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.