Saturday, March 23, 2019

#NotJustTeamHuman, "As we forgive those who trample on our lawns..." Your Sacred Mileage May Vary

"As we forgive those who trample on our lawns..."
Your Sacred Mileage May Vary

Religion provides cover, dissimulation, a way of revealing and concealing things about how you feel and what you think: that its what "the sacred" does. It tells the world that this thing you regard---an idea, a person, a behavior, something about the world---is special, valid, sound, and so important that you too should take it as seriously. At the very least you too should "respect" someone else's sacred. Umm, sure.

America has a special kind of stupid set aside for people's "sacred" because we are a land of immigrant cultures and tribes, and there are a lot of teams. Team Religion isn't just beliefs, it's whatever religions do or say that tells you if are on the team. So perfectly sane 21st century people will continue to make claims that are, in effect, ways of saying, "I'm on Team Jesus" or "Team Jewish" or "Team Allah". The rest of it is a narrowing down, so that one can be on Team My Team, which isn't anything like Their Team Jesus. The sociological and psychological benefits of teaming up should make you want to re-read the great Emil Durkheim very, very carefully. Americans like to think that these "sacred" are really their individual choices because we really think we are just making up our own minds.

Of course humans have way more power when they identify with teams because that's one way we gain legitimacy. One person's religion is called neurosis, fifty is a cult, but 50 million is a religion. Your call. Once you get to a religion it's hard to remember that a "cult" is someone else's smaller version of your own obsession and that another's madness is just their own personal version of the prayer, "Our pasta, who art in a colander, draining be your noodles. Thy noodle come, Thy sauce be yum, on top some grated Parmesan. Give us this day our garlic bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trample on our lawns."

People get offended when you tell them that their version of Get Off My Lawn isn't really all that special but to them and most will take the But Ours view, which is a lot like thinking that YOUR lawyer isn't there to bill you hours because that's what other lawyers do. Everyone else is less special is part of the sacred too. And that gets as dangerous as the mob. A language is a dialect with a mob the way a religion is a cult or a personal neurosis with a mob. Is there any saving grace?

You can take the "it's spiritual, not religious" exit but you will simply end up on the county road version of the religion interstate. This bit of nomenclature legerdemain is another way to make you feel special about yourself and an another attempt to dissociate from some perceived larger group delusions. I'm not opposed so long as you know that your own personal Wittengenstein language game is what you are playing in order to find a way to live with yourself. After all, we humans make religions not only to control, manipulate, exploit, and dehumanize our fellow humans. We make them to accomplish what only teams can do---try building your own barn _entirely_ by yourself, see?---and because we have to tell ourselves some story that allows us to live with ourselves.

For my own frame of reference, for example, I like mostly Hindu stories that I interpret as humanist Jungian insights into our unconscious becoming our conscious selves, like it or not. YMMV but this creates a model for creating some mighty worthwhile meaning in a perfectly meaningless world. Of course this is not how the vast (any?) majority of HIndus understand their stories and behaviors so that reduces the team size in the Hindu league maybe to one guy and maybe a few of his friends. Like I said, choosing teams is hard when you think that other people on the larger team are involved in nothing less than abject superstition and a boatload of social emotional identity that doesn't speak to yours.

You want to believe that your team in the bigger league---say, Rajanaka somewhere in the larger reference of Team Hindu---relatively harmless inasmuch as it does some little good and really tries not to be too obnoxious about its own claims or too terribly demeaning of others. Rajanaka has the added advantage of being powerless in any socio-political or economic way, say, much unlike being Catholic or Mormon. Team Rajanaka doesn't really ask anything from you. It's a voluntary conversation and then the one you have with yourself. It's how _you_ re-write the Giant Spaghetti Monster Prayer to suit yourself. Rajanaka doesn't pray at all, of course, if you don't.

Not all religions, cults, and neurotic personal "spiritualities" are as innocent, at least not as I see it. Now, you don't like to pick on them just 'cause they are ridiculous but because so much of what they teach is just plain vile, such as LBGQT people are "apostates." (I'd call that lucky. You mean you get to be thrown out and don't have to do that again, with those people? Thank the Latter Day God...)

But it's now official Mormons really really don't want to be called "Mormons" any more. They find their pejorative historical nickname insulting. And, more importantly, they have been told by no one less than the Latter Day God to make this clear to everyone. I say, all the more reason to keep calling them Mormons. Insulting someone else's claim to Absolute Truth isn't insulting. It's an attempt to intervene in their application of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and to spare the world more misuse of capitalization.

