nearly all of them demand our acknowledgement that they are faithful. What we might suggest is that this is yet another piece of information, albeit a crucial one that helps us understand the seeming incongruity between their professed "values" (think: mercy, the poor, turning the other cheek, loving thy neighbor, etc.) and their behavior, which entails an imperturbable tolerance for venality. It is not that they are merely discreditable hypocrites, however true that may be if we assign the matter to bad faith. It is that they have _complex_ reasons, all of which suit their ends.

Before we turn to their psychological desire to be led which is aligned to their need to believe (rather than doubt, a trait that we know distinguishes conservatives from liberals), let's try not to get lost in all of the reasons they are "with Trump." I refer you here to a fine piece in Psychology Today that makes sure we understand the _many_ reasons the Trump supporter is with him to the end. (

The author means to explain that they are not merely deranged, that they have multiple and _different_ reasons for their choice. I find that indisputable if not at all comforting. But the author doesn't get to the heart of the matter: the matter is the complexity itself, not its contents. 

When we think the past was simpler we may not be wrong. The sheer number of different forms and kinds of information we encounter everyday has increased exponentially. And as we've made clear it only takes 10 things to make 3.6 million arrangements: now try making some and you are quickly overwhelmed by how many choices you have, without even trying. Thus, we attempt to reduce, at least partly out of subconscious frustration and feelings of being daunted and overwhelmed, and because living in a complex world requires much more than we expected---unless we have faith. Wait. What? 

Faith is the great reducer, the one thing that can re-procure simplicity, that is fewer number of things we _think_ we have to deal with. Faith tells that one god or one person or one thing can do all the arranging for us or that we needn't arrange at all. Faith tells us we aren't the arrangers, that there is another presiding agency to do that for us; we must live in the mysteries of faith. What this, of course, does is bypass complexity because complexity is real, it _is_ daunting---just go back to just 10 things arranged the one way you want them. Now we can get a better grasp of the underlying problem.

Faith makes complexity "go away" but in fact _it does not_. Faith lets us _believe_ that complexity can be solved when _it can't_. Do you have time enough to arrange 10 things in all the possible ways? Of course not. So once you get that one way you've decided is _your_ way you don't want them to fall apart. But as Yeats reminds us, "the centre cannot hold." "Faith" isn't a feeling so much as it is a way of deflecting and dealing with complexity that so deeply disturbs our sense of order.

Trump's faithful, like all of us, want to feel safe, to find meaning, or make something out of chaos, despair for a world that we cannot manage or control. They seek control, as much as they can. We all do, just to get out of bed. But the world cannot be controlled with so many variables at work at once---this being the very definition of complexity. The result is that _changing your mind_ is a lot like dropping those 10 things arranged just the way you want them off your desk. The outcomes now are chaotic because there are too many ways they need to be re-arranged just to get back to the original preferred arrangement. But it isn't just that we want the preferred arrangement, it's that we feel the chaos and, frankly, most don't like that and don't know what to do about it. Thus, the task of re-arranging your ideas, beliefs, and feelings uses faith to tell you that you don't in fact have to live in the complex world that you do.

The dissonance should be clear: there is no avoiding complexity and the world is not getting simpler, no matter what you do or say to make that happen. Unless you check out. Don't do that. What we have is a situation where people rather understandably can't fathom complexity because it is never less daunting. Faith becomes bypass because we all really do want the information to take care of itself. It won't but why should that stop us? Thus, in Trump Cult Land there is an already built in value that makes a complex world not less complex but rather lessens the requirement to address it. You can simply not change or rather say you don't because change creates too many other variables and leads to the daunting, dislikable feeling of chaos.

The kind of chaos, distraction, noise, and nihilism that Trump uses are likewise because he cannot personally deal with _any_ complexity and thus reduces "truth" to the moment, to oneness which is the most pernicious form of false order. There is no solution for those with faith in their one. To change their minds would not free them but rather _invoke_ chaos. That is, it would force them to deal with at least 10 things and so millions of variables. For many it is complexity itself that requires the reductive power of faith to "solve." But that is no solution. It is merely a way of dealing with a world that creates too many choices, feelings, things that we must understand are literally beyond time we have to deal with them.

So rather than reduce yourself to the false simplicities that let faith do the work, we can make a few alternative proposals.
(1) The world is never going to be more amenable to faith providing much help because it is never going to be more simple. Just count how many things are on your desk at any given moment.
(2) Thus complexity, made of many simpler things by quantity (or the illusion thereof), will not reduce and this fact means that too-much-ness is our ordinary crisis of chaos.
(3) The "solution" is not to reduce---the faith bypass being one of the worst choices. Rather it is to live in complexity with an appreciation of what cannot be done---real limitations---and what you are willing to do, or what can be attempted knowing it may or may not be able to be done.
(4) Living in the space between what cannot be done because we are complex beings living in an increasingly complex world and what you _want_ to achieve is what Rajanaka calls yoga. 

Yoga is engaging yourself as a complex being. That means not merely "accepting" or recognizing complexity as ordinary crisis made of everyday complexity; it means finding room to embrace boundaries that move in ways we can control in limited ways and can't control because otherwise complexity will consume us.

Time (kālā) becomes finite when we realize that infinite is, like faith, a reduction, a bypass, a choice not to deal with complexity. What we need instead is to learn how to savor the complexity, the crisis itself, the fact of chaos being the best choice. You can learn to live with the risks or become simple. But simplicity is by far the less interesting life and one that puts you at even greater risk. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On Karma, Meaninglessness, and Moral Creativity

We've been having a conversation about karma. I will not implicate the other protagonists here but I thought it might be useful to bring a few comments to our broader context.

The premise is simple enough. Karma is used in Indian thought as what I have called "the explanation of everything." When people think that everything happens for a reason they can be confused and comforted all at once. They don't want the confusion; they are reaching for comfort, for the comfort of meaning.

Of course, this meaning-comfort almost immediately bumps into emotional dissonance that leaves us in more narrative. It's not unlike lying where we always need another story to keep a story together. Sometimes that's a good thing but in this case, in the meaning-comfort matter, it's anything but, it's more like a lie that the sub-conscious knows is a lie. Our cognitive dissonance is not far behind here because karma seems even more cruel and pointless than even the capricious God of mystery (ask Job if you doubt that). We are desperate for meaning because we crave consolation in a world that offers only what we can create.  Why do bad things happen to innocent people?  How could _that_ happen and why did it happen?  So what then are we to make things?

It sounds too cool, too much Spock to say but it can be so helpful to remember that natural facts are never moral facts. The natural world has no ethical purpose; only humans create virtue or vice. There is love and compassion when there is mutuality and care---that's indisputable. Witness the wonder of elephants or that baby raccoon rescued and imprinted by humans who must then figure out how to get that creature back into its world. But with human beings our feelings and instincts, our emotional lives are inextricably woven into the lessons and experiences of nurture. What we _can_ do and who we _could_ be are matters of more than instinct and imprint. We make our worlds no matter how the world has made us. Please, a bit more?

The story here is part of humanity's "easy way out" reckonings. Karma is an important part of India's easy way out, it's bypass. It's not unlike Calvinism's predestination, Luthern submission to "God's will," the basic Christian claim that the omniscient and merciful God has a plan. Good luck with that. Feel consoled? Got meaning?

The idea is that somehow divine or cosmic determinism provides explanation and comfort when the world presents itself instead as indifferent and lila presents itself as anything can happen without our moral needs or personal preferences for meaning. We might well ask ourselves why humans do this, why they seem seem to need this kind of totalizing claim for meaning.

My reply won't surprise you. It hinges on two matters. First, we humans really do _need_ meaning and when we are confronted with more than the mere potential of meaninglessness. We must face instead the _potency_ of meaninglessness as another fact of human existence. Second, _making_ meaning in a world that includes lila is a difficult, complex task that depends on human vulnerability, provisionality, and our fragile co-dependence.

_We_ must provide our "stand," our must become the "pillar." Krishna says literally "stand in yoga" long before he offers the bypass of divine consolation. We might argue the latter comes not as a remedy but as itself a consolation to those who cannot fully ground themselves, that is, _stand_ in the harder yoga of engaging a solely human task.

In other words, we may have to rely on ourselves and each other when we would rather reach out to some meaning-providing-principle like karma or God. Naturally, we all know that humans are not only frail but flawed and incomplete---so we look beyond ourselves for "truths" that are somehow truer than ourselves.

Enter Rajanaka. There are no truths truer than our humanity can provide. And those human truths are never absolute even when they are as reliable and as resilient as any proven fact. Truth is always in crisis even when it need we know it need be contested in ways that trivialize or diminish the value of human knowledge. Not everything is up for grabs because not everything is _worth_ doubting. That means yet another judgment call. That means we have to create a more honest understanding of when limitation _serves_ us and so serves up truth and value and purpose.

There is no limitlessness within the mortal coil and everything we might say happens only from within our boundaries and so involve our limitations. But such limitation is not a problem to be solved. It is a crucial part of being human and it can be received as yet another gift of wonder and value because, well, here we are, we live, we experience for now the astonishment of consciousness as life embodied. Isn't that wondrous enough?

Moral creativity is among our most important human tasks. Consolation and compassion are among our most endearing and significant human gifts. But they are all matters of what we can do from within lives that are imperfect and vulnerable. And that is the greatest human gift: you need not be perfect to learn how to learn, to learn how we might love, to be you being a better you.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Grace of Greatness

Today I was deeply moved by two events that happened to coincide in time and in ways that took me to a deeper personal appreciation and understanding. I thought I might share just a few words about those experiences and try to convey how much this day meant to me.

In the Gita, Krishna calls it “standing in yoga.” My teacher Appa described that “standing” with a powerful and compelling observation.

Appa taught that we will all succeed and fail in the course of a life and that we must take account of both. He knew we are not indifferent, that we will care and will remain engaged and involved in our passions and hopes and aspirations. He understood how complex and confusing it can be when we take success and failure to heart, especially when we are called to act on principle and disavow the merely transactional world.

Appa urged us to understand the stakes and take stock of what is important, trying not to conflate our preferences and passions with truth and the need for patience, forbearance, and tolerance. He knew that, no matter what we say, we actually do care about our critics and that we hope to do well for ourselves, bring credit to our family and friends, make an offering for the world. He taught that in success and failure both we make contributions to living and learning.

Appa also had the idea that we want more than to survive, we even want more than just to thrive; we want in our soulfulness something far more than success even when we are mature enough to accept the sobering truths of life, including regret. We all want something more from life.  Not all of us admit it or know it or believe it.  But that soulfulness comes from the core and even when we are numbed by pain or disregard there is a feeling we will feel.

Many spiritual traditions make their own promises of the “more.” Some call it “liberation” or “awakening” and there are a thousand descriptions.  But in all of these vocabularies we are pushed past the merely mortal and into something that challenges our assent.  At least it challenges mine.  Let me put the matter more clearly in a personal context. Even as I first went looking for that very traditional understanding of the “more,” for liberation or some and another “unconditional reality,” what I eventually came to learn was how Appa had liberated me from liberation.