According to the CNN report, the current old white guy that Mormons call simply The Prophet is, "A former heart surgeon who conducted Utah's first open-heart operation, the Mormon president said he has prayed for the Holy Ghost's help while wielding a scalpel over a patient's body."
Dr. Nelson, that's this guy's name, has had other interesting stuff happen because, you know, God talks directly to him and these folks think that God, yup, THE God, the TRUE God talks _through_ him to THEM TOO.

Thus, "Revelations have seeded Nelson's love life as well. After his first wife died in 2005, Nelson proposed to the former Wendy Watson. "To strengthen my proposal to Wendy, I said to her, 'I know about revelation and how to receive it,'" the Mormon president has said. Wendy Nelson said she, too, had received a revelation about their relationship." Well, I'm jealous. The closest I've come to my relationship is based on revelation involved a warm smile and other stuff that got me really excited. YMMVagain.

So there you have it, some sacred with your morning joe. I have to go teach today. We're gonna talk about heroines and myths and stuff and hopefully feel a whole lot better about just trying to be decent human beings. If any revelations happen, we'll let you know.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Complexity and Fidelity, What it's Going to Take Just to Keep Going

Is it fair to say that everyone loves simple? Or maybe prefers it? We prefer to choose to be puzzled rather than puzzled by what we must choose. Simple means fewer variables, complex more, and old Occam was right about keeping out matters that have no place in the equations of understanding or choice. Well, except by choice.

One of the things we've learned is that complexity is required to do difficult things. It isn't only matters complex that make this computer operate or function in cyber world. It is also that there are certain persons who appreciate complexity, who like the processes, who love the wonder of the details. For most of us the complex is merely confusing: what we don't understand may be dismissed or denigrated because we aren't familiar with the languages required to do the job.

But as much as we may _want_ things complex to _be_ simple, it may be as much the case that we want complex matters to _appear_ simple, particularly for those of us less skilled in the particular expertise and skills we would need. Apple design has prided itself on just such a vision: make the _use_, ,the interface so easy that nearly anyone can learn. But, lest we forget, the insides are mightily complex, a lesson we are reminded of especially when things don't work the way we want them to.

Cell phones employ quantum theory, without which they are mere fantasy. But using the computer, cell phone, or your more more reliable today than 1975 automobile requires only a bare minimum proficiency in interface, not quantum physics, neither electrical nor mechanical engineering. What we didn't have then, we can't fix now. Sure any decent could fix your AMC Hornet but nowadays nothing happens without a computer hook up that is prerequisite to the work.

Complexity efficaciously hidden from us is often what we need and crave. Virtuosity is making difficult things look easy but it is also the ability of virtuoso to turn genius into beauty. By beauty I mean to invoke a sense of elegance, gracefulness, and felicity rather than that which is merely pleasing. But if things ain't pleasing, we're usually low on attention span and short of patience. More importantly, given the pressures of modern life, when things take up time our frustrations and stress require more complexity, like what it takes to book a vacation.

Having more choice is, by definition, admitting to more complexity. After all, fewer is simpler, more is complex. So we are selective and particular about the _kinds_ of complexity we like and what it takes to master _enough_ of "the argument" to experience beauty.

Complexity is dangerous too because ignorance---not the willful kind but the sort that involves difficult expertise--- and choices make people more vulnerable. When we require more experts, we must commit to greater trust. This being an "informed consumer" is no small beans, whether those involve counting what's left in your pockets or your faith in humanity. When individuals invoke chaos, we seek a false simplicity when what we need is faith in those who empower us to manage a complex world.

Now we've arrived at the crux of the matter. The greater our relationship and dependency on complexity, the more necessary and vulnerable we become, the more our trust and commitment is put on the line. Our emotional, often physical peril longs for whatever protection and attenuations we can achieve. We ache, we have algos ("pain" in Greek) for a homecoming (nostros) and literally "nostalgia" kicks in: we not only want things we can understand and do, we want to _trust_ that things will be okay. Whether they once were may be another illusion with which we contend but life isn't going to get simpler anytime soon---or so you should hope.