To be liberated from liberation means simply to find that more, that sense of deeper meaning and purpose and value in life in this life, in the feelings and actions, the understandings and commitments that bind us to this world. I was not looking to be freed from the world or even to the world.  I was looking for something more to bind me, to make me care.  To love such a life freed from liberation means that we will also learn as much to grieve and so succeed and fail as well. The more we might seek Appa called the great, the mahā. This is a familiar term because it’s used in Sanskrit as a modifier, a kind of prefix: we have great souls, great gods, great journeys. There is greatness but what is it? Truth to tell, there are many ways to experience the grace of greatness.

This leads me to today’s events.

Today Elijah Cummings lies in state in our nation’s capital, the first African American lawmaker to do so. I saw also the photo of a friend fortunate enough to offer his own respects before the mourning shawl gracing Congressman Cummings’ place on the podium of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. What moved me to my bones was thinking about what it took to be Elijah Cummings. We can, of course, list his accomplishments, enumerate his successes, and we can admire the depth of his character: the pain, the passion, and the purpose of his life. All of these things contribute to the “greatness” we describe, the evidence of a mahā life. But there is one more thing I hope to fathom.

It is this: Congressman Cummings believed so deeply in the aspiration that is the American Experiment that he devoted his life to its realization. That aspiration is stated in the country’s founding documents, it is reasserted in President Lincoln’s call to dedication. It is the proposition that would make America a more perfect union. It is of course the claim that all are created equal and that such equality confers on all of us an opportunity to reach for more. Those rights are declared to unalienable and promise us life and liberty and our own pursuit of happiness, however we may construe such happiness under the rule of law.

I don’t mean to offer a civics lesson, much less to make this about lofty promises without honest accountability. I mean to say that such aspirational claims must be understood as much in light of America’s shadow, its original sin, its long history of injustice, racism, and inequality.

Who understood that better than Elijah Cummings? Who experienced these facts of history, these facts of life more directly and personally?

Certainly, there are other women and men, leaders in this very Congress dedicated to such a life And all of them share with Elijah Cummings some of the same greatness to which I am referring. All choose to serve. They serve their country, their constituents, the people. Now it strikes me as equally plausible that they could instead dismiss the American Experiment as a mockery of these erstwhile propositions. They could spend their productive lives in honest grievance for what they suffer daily. But they do not choose rancor, disenchantment, antipathy, or indifference. They chose courage. They act from the heart. And when we choose courage over carelessness that is greatness. I wept for Elijah Cummings today because America is the poorer without him but so much the better for his great heart.

Like I said, today was a day.

Today is Doc’s birthday. And I am here again to celebrate greatness. My friend Dr. Kishan Pandya had a distinguished and deeply accomplished career as an oncologist. He was loved, not merely admired for his work, his example, his humanity. If there is an archetype of the compassionate, learned, and wise physician, then Doc was every bit The Healer. I came to know him in very personal ways, invited so generously into his family and his conversation. I could go on for days: he gave all of us so much. But it is how we happened to meet that tells me about the more that is greatness.

Doc retired early from medicine to pursue “other things,” he said. Those “things” included music, both in study and performance; travel, not merely to see the world’s wonders but to feel more. One afternoon he also came to see me.

He was intent on learning Sanskrit, something he said he always wanted to do. He could have just retired. But day after day, little by little, again and again he came to classes and then to my office. And he did all the work. Eight years we studied together and just before his passing he lamented that we’d just run out of time.

Doctor Pandya answered the call that came from inside himself. He’d earned this privilege and then made himself a gift. Again and again.

Doc was great in so many ways but it was how he answered to his heart, how he felt it so urgent, imperative, and essential to realize his dreams that brings me to wonder. When you answer to your heart, that is greatness. When such a calling includes caring for the world, for one’s responsibilities and tasks that is a grace of greatness we must also try to feel and fathom for its meaning, for the change it can bring. There is all we must do and still, still to be yourself?  Doc would have been seventy-one years old today. My love and grief are inseparable but I would have it no other way. To keep the company of greatness is a gift of grace that comes from those who’s greatness is grace itself.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Courageous Heart Breaks, What Then Is the Core?

My teacher once said, "The heart is made of courage---it is not fragile or weak---but neither is it invulnerable." Our vulnerability means that the light we might create to fuel and minister is susceptible to every kind of incitement and service. There is no certain or inevitable outcome.

Our courageous heart can be made into any kind of heart because the core of our being is ours to fashion, to build and sculpt. We can just as well service our potential with falsity and fear as we can with truth and fortitude. To live in such a place of the heart we will also have to break it, be broken, and attend to missing, broken, and extra pieces. We'll feel found and lost, together and alone: we will need to learn how to engage and persist.

We don't like to think that we can be rotted at the core. Christians like their redemption claims, Hindus like to assert an immaculate center of being, a self untainted by the world, Buddhists tell us that our core-less core is free without the burdens of self. But no matter what hope or possibility these traditions put forward they may also not quite come to the heart of the matter for fear they could be right. What more might be true?

The Rajanaka view as Appa explained drives through the middle of these claims with sobering and, as I see it, more powerful possibilities. We need not reject other views so much as suggest there is more. Our core is neither an immaculate purity of goodness nor entirely empty for us to create. To wit, some basic Hindu and Buddhist claims may need some (more) rethinking.

We are beings made into a core from provenance and history, from deep imprints and memory, from what we can call karma. But karma is action, it is dynamic, changing, and developing. We are not stuck in our karma and our core is not a settled matter. This is the heart of the matter, this is too karma, and our vulnerability at heart is our chance, our risk and opportunity. What we can do to help ourselves is not wholly up for grabs---we _were made_ in ways we were and will always contend and be compelled to speak to what we do not fully control or comprehend.

We can nurture our courage to goodness and we can feed it with malignancies, both are possible. What we call yoga teaches how to do more of the one, less of the other. But it also must recognize the powers of the unconscious, the social and historical facts that contribute and decide, the ways our individual needs carve their own pathways without requisite need for awareness or consent.

Our core of character and feeling, our inner sensibilities originate in light and shadow that come to awareness only by "doing the yoga," that is, through the difficult and complex processes of introspection and cultivation. We don't become better without joy and sorrow, success and failure, celebration and regret.

We need the pairs of opposites to come to the deeper possibilities we call "great" (that's the word "maha-" and something we can explore further. There is "greatness" and it might be more than we thought. (Rajanaka poses no certain claim to a perfect, untainted, or blissful center of soul. Neither does it teach we are freed if we free ourselves from all expectations, forsaking even expectation itself, freed from self.

The self we are is found in the selves we are becoming. When we bring the powers of receptivity and acceptance of shadow into fields of consciousness we can accept the invitation to cultivate---and to cope and to learn how to live with ourselves. There are possibilities for a courageous heart because the heart wants to be true, it wants to feel that courage. But truth to tell it doesn't really know how.

The heart does not know in its aloneness or without help. Who exists without help? We are vulnerable because we really must learn more about being human by being human. That means we will succeed and fail, win praise and deserve blame; it means that we will need tools and methods, make commitments and practice, that we will have to demur to learn from experience and amend as time and circumstance demands. We are better judged by the kinds of questions we are asking than by the answers we give.

The heart will first cloak itself to conceal the vulnerabilities it sees. But it will go even further to avoid attending to vulnerabilities, hidden shadows, or failures that it can't or won't recognize. This is because our courageous heart wants the feeling of courage, its power and authority to be as easy as it is real. Our hearts beat effortlessly until they cease---or so we want to believe.

The feeling of courage is yet another dissimulation of courage. An unexercised heart, be that physical, emotional, spiritual is not only vulnerable it is weak, enervated, and undependable. (Krishna calls this "durmanasah" in the Gita.) The "problem" is that the effort we need, the processes of engagement, _the yoga_ is going to ask everything of us. It's going to give aplenty in return for that effort but it is also never less vulnerable.

If we claim invulnerability we forsake the better possibilities of courage. Virtues are the rewards of courage but because they burn so brightly their shadows invariably appear darkly. We all know too well how goodness may bring unforeseen and unwanted consequences.

Krishna advises us that such acts are worth the consequences but cautions us to understand how much more we yet will need just to withstand the truths we experience---and those we don't. Hearts left unattended may be fortunately innocent, given to the good and courageous because they have been well-held, privileged with love and grace. But even such goodness cannot avoid the wounds of every life. And it is just as possible that circumstances are less fair or protective, that wounds cut more deeply, that corruption and infection does its work too. There are, we should remind ourselves, no guarantees especially at the heart of the matter.

Some will indeed do the work to grown, change, and evolve, to repair and make amends, some will try to rebuild an inner structure with decency, using remorse and even shame as assets put to real actions. But it appears just as possible to see how some can never come to any of that task and how they will have forged a core that is incorrigible, one that becomes so deeply rotten that it does indeed define their nature.

We are free as humans because our vulnerable hearts will become us. I move now to a piece of morning news, which actually prompted this longer reflection. Charles Blow writes about the continuing hypocrisy, the inexcusable, shameless venality of white Evangelicals supporting Trump. He has more pointedly understood how "Conservatism has been unveiled in all its craven glory. No longer is it shrouded behind morality, small government, traditional values and spending concerns." (NYTimes, 10/14/2019)

The very core of Blow's argument is that there is a deeper anger, fear, and disdain that Trump uses. He stokes the pathologies that shape the history of American racism and, particularly, white Evangelicism. Specifically, Blow cites the vulgar statement at the Trump rally about how Vice President Biden has "kissed Barack Obama's ass." He explains at length the white fear of submission, the triumphalist need for supremacy and dominance, its relationship to America's original sin, Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction.

Trump may be indulging in another thoughtless, vulgar Trumpism but what we must remember is that the reason Trump "tells it like it is" is because he speaks from a morally debased, wholly racist id that reveals a rotten core. Trump has shown us not a broken heart but an unbreakable heart---and nothing could be worse. Sadly we can say he really does speak from his heart and that it is an irreparably damaged and depraved place.

Of course, the masks we use to rationalize or defend our feelings are endless. Religion always provides more. Church-going can help, no? I mean you get to gather with your peeps, sing some, say your tribal words together, go to coffee hour and feel good about yourself. All the while you can share in the masking of those deeper no-need-to speak-too-loudly feelings you also share, feelings based on fear, grievance, anger, and racism. The confirmation of the group never fails when it responds so aptly to human individual needs.

Theodor Adorno once reminded us that the reversion to barbarism is always an option. Why is that possible?

An important reason for this is clearly articulated by James Baldwin. Baldwin once wrote, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." Here lies, I think, the crux of the matter.

When the pain is so deep, so endemic to the structure of a collective inheritance, hatred's mask not only hardens, it provides the weapons and the battlements to besiege the heart. The heart is not immune, it is not so pure or present that it cannot be touched. The walls of our core are porous and vulnerable by nature.