What is required is that we gain a greater feeling of confidence, become closer to the heart, with those on whom we depend and from whom we require complexity. It is this deeper fidelity we seek first and last: the rest is just stuff. Winning minds is still, above all things, winning hearts.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

“Know it, and do not lose your sense”, Listening for the Gods in the Age of the Demons

There’s a compelling, disturbing passage in the first book of the Mahabharata that comes long before any of the familiar story commences--- the story of family, of succession to kingship, or the tribulations that lead to the inevitable fratricidal war.   It’s very Mahabharata and by that I mean it states as matters of fact truths we do not like to know but must know first before we can know any more. It appears in the voice of the sage Ugraśravas, whose name literally means something like, Ferocious Acclaim. There’s something in that too we should take to heart. But let’s get to his point.

He says,

“All this is rooted in Time, to be or not to be, to be happy or not to be happy. Time ripens the creatures. Time rots them. And Time again puts out the Time that burns down the creatures. Time unfolds all beings in the world, holy and unholy. Time shrinks them and expands them again. Time walks in all creatures, unaverted, impartial. Whatever beings were in the past will be in the future, whatever are busy now, they are all creatures of Time---know it, and do not lose your sense.” (1.1.88ff., see van Buitenen)

We can easily understand this to be another description of fate and of karma, of the processes of death, rebirth, and re-death. We can see it as a familiar table setting along with the metaphysical etiquette that must precede the story. But there’s more here once we take the poet’s last admonition to heart. Know it, and do not lose your sense.

Know what? What sense?

First a little table setting.
It's a dominant trope of the classical Hindu worldview---and shared by Buddhists, Jainas, and virtually all others---that time has been unkind to truth, to betterment, to ethical standards, and to everything we experience that is somehow failing us. It's fundamental to the theory of the Ages or yugas that we are not only in the time of degeneration---the Kali Yuga and please do not mistake the word “kali” here for “Kālī.” (These are entirely different words, with different roots, and we’ll not digress to further explanation.) The theory of the Ages describes a wholistic process of entropy: things were once better and will become only worse for the foreseeable future. Kali’s Age being the fourth of four, and only just having recently started, means that matters are now so depreciated that the worst will only become worse still. Cheery, eh?

There are a few bright sides to this vision but let us not ever miss the premise: once there were golden ages and the future’s only gonna get worse for as far as the eye can see. In fact it’s going to have to end in a complete cataclysmic dissolution before it can return to a more pristine state and begin the whole process over again. But let’s get back to the matter of the bright side. For one, a little good goes a long way. Thus virtue, rare and getting rarer still, can change things by application of even a tincture of decency. Furthermore, those who apply themselves to truth and to goodness will advance quickly through the malaise though prospects for enlightenment are still, by the sheer din of the natural processes of debasement, not much in the way of probable.

Some, like the Kashmiri philosopher Abhinavagupta, will argue that their own superior birthright is the only plausible explanation for their own advancement. Abhinava makes quite the case for his own prospects because his parents conceived him in a Tantric ritual that bypasses much of the karmic detritus that clutters the rest of us. I somehow doubt you believe that you too were conceived in a Tantric ritual in which your parent’s superior states of awareness and sublime consciousness brought you into the world. Be that as it may, some people, at least according to Abhinavagupta, have all the luck. (See his Tantrasara introduction for this bit of self-aggrandizing legerdemain.)

You don't have to make this up: the Indian world seems sure that things were once far better, things are pretty terrible now and getting worse, and that you're going to need some real help---be that a Tantric conception, a divine intervention, a guru's grace, _something_ to help you find your way through the devolving debauch that makes up a world that never fails to offer seemingly only more human folly. Good luck with that. Karma is a bitch. And you're likely really in for it. That's how it usually plays. And then: well, maybe Krishna's on your side, Siva appears as your guru, there's a magic wand touch, or some such intervention comes to the rescue. I repeat, good luck with _that_ too.

So it's not all hopelessness and just getting worse though that's actually mostlytrue. There's such a thing as yoga, which Krishna in the Gita tells us can do wonders, God might step in, and there are innumerable examples from the past that can inspire us. After all, things were simpler in that Age before Yudhisthira came to realize that no manner of goodness can persuade the nihilist to be less devoted to burning down the world for nothing more than his own narcissism. Virtue is not impossible nor is it merely futile even when it fails. And that virtue is possible in the face of the menacing facts of life, well, that only makes it more valuable. It's hard to argue with these tough lessons. We can't stop the onslaughts that time will bring but we can put up worthy alternatives to the certain horror even if those forms of goodness remain vulnerable and less than perfect.