If "purity" or impenetrability were true we would not be human; we would have to claim an immaculate divinity and then make excuses for debasement and corruption. Rather it is more likely the case that because we are _genuinely vulnerable_ that the heart will take on shapes and forms that authorize our experiences and that corruption itself becomes its nature, entrenched within, consuming its other potentials, like empathy, goodness, and tolerance.

When this corruption happens this is no force compelling the hatred to deal with its pain. Instead, the hatred nurtures a solemn anger---one well-suited for Coffee Hour in the Church undercroft or a Trump rally---the kind that can use solemn religious tones after having gone to "the show" the night before. Add some confirmation bias, a tincture of Dunning-Kruger and the artless deal is sealed.

You have hearts that can no longer find their way but through these well-carved paths of certainty and invulnerability. There is no imperative to begin any remedial or mitigating effort. It is more soothing to launder in the bile because in truth there is no necessity for restoration or revival: you can't put in what karma left out when you don't want to do the work.

What should we do in response? Voltaire comes to our rescue again. Tend your garden, as Candide says. Do the hard labor of the heart for it is just like gardening: you can't fake it or make it look right without the work. Remind yourself that rest is too part of the better labor and keep that good company that supports your effort. When the day's done and the shadows come, and with them the darkness, engage again to all the spaces inside the vulnerable heart. We will at least be human and that courageous heart will be what you need and with it plenty to share.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

About the Nihilists

Nihilism is a distinctive human quality. What other living thing plans its own annihilation and intends to bring everything else along? How many of these Trump Nihilists are Christians steeped in apocalypse claims? Oh, right, Evangelicals are his staunchest supporters. How many are cowardly sadists who want others to suffer because it somehow serves their personal pathology? Right, they support child separation and babies in cages because they want "strong borders." The real world around them burns but they deny climate change and any effort that might effect their immediate economics. Right, in fact, their economic situation will collapse with the planet. What fuels this sociopathy?

It's built in. We need an Alfred Pennyworth Moment. He tells Bruce Wayne: "Some men just want to see the world burn." The Republican pathology requires this constituency to stay in power. See the Edsall article cited in the first comment.

Oh, and Rajanaka folk: Duryodana is the archetype for this sickness. Not even five villages for the Pandavas. Not even the fear of a rebirth is enough. But why, when Duryodana has everything a person could want? It's because nihilism is real, it's not been selected out. And why is that? Mahabharata gives us the first clues.

The shadow left unattended, fed and nourished like the demon of narcissism, born of fear, denial, rejection of the very real process that we _need_ to become socially viable. We must all "repress" to flourish and all of that we stuff in the bag and drag behind us: hopes, desires, expectation, dreams, we stuff them away. Much of this we must do, just to do the next thing. But we can unpack these experiences and accept the complex process that tells us that our freedom is more than doing whatever we want, whenever we want that.

Our problems arise from our unwillingness to take these matters to heart, from our lack of skill to examine them, from our rejection that claims we're all just light. Or we believe someone else---God, Jesus, thoughts and prayers---are going to do the work. We're more confused than that because we possess a deeper consciousness that reside beneath the surfaces, every one of us is more complex than we imagine, all are more messy than all that.

And again, this is not the problem nor something we can "fix," remedy or repair. We can, however, learn to live with it and flourish. But only if we are honest enough to want to learn. And this is why we need the myths.The nihilist wants a simpler world, one with only his own light, one that never looks into those feelings and unrequited desires, incomplete dreams.

We are broken beings, we have missing bits, we have extra things we don't even know we have---and none of that is the problem. So much of what hurts we did not create, it was done; we're not in control of it all and never have been. That is where we can start.

Our problems arise from our unwillingness to take these matters to heart, from our lack of skill to examine them, from our rejection that claims we're all just light. We're more subtle, more complex, more messy than all that. But only if we are honest enough to want to learn. And this is why we need the myths.

Look here for the data:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

When the Power is an Uncomfortable Truth And Speaking Truth Might Ask More From Us

Once in awhile a mainstream media writer has the nerve to speak truth to power when that power is also a sad, ironic truth. Words have power, feelings have power. When we take more seriously everything about being human, it won't necessarily make life easier or happier. But it might make life a more honest journey into the heart and towards the soul. Not some metaphysical "soul." How about just a closer connection to everything you feel deep, deep down?

As Frank Bruni points out this morning another powerful truth is that hate is real, potent, and will not be eradicated anytime soon, as in ever. Hate is an easy sell and so are the soporific denials. Our better alternatives will ask more from us and we'll need to be lucky too, 'cause it's a lot better when we were taught young, early, and often. When more is asked from us, we will need help. We'll need teaching, practice, and support. We'll need examples and leadership and those folks will understand their own vulnerabilities, mistakes, and intractable imperfections. Nevertheless, we've got to persist.

Sadly, this also means is that there will always be bigotry, injustice, and oppression too, the true bedfellows of hate. We can add others, like fear, ignorance, and anger. Even more complicated is the fact that all of these "negative" feelings and expressed emotions can be put to important positive use. We can become better not only living with them but bringing them deeply into conversation. Applying them requires even more assiduity, humility, and grace. Who among you does not hate injustice? Please do. Then what? What more does this invite us to feel and do? No experience stands alone. When our emotions become isolated we're in trouble: isolation creates delusion, fantasy, denial.

We are more likely to insist that our ideals and other feelings are somehow more real. We want the better angels to be _more_ real and the demons just delusions or _just_ demons. When uncomfortable truths become more complex truths they prefer to remain unspoken. If we dare to speak then we will be held accountable.