Within this theory that implores us to strive and to do good despite the odds and the near certainty of failure there is also a kind of demon's game. While the gods advance the idea that we must work both with and against the terms of the Age, the demons have another take. For the demonic the process is simple enough, their agenda being one of manipulation and exploitation of those eager for another kind of world than the one in which we must actually make our way. The demons know that we humans not only want what we want but that we are also willing to fool ourselves. We can be so be fooled that we can use hope to pretend to get what we want. We'll go so far as to even deny the evidence, refute our own experience, and reject the possibility of our own error just to have a story that tells us what we prefer to believe.

One of the problems that the gods point out is that truth is often discomforting, that some problems are intractable (at least for now), and that we humans will go to nearly any lengths to deny what is true if it meets some immediate desire. When our deeper desires come into play---and when are they ever not?---then our vulnerabilities open even more graciously to the demons' seductions. We should never underestimate their appeal precisely because we should never sell short our human desire for a story that feels good even if that's just for _now_. Being firmly rooted “only in the present" is a surefire way to deceive one's self about what being is about all the rest of the time.

So what's the demons' play? It's got a few simple steps.
First, take an event or situation, something that happens that could cause us anxiety or raise questions about our ability to manage or control outcomes. 
Then complain about how things have become worse, take note about how progress has failed us whether or not this is true, ignore the facts, and confuse the situation with oversimplification and dissimulation. 
Invoking this confusion with an air of authority, the next move is also an easy two-step. First, appeal to some nostalgic past where things were purportedly better. It doesn’t matter if this past actually ever existed but Indian worldviews will help because they insist it has. And this is not uncommon in other cultures because who among us cannot imagine a better world and then project that back with greater ease than what we can envision as a future? And to finish it off ---this being the second step of that last two-step---the demon will then claim only he can bring things back to that imaginary better world. You buy the lie because it looks true and feels like hope and then the demon’s your man, and the next thing you know you are defrauding yourself as if it were the next smart thing to do.
This is, by the way, how Trump became president but let’s not digress; he’s just an example of what Barnum told us about suckers being born every day.

We all want to feel like someone else has the answers. It’s never very comforting to find out that the harder questions are the better path. But saying yes to the flimflam is something the demon can count on because it’s as easy as water flowing down. The hoodwinked believes that the matter has been seemingly demystified; they are in the know nowand everyone else is being fooled. It’s a Dunning-Kruger thing too: the less they know, the more they believe they know. That it’s only more hornswoggle matters not as much as that it feels good to feel it, it feels affirming such that the demon’s gambit is now one’s own personal self-satisfying delusion.

Once this cycle has taken hold, it’s mightily difficult to get through any other message. We love certainty too much to let something as valuable and important as doubt get in its way. So how do we not get taken?

It’s not really possible, you know, to “think for yourself” if by that you mean that you are not already conditioned by time itself. You are never not a someone who has not already been determined by assumptions, values, and circumstances not of your own making. Well, much of it may be of your making but you don’t remember and aren’t going to.  And the rest is collective, intertwined, and inextricable to some greater whole of which you are merely a part.

To put this simpler, you inherit the self, so start there, and if you do then you stand a chance at creating more selves than just the one that makes you believe you can wholly self-determine. We can’t, we don’t, and it doesn’t matter that those facts are facts, they don’t limit us so much as tell us that limitations are not the problem.

The gods proffer a less appealing but more worthwhile alternative--- it’s not nearly as satisfying as the demon’s gambit. It requires us to go back to our premise.

It is not just that time rots us---the catch-all for the ways in which we are held in time, by time, through time as mortal beings. Rather it is that time invites us to break into ourselves so that we can break the strangleholds of time. Then we can instead experience those conditions as our time, the brief, warm, lovely gift of this life. We will have to decide not to wish for some other time, some other life. But we will also have to not give up the feeling that we can live in any time, past or future, through the sheer power of our will and imagination.

We can still ache for a past and dream of a future but we will have to be content to accept that living happens in the space between every moment as it is and how we wish it were. What more it can be is up to us only when we are willing to stay in that seam, when we can go into that place where time cannot rot us because we are no longer in just one time or the other. When we are no longer “just now” wishing it were “just then” there’s room to move inside time, into a place where the false past no longer appeals and the wishful future is no longer remote. It’s not a twilight zone though it contains our shadows. It’s not stable or singular but neither is it unreal. We’ll have to embrace paradox without solving every problem but if we do then we can become more, not bound by time’s one-thing-or-the-other-ness. We can become a third, another, something that is no longer defined by what Time alone declares will rot us. We can enter a place that doesn’t demand we know or control or command so much as it allows us to live in our own skin. We’ll have to talk about this a lot more, but this is a start.