That kind of power in words is important but easy to deflect. We don't want to hear about how negative things are part of us and certainly not that these feelings serve important roles and purposes. This means also much will remain unexamined, suppressed, and ignored until the next time the real world comes to hurt us.

No politician could make Bruni's argument in America and be elected dog catcher in a town without dogs. Much less can one proclaim one's self a no-God-er---in fact the second largest American "religious" denomination---and become president. Religion must never be anything but "respected" and somehow endorsed. Don't ever suggest that the 1st Amendment had a more complex notion in mind.

How about that religion could be a positive detriment to being a better person, fraught with hypocrisy and false consolation that manipulates and coerces. Or that your personal beliefs must withstand public scrutiny in a world in which we struggle to understand truth and facts and this mixed up world? Tell uncomfortable truths or, at the very least, suggest an unpopular "truth" and expect to be shouted down, ignored, or exiled.

What Frank Bruni writes today in The New York Times will make you cry. He writes about hate email, a college professor who tells him that she prays for his mother because he is gay. He tells us how his mother long passed now from cancer loved him for who he is and how so many seem incapable even of accepting him.

Love does not conquer all, much less hate. We'd prefer it otherwise but the stakes are too high for soporific balms, the wounds cut deeply, the facts on the ground will tell us otherwise. No one likes to hear this, especially those doused in religions that claim otherwise. We can love, we can learn to love, we can try to understand why we possess hate as a feeling, as a viable possibility, even when it might be helpful. Who wants to hear that? Who wants to consider how our angels and demons must converse, not merely contend?

When we are in denial we put ourselves at a disadvantage to do what we must to survive, flourish, and create a better world. Of course, we can use love to counter hate but you _know_ there is far more to it than we like to admit or even consider. Humans learn to hate, we know that too. Hate is not mental illness. We're all gonna feel it. All of us.

Hate is also a world view, something about which we can exercise choice, explore feelings, apply our reason. We're not helpless. We can shape our world view even when it has been shaped for us, even if we must accept uncomfortable truths about human nature. We can make and remake ourselves no matter how we've been made. That is what Rajanaka teaches is the power of yoga.

Rajanaka taught me that we're better off if we can accept the _all_ of our human condition And then we can consider more who we want to be, what could be if we applied ourselves to the complex truths of human life. This often means accepting deeply discomforting truths, things that can't be fixed, stuff that will never go away, even hate. We are never immune from these darker realities, not even the best of us. So? Good news ahead...

We can learn how to look more deeply into our souls, alchemize the darkness with light, and become more astute, more vigilant, better prepared for being wholly human. But we have to learn how to do this. Life doesn't come with a manual but humans can learn. Even better, we can be educated. Bees, even planaria can learn. But we humans have an uncanny ability to question, to follow the evidence where it leads, to keep ourselves asking. That requires courage---but we have to learn how to turn to our hearts because it's just as easy to want answers instead of questions, certainty instead of doubt, and it's easier still just not to bother.

Not everyone _can_ do this, for all sorts of reasons. It takes more than free will or effort. We need to give people the chance, when we can: that too is the yoga, the engagement and conversation we can have.

Some people will always want to see the world burn. Some will never get a chance to help themselves. We can try, with heart and soul engaged, and we can do the yoga for ourselves. We're not stuck in our human nature because we can learn, we can grow more. Not without each other. May we teach our children well.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A Note about the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part Two

A Note about the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part 2

Connecting to our feelings is no small task. It’s going to take more than a deep desire to want to do the work that explores our feelings. We’re going to have to push through, use and become more aware of the processes that make us human as individuals formed by nature, family, society, and our own conscience. The tools of yoga have often been used to attenuate or dissociate from feeling but just as well may be used to connect in ways that bring those deeper sources of experience into thought and language. We’ve explored that ever so briefly in our Part 1 of this note.

The thesis is this: we can learn how to parse our feelings into more feelings, we can work to identify the complexities that originate in the primal stuff of living as embodied beings. Here we will consider again briefly how thought and ideas brings us to feelings, directs feelings, informs and creates feelings. The thesis is that the process we described from feeling to thought likewise takes us from thoughts to feelings.

Words matter. Humans have language, complex speech helps define us as a species, we are talkers and thinkers. Can we think at all without words? Are words our thoughts? If thoughts are types of feelings what is the connection between the ideas we have and learn and what we feel?

Indian tradition has about as many answers to these questions as we have in western philosophy and modern cognitive science. It’s well-worked and complex territory but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make a few remarks of our own. Academics always begin everythieng they write by saying it’s provisional, that there is more research, by doing extensive Cover Your Ass so that they feel safe from themselves and their critics. Let’s just care a bit less about that for now.

If I just persuaded you to try on this idea and to care a little more about working on the thought-to-feeling matter then I’ve already made my point. What we say to ourselves and what we hear, read, and learn gets inside us. It may be a long and winding road to the soul but words and sounds and images and ideas matter so much that they can go directly there before we know it. In other words, we have the word-sound-image experience even before we register the experience, much less interpret it, understand it, or even know what is happening inside. Words and thoughts, like sounds and images, cut to our core and it is only after that happens we begin any process of understanding, interpretation, and meaning. The soul gets it before the Self recognizes it.

The processes and tools by which we then create meaning need to be learned. This is one of the meanings of yoga itself: that the engagement is not just natural or intuitive, learning isn’t just going to happen because we breath or live another day. It’s going to take work, the proper tools, and connection not only with one’s self but in relationships involving conversation that compels us to reach further into our critical capacities and meaning-making abilities. In short, you can’t do this alone no matter how much of the work only you can do on yourself. That is at the heart of yoga.

No amount of asocial, misanthropic introspection will give you all that you need and nothing about learning in the conversation is going to be particularly easy: it will take useful sources, good teachers, and more time than you ever budget. It’s not going to end either, so give up on that past-participle nominal enlightenment that tells you that you are awakened or perfected.

It’s impossible to ignore the trauma of this age too. We are experiencing leadership that has used words to incite violence, to dog whistle and connect with genuinely evil and malicious persons. We are in a test of character that takes us from words, sounds, and images into actions based on feelings and, dare I say it, indoctrinations. We humans are as vulnerable to words as we are to feelings because language is not something added on or extra to our nature, it is a part of what makes us human. We are also individuals and by definition isolated as experiencers of our own bodies and minds. But these experiences are never really apart from the contexts of our being human, that is, from family and upbringing, from circumstance and history, from the fact that to be an individual is to be social and made by forces greater than our individuality.

Life is not just the choices we make but the complex seen and unseen processes that create our choices. Americans don’t like to be told we are made but that we make ourselves—and yogins have said much the same. But the truth is that we use (and sometimes need) this delusion to remind us that we are responsible for ourselves and stewards of our soul whether or not we understand how we have been made and how choices are structured for us and not always by us.

Thus, words, sounds, thoughts, images not only matter but they can determine more about our feelings and emotions than we are ever aware. This is because the connection between thought and feeling like mind and body is indivisible while the process by which we comprehend, investigate, understand, and interpret those connections is learned and requires hard work, soul work.

Yoga is soul work. Yoga is the connection to meaning and meaning is hard-won, it is on-going, and it is always incomplete, unfinished, provisional, and in pursuit of more. Soul work means that we understand prima facie that the things we experience through our mind and cognitive processes go right to the body, to the core of feeling, through emotions, there and back again. When we haven’t done any soul work, when we aren’t learning how to connect the world to our inner selves, then we are especially vulnerable to indoctrination, to propaganda, to ways in which we accept “truths” without knowing how to consider what is true.

The key here, if I may conclude, is this: the connections we experience between feeling and thought (let’s just call it that) as it is between thought and feeling are organic and direct. Feelings become thoughts and language. Language and thought go directly into our feelings. But which feelings? And what happens then? When we don’t care for each other then we are easily manipulated and moved to take the easy paths. Hate is an easy path because it connects desire to fear and anger. But the difficult path leads us through and with all of our emotions, the feelings that we experience in the complex matrix of thought-experience.

We can learn and explore how we have all been made, “indoctrinated” as such by history, society, family, and personal experience. We can use language and thought and images with greater care to impress upon our feelings, to make the samskaras as we might term them that take us to empathy, compassion, and care. We will need thought, we will need imagination because my experiences are not yours and we must somehow connect. When we do this poorly there is no limit to the horror or the venality that can appear: humans are capable of evil and that is because we have not cared or nurtured the connections across the great matrix of experiences, we have not learned how to connect to our feelings, honor the power of language, understand and interpret their relationships. What we think will be what we become and what we feel will take shape in what we say and what we do because saying is doing too.

Perhaps this is enough for now. There’s always more, of that I feel quite assured. In the meantime care for your feelings and care for your words because they will converge in your soul and that is the place where meaning is made and becomes life’s choices.

A Note About the Yoga of Feeling and Thought, Part One

Too often, I think, we see feeling and thinking as if they are antagonists or, worse, incommensurate. That we can't be one when we are being the other. How do our feelings connect to thought? Do they? Should they? Let's ferret that out a bit more because the matter is far more complex than a simple yes or no.

How do we make a deeper connection between what it means to become a more empathetic and caring person and our critical abilities?

The Gita begins with just such a problem. Arjuna comes rather quickly to feelings that Krishna calls a "weakness of heart." The precise term is durmanasah, which ably translates as well to be "poor thinking." The word "manas" means heart and mind or more properly heart-mind and mind-heart. The prefix dur- is the opposite of su-, thus good/bad, unsanitary/salutary. It's likely a deliberate effort to create an equivalence and push the emotional description into cognitive realms. That is, how we feel is not different from what we are thinking.

Wittgenstein made a similar claim at one point: we cannot separate how we put words to feelings from the feelings we express in words. The idea is not that they are identical as adequate expressions but that they _are_ in effect expressions of feelings-and-thought. Let's return to the Gita for some further consideration.

Important to Krishna is that Arjuna cultivate discrimination (viveka) based on the emotional charge called vairagya or "disinterest." These terms have been combed over with Advaita Vedanta meanings and it's hard to work with them without those implications. Advaitins are committed to a cessation of all emotion as such precisely because emotions by definition change while "knowledge" does not.
In short, there is a metaphysics of emotion that does not permit the Advaitin to allow more feeling than is necessary to intervene in any cognitive possibility.

Thus, "vairagya" becomes much like it is in Patanjali YS: not a parsing out or measure of desire but a dissociation from desire or emotion itself. Etymologically the meaning is not as absolute as the Advaitin would have it. (This begs the question how and if etymology factors in meaning if meaning is usage. Another topic, particularly eccentric in Sanskrit terms.)

In Rajanaka terms "vairāgya" means our ability to take feeling, emotion, and desire itself and bring it into some kind of parsing, into finer bits, into a process that looks for elements, units, more refined forms. Note that the word "rāga" usually means passion, deep desire and feeling. Here the implication is that all deep emotions are at stake and what makes them deep is that they originate in the core of consciousness and the body.

But raga is a problematic word in most of yoga literature, not something we want to identify with because it threatens to carry us away, mislead our morals, detract from our reason. None of the Patanjali commentators will have a good word to say about raga and thus vairagya is used a counter, an antidote.

We Rajanaka might instead view vairagya as our ability to take our feelings, deep in source and origin, and begin to bring some further reflection, clarification, then refinement and distinction. We can go from feeling as such to feelings that then we can identify through emotions and other modalities of experience. In other words, we don’t attenuate, control, quell, or extinguish the feeling as the traditionalist yogins propose but rather bring to it a richer sense of its identity.

We are looking for the metaphoric DNA helix, the units that take us further into the more particular forms of feeling that wrap themselves into whirlwinds that appear as if they were merely whole but in fact are made up of more and more elementals. The idea is not to manage or control feelings, much less stop them, so much as it is to delve more deeply into the ways they form, how they form, and what component elements make up their forms.

Thus feelings become emotions that become thoughts and the whole of experience is something we want to consider. Vairagya is the tool we use to bring feelings into finer forms of feeling even as we begin to assign identities and meanings to those experiences, particularly with thought and language. Krishna proposes that we need to deal with the comprehensive ways in which we fail to distinguish and refine the process by which feeling is thought and vice-versa. What makes for “bad” thinking or “weakness” of heart (durmanasah) is that we fail to become more adept, to engage and enjoin the process.

To wit, we don’t take up the yoga that would give us a far more capable experience to address a given situation. In sum, we fail at letting our feelings become thought in ways that further the connection and refine the nuanced relationship that occurs as the somatic assumes cognitive forms.

All cognitive forms are somatic, that is, all thought originates in the body and assumes a place the path of feelings. But if we separate the path from body to mind we fail to make the serpent’s connection from tail to head, we cut the head off and what is left is mere feeling. This is why it goes “bad” or becomes “weak” (dur-). It’s not that we are feeling too much but rather not feeling enough to make the connection between the core of feeling and the eventual outcome of thoughtful (dare we say rational) choices.

The next piece of this argument describes how we can corrupt thought and so engage feelings in ways that are nihilistic. The connection is not only between feeling becoming thought and language but how language, ideology, indoctrination and the rest take hold of feelings. And when that happens tragedy will soon follow. More about this another time.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Land of Broken Dreams

The Land of Broken Dreams, But In A Good Way...

As you know I've been working on "second generation" devata issues and the binaryplus that they create. That is the god, goddess, both, neither, more, plus, less that follows from the fact that the second generation is made, it cannot initiate itself without the previous generation.

This second generation's previous generation inhabits the Shiva/Shakti mythologies, and begins the processes that reconfigures their identities into more complex comminglings of feeling and form. Thus we come to Nataraja and Ardhanaresvara, Durga mingling into Sivakami, etc.  The process by which these characters arrive at any realization of their own brokenness is incomplete.  We suffer with them because they often don't know, can't know, deny the process of self-interrogation because they too find it difficult and painful to admit.

But the next generation---Pillaiyar, Muruga, Ayyappa---must take this to an entirely new level, or should we say depth. Because they have to go down first, into the realms that made them in order to make more of themselves. They all live in the land of broken dreams. Even lands of broken dreams. This is something we all do.

The Land of Broken Dreams is the realization that your parents were human, frail and flawed no matter what they were. That they had dreams that went unfulfilled, shadows that went unexamined,. Their hearts felt deeply but didn't always know what they felt or were self-denied or unaccepted.

To accept being accepted for who you are is part of how we reconcile with having coming from that broken land and the consequences of being the broken, extra, and missing piece of _their_ dreams even before we become our own.

We don't begin that process of self-acceptance until we go _there_, to that land---and that is a sojourn, not a destination. We are looking for the unfinished and incomplete that never finishes or completes. To receive ourselves is to offer ourselves without the guarantee that we will be accepted by others, even those we love.

It's not a "bad" thing that our dreams are broken though it can be painful and hurtful---so it can be bad. But it is destabilizing, often confusing, always complicated. And either way, whether we like it or not, the break is the way in, it's the serpent's path to the deeper seas that lie within the ocean of the unconscious. We're not going to avoid or transcend being broken or breaking more in the process of looking more deeply.

We're going to have to look back at how we were made---with and without our consent, in some place and time in history, in all the facets of life we don't control or invent. We're going to have to take the sum of matters into the present and notice how the present will not allow us to reduce it to the moment, to one thing.

The present is not the moment. The present is moments, for we are plural selves, complex entities who live in one body at a time but in many realms of experience and forms of consciousness. Don't get all mystical on me because I just said that. (And I haven't suddenly redirected to some kinda' unicorn yoga.) I meant that we have rich capacities of imagination and untold stories that are hidden in our unconscious. That's all I got or want.

The point here is that the past is not fluid because it is shattered bits, some lost, some found. The present is complex because we want to reduce it but find out it's moving, dynamic, and unstable for better and worse. The future, now that's what's fluid, that can move like the sarpa but only if we recognize that love is yet another form of the ahi, the angst, the anxiety who is the serpent within. (Ahi=angst=anxiety=snake=naga to make the English to Sanskrit cognates clearer, right?) So it is in these matters we come back to sammelana, the processes by which we mingle, cook, alchemize, and otherwise describe how to become more by engaging the Land of Broken Dreams.

Breaking into our broken dreams is no small matter. It's called yoga. It's the long way home to the Land of Broken Dreams. So how's dem'apples